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In tough times, the home is no longer a comfort

BRANDON — The homes on Burlwood Street are small and tidy, close and unpretentious. At one end, they're attached villas. At the other, they're newer, single-family homes.

The Palms sits in the shadow of Brandon's Town Center mall. Like many neighborhoods, it is on a roller coaster ride of housing values: Homes that sold for $240,000 just two years ago now go for as little as $110,000.

Heads of households have been caught in corporate layoffs. Tradesmen can't find work. Grown children have moved in with parents, their vehicles spilling out of narrow driveways.

Nationwide, the rate of home ownership has declined, partly because of foreclosures and partly as families in places like the Palms rethink one big part of the American dream — that most everyone should own a home.

Some can't move because their equity is gone. Others are ill equipped to replace the roof or repair the plumbing. Forget those big-ticket expenses: Some won't even run the heat.

• • •

It's Tuesday morning, a day off for Marya Munoz.

At 65, Munoz works as many hours as she can get at an assisted living facility. To save money, she does laundry every other week and doesn't run the dishwasher or water the lawn. Her air conditioner stays at 80. On cold nights she reaches for blankets instead of the heat. She showers at night, another power savings. "TECO is not making extensions any more," she said.

Her twice-mortgaged house is 1,000 square feet, furnished inventively from thrift shops. As a homeowner in the Palms' newer section, she is required to pay quarterly dues to two associations for services that include community lawn care. That's on top of a $719 mortgage payment that doesn't include insurance or taxes.

Tiny as her house is, she talks of renting out a bedroom. If she had her druthers, she'd be in a condominium or rental apartment. "I need to be around people my age," she said.

Desire for community

"You feel for people," said Evelyn Powers, an eight-year resident who used to serve on both homeowner boards. A stay-at-home mother of four, she knows neighbors who have taken financial hits — the carpenter who used to work for high-end builders, the reservists called up for duty.

"But you also have to watch out for people when they are not getting a return on what they paid," she said.

Roughly 25 percent of the homes are investor-owned, and Munoz and Powers watch warily as new tenants move in.

Hard times can lead to increases in home rentals and crime. "We have seen a little bit of both," said Randall Hunt, a member of the main association board.

The neighborhood has grappled at times with drug crimes and vandalism. Powers' husband, who works at MacDill Air Force Base, has suggested they move. But Powers and the children have attachments here.

"I'm on a lot of kids' cell phones for when they get off the bus," Powers said. "I love this neighborhood. We have so many different people, so many cultures. Most of us just love that. We're passionate about having a good neighborhood."

Creditors looming

Munoz was working at an insurance company when she decided it was time to buy a house. She thought the $80,000, two-bedroom house was perfect for a single person. "I was in my 50s, and I thought it was an accomplishment," she said.

The Hillsborough County Alliance for Affordable Housing gave her $5,000 for the down payment.

She knew about one homeowner association. She learned of the other at closing.

A few years later, she was laid off. Mounting debts forced her to tap her retirement funds.

She worked several part-time jobs and refinanced for $104,000.

She had equity — at least until values fell. Now she guesses she could clear $10,000 after closing, if prices do not fall even more. Homeowner dues have fluctuated over the years; together, they now total about $235 a quarter.

Hunt can empathize. He, too, was laid off, and now fixes computers on a freelance basis. He, too, borrowed against his home. "I'm okay. I'm not in dire straits yet," he said.

He doesn't second-guess Munoz's decision to buy. "Some people are affected negatively by the economy, and some by their own decisions," he said.

If anything, he says, the government and media ignored warning signs of the housing collapse, leaving boards such as his to pick up the pieces.

Rethinking the dream

As Hunt sees it, a $1,000 mortgage payment is better than $1,000 in monthly rent. But that widely held assumption is beginning to falter as experts take stock of today's conditions.

"I always thought home ownership was oversold and oversubsidized," said Kenneth Harney, director of the National Real Estate Development Center.

Nicolas Retsinas, a Harvard University professor who has authored books on home ownership, says there is no denying the social benefits that come from establishing roots.

But, while a tool to build wealth, he said, ownership also impedes mobility. And in recent years Americans have relied too heavily on real estate as an investment as opposed to a place to live, he said.

"We started to think homes were for buying and selling," he said. "We thought they were riskless investments. … People should live in homes that are decent and homes that they can afford, whether they own or whether they are renting."

Social programs and tax policies encouraged ownership long before the easy-credit abuses, Harney said.

"There's a long list of ways that we, probably with the best of intentions, put people with marginal incomes and risky income situations into houses where they can be sucked dry when the air conditioning fails, or the heating."

The dues or the car

On days when Munoz is not at work, she volunteers at a charity.

She has served on neighborhood committees and keeps a tidy garden. She is grateful to neighbors such as Hunt, who lends a hand when she can't reach something or needs a minor repair. She's in arrears to the second homeowner association. It's that or the car note, she says.

With warranties running out, she tries not to think about what might happen to the roof or the appliances. "The older I get, the less I can produce," she said.

"I see this house as an overwhelming burden."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

In tough times, the home is no longer a comfort 01/31/09 [Last modified: Sunday, February 1, 2009 12:03am]

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