Twice a month, job seekers flock to the downtown Tampa meeting of Real Estate Lives for one-on-one networking.
For many of the jobless, it's a 15- to 20-mile trip each way. They journey from Lutz and Ruskin, from Carrollwood, Riverview, Brandon and Apollo Beach.
Tampa lawyer Ron Weaver, an organizer of the 642-member network, said one glance at his membership roster convinces him that "the suburbs are suffering dramatically" in the recession.
"We've been surprised how widely dispersed this particular tragedy has been," Weaver said. "There are pockets of suburban Tampa where it's not only hit as hard but even harder than the downtown areas."
Count it as one more way the Great Recession differs from its predecessors: Typically, urban residents bear the brunt of economic downturns; their suburban counterparts are less dramatically affected. This time, unemployment has risen in the suburbs almost in tandem with inner cities.
Between December 2007 and December 2009, city unemployment rates rose 5.1 percentage points while suburban unemployment rose 4.8 percentage points, according to a new study released by the Brookings Institution.
Since the recession struck, unemployment in suburban Tampa Bay has risen by 7.6 percentage points. That puts it in a tie with Orlando for the seventh biggest rise in joblessness among suburbs of the 100 biggest metro areas, according to the Brookings analysis.
Suburbs surrounding Cape Coral and Lakeland fared even worse, coming in as the third and fourth worst in the country, respectively.
What about Hernando and Pasco counties, which had a huge building boom over the past 15 years as Tampa Bay bedroom communities? Today, Hernando's unemployment rate is 15.6 percent; Pasco's, 14.3 percent. The more urban Pinellas and Hillsborough are at 12.6 and 12.7 percent, respectively.
Construction, real estate jobs dried up
Suburban unemployment grew fastest in the first year of the recession, which, Brookings speculated, likely reflected the early onset of the downturn in decentralized industries like real estate and construction.
Pasco County Administrator John Gallagher, who watched construction fuel his county's boom, has no doubt that's true. He has seen construction jobs in suburbia dry up, developers leave and the ranks of Realtors shrink considerably.
"The biggest thing with the loss of jobs and loss of income … are the foreclosures," Gallagher said. "They're not able to stay in their homes, their American dream homes. That's hurt Pasco quite a bit."
The slowing of the suburban unemployment rate in the second year, Brookings said, could be due to less out-migration from the cities.
But that has been a two-way street. Job searching suburbanites are also less mobile, unable to sell their homes during this depressed housing cycle.
Access issues, food stamp reluctance
Being jobless in the suburbs creates some unique challenges:
• Those reliant on mass transit to get to job interviews or prospective jobs live farther from bus routes than city residents.
• Many job-training programs and other social services are clustered in urban areas, making it tougher for struggling suburbanites to gain access.
• And there are typically fewer jobs available in the suburbs, particularly beyond retail.
In a companion report released last week called "Job Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty," Brookings researchers compared the location of people and jobs in the 50 largest metro areas in 1990 and in 2006-07. They also examined the more recent use of social service lifelines to help the unemployed.
Their conclusion: Suburban households are not only struggling with worsening economic conditions, but they may not be connecting to services for which they are eligible.
As a key measure, the survey looked at food stamps. Participation in the food assistance program has been rising at a faster pace in suburban counties (up 36 percent between January 2008 and July 2009) than in urban counties (up 29 percent over the same time).
Yet, with the level of unemployment and increased poverty in suburbs, the rise should have been greater, Brookings concludes. It suggests suburbs are "underenrolled" in the program, possibly because of attitudes toward receiving support, ignorance of what's available or lack of access to help.
Collapse blindsides new urbanism
Ironically, one of the biggest lures of the suburbs has turned into one of its biggest challenges: Residents are far removed from where the jobs are, distanced from the soaring office towers and industrial parks.
Suburbs have long grappled with ways to sprinkle more office and retail locations in their communities beyond the core smattering of restaurants, grocery stores and Blockbuster outlets.
That was the idea behind Connerton, a Celebration-like development in central Pasco County. The vision called for more than 8,000 homes clustered around a walkable city center, pastureland turned into a town of 20,000 with urban amenities.
Its developers, Dallas-based Terrabrook, parlayed a similar game plan into great success in Westchase in Tampa near the Hillsborough/Pinellas border.
Connerton, however, had bad timing and was hit by the full fury of the housing bust before it could take hold. As of last fall, only 225 homes had been sold, and Terrabrook put 3,500 acres of the development on the market. A town center supposed to be under construction last year may happen between 2012 and 2016, planners say.
Gallagher, the Pasco County administrator, is still keen on the concept of town centers as suburbia's future. With the rising cost of gas, it makes sense to have more office and retail space closer to home to avoid long commutes.
"What we had in the past was subdivisions," he said. "What I'm trying to do now is develop communities where they're not gated in. They're not locked in."
A half-dozen town centers are on the drawing boards in Pasco, but Gallagher isn't expecting them to come to fruition soon.
"It'll happen eventually. … But with the housing market slowdown, everything will slow down," he said. "Now we're looking at a 10-year horizon."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8242.