TAMPA — A decade ago this fall, the U.S. economy was in crisis. The investment firm Lehman Brothers collapsed in the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history. Major banks were about to fail. The stock market plunged.
And in Florida, "real estate stopped completely," Ronald Weaver says.
A Tampa real estate lawyer, Weaver knew that the era of loose lending standards and risky investments had come to a devastating end. Suddenly, thousands of Tampa Bay residents who made their living from real estate and construction were out of work. To help them get back on their feet, Weaver and other volunteers started a non-profit organization, Real Estate Lives.
Since 2008, the group has met on 475 consecutive Tuesdays and helped more than 4,000 people find jobs. As his organization nears its 10-year anniversary Nov. 1, Weaver spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about those dark days of the housing crash and how things have changed since then.
How did Real Estate Lives get started?
A couple of us senior statesmen were wondering what in the world has just happened? We’ve been lucky, but what are we going to do, especially for young people? I appeared before the Tampa Bay Association of Real Estate Groups, and they said, ‘We don’t have any money.’ All of a sudden five or six women who were former presidents of Commercial Real Estate Women walked in and sat behind me. They had sent an email saying, ‘This is a crisis and Ron Weaver want us to give him moral support for helping in this disastrous time.’ We borrowed a room next door (at Greater Tampa Realtors headquarters) and divided the duties among the eight of us. Pretty soon, we had 117 people come to our first meeting.
How did you find work for people?
We would go around the room and ask, ‘Who are you? Where have you been? What do you want to do?’ The very first person, we found them a job in Wauchula. It was the only Walmart being finished. Another guy was a project manager who had been laid off. He mined his resume and remembered he had taken a CAD (computer-aided design) course that he had done very well in. He went to Dubai and got paid $100,000 to teach CAD. We had a title company clerk who got laid off after two weeks. Title insurance will take awhile to come back so (asked her), ‘Are you willing to be a nanny?’ She was so young, like 20. She was a nanny the next day.
When did you notice that real estate and construction were starting to recover?
We saw the first indication when our number went down from 117 to around 60. That was after about two and a half years, maybe the second quarter of 2010.
What sectors revived first?
It was funny how it came back. We saw a little bit of lending uptick, economic feasability uptick. Then it was the architects, land-use lawyers, engineers and planners. Realtors started selling raw land again. Office was slow to come back. Office buildings — they were dying around here for about 20 years until the last year or two. Apartments came back strong.
How has the makeup of the Tuesday meetings changed in recent years?
Only about 50 percent are in real estate now. The other half are in virtually every other field including tech, hospitality, food service, banking. We get a lot of people from tech. Tech has been hurting in the last two years
Do you see any other signs of a slowdown?
There are some dynamics wildly improving, other dynamics are beginning to slow down. For the first time in about 10 years, we’ve seen six consecutive months where house sales were off a little bit. (Mortgage) rates are going up. For three months, we’ve been worried about these tariffs, where (the construction) industry faces increased costs because of tariffs. There’s a little softening in apartments because they’re getting mildly overbuilt. Retail has been up and down again because of Amazon. Industrial is still strong; hospitality is still strong.
Tampa Bay has far more construction jobs today than it did a decade ago. That’s good news, isn’t it?
The problem is transportation It’s not that people don’t have the skills or willingness to work, it’s that they don’t have the transportation. We had a veteran who said, ‘I can’t get to any of the meetings because my car is broke.’ I called my mechanic. They sent a tow truck over, got it and fixed it.
Among those that Real Estate Lives has helped, do any others stand out in your mind?
I think it was at the 50th meeting, we had a guy who lost his job and needed glasses. Four of us, we each pitched in 20 bucks, and the next thing the guy has glasses. He was an out-of-work Realtor, maybe went into insurance. The insurance industry was not hurt as badly. In fact, it really hasn’t suffered as much. A lot of people ended up there.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate