TAMPA — They arrive midmorning, dressed in matching green work clothes, to earn a few dollars — or maybe even lose a few — for landscaper Ray Rose.
Ernesto Chavez neatens a hedge, then prunes an overgrown oak tree. Juan Hernandez gathers dead branches. Eliasar Vargas takes a blower to the fallen leaves.
Eighty-nine homes in Brandon's Heather Lakes fell into foreclosure in 2009, a figure similar to a lot of Florida neighborhoods. The crew, which works for Rose's commercial U.S. Lawns franchise in Lutz, mows and tends bank-foreclosed lots for $10 each. It's essentially a loss leader that keeps Rose in good graces with the community management company. The idea is catching on, he said: A U.S. Lawns colleague in Pinellas County is offering a similar deal.
Rose, 36, is doing what he can to stay afloat in an industry whose customers — apartment complexes, homeowner and condominium associations — can scarcely afford his services.
Think of him as a 2010 guy in a 1980 world, with a toolbox that includes a playground for his employees' kids and goats that eat the yard waste.
More about the animals later.
Nothing says the suburbs like a crisply edged lawn, and nothing distinguishes a subdivision more than rows of rich green shrubs bracketed by patches of perennials.
Hungry for their piece of the housing boom, developers dressed their planned communities with rolling greens and multilayered plantings. Keeping it pretty can consume 30 percent of a community budget. At Tampa Palms, landscape and pond maintenance run close to $1 million a year.
In the good days, when 99 percent of homeowners could be counted on for their monthly dues, there was no problem paying the Roses and the Chavezes.
The recession turned those numbers upside down. The 1 percent delinquencies are 10 or 20 percent, if a neighborhood is lucky. Close to 90 percent of association officers think things will be as bad, or worse, this year, according to a recent statewide study. Almost universally, boards and managers are putting the squeeze on contractors.
"We asked, 'How can we position ourselves to take care of this issue?' " said Rose. "We were trying to find a win-win solution."
A Navy kid who was raised around the world, Rose said he has had a thing for nature as long as he remember. He got involved in landscaping in college, he said. It was either that or Jet Ski rental. James Sciandra, a classmate from Pinellas Park High School, went into business with him 10 years ago, and today they have four franchises.
Rose rejects any suggestion that good business and green business are a contradiction. He sees his responsibilities as threefold: the bottom line, the work force and, well, the world.
His ambitions are many. Already in place are an energy-efficient building with crushed shells instead of asphalt in the parking lot, a workplace child care center, and an elaborate disposal system for his yard waste. Cattle at the Lutz site eat the grass. Goats eat most of the clippings. Machines grind what's left into compost. He estimates he saves $50,000 a year in hauling and dumping costs.
"Nature knows no waste," he said. "Only we create waste."
Still in the planning stage: rooftop photo cells that will harvest enough power to make his operation carbon-neutral, breakfast and lunch service for his crews, maybe biodiesel-powered or electric vehicles someday.
As he sees it, "we're only limited by our creativity."
A stable work force
Chavez, Hernandez and Vargas work efficiently, almost wordlessly. Pay can range from $7.50 to $9 an hour, said Chavez, 23. He said the men knew each other back in Mexico.
Sometimes, he said, they come upon a house with people in it. He doesn't know if they are renters, or owners waiting out the foreclosure. Maybe his crew got the address wrong. If someone objects to their services, they leave without argument.
Rose, who uses both permanent residents and seasonal guest workers, said job protection is one reason for the $10 foreclosed lawn special. He sees it as pragmatic capitalism — a way to have a stable work force when the economy rebounds. It's like his plan to offer ethnic food at that lunch station someday.
"We are taking the long view," he said. "None of the plans we have implemented are rocket science or tree hugging. It's really just getting back to the way we used to be as a society: a society that is more in harmony with itself."
Looking back, he recognizes the folly of developers who dispersed McMansions in landscapes of nonnative grasses and high-maintenance shrubs.
A little bit, anyway.
He likens them to that wild teenager who lived fast and had to grow up, or to the generation that ripped up streetcar lines to make more room for automobiles. That's what people wanted, he said.
"But you can come to a middle ground. People moved to these neighborhoods so they could be someplace nice, so they could know order and uniformity. But we know that we have to change."
Drip irrigation, bahia grass instead of St. Augustine, 50 percent turf cover instead of 80 percent, and other Florida-friendly practices are becoming mainstream as both money and water remain scarce.
"We didn't get this way overnight," he said. "And we will not come into balance with nature overnight."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or firstname.lastname@example.org.