Recent news about the regional housing market looks like a glimmer of light at the end of a very long tunnel.
Housing starts in Tampa Bay as a whole were up dramatically — nearly 27 percent — during the first quarter of 2012, according to Tony Polito, a housing analyst at Tampa's Metrostudy, a national company that tracks the construction industry.
And in Hernando?
A little growth, but basically less light, more tunnel.
In the first quarter of 2012, there were precisely two more housing starts in Hernando County, 23, than during the same period in 2011, Polito said.
His company counts only real starts, when a slab is poured, and only in established subdivisions.
But the results are about the same when measured the conventional way, by counting county permits issued: 38 in the first quarter of this year compared with 34 last year. (For perspective, the total for all of 2006 was above 4,000.)
These results are not surprising either to local Realtors or to national population experts, who say it's just part of being in the exurbs.
Across the country, growth during the boom was led by suburbs in outer-ring counties such as Hernando that now lead in stagnation.
William Frey of the Brookings Institution wrote earlier this month that as of July 1, 2011, growth in outer-ring suburbs in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas had fallen to a stunningly low 0.5 percent per year.
Some of the reasons may be temporary, he wrote on the institution's website (see bit.ly/exurbia2011), including high gas prices and a lousy economy that has left young families stuck in existing homes near urban cores.
But there's also evidence, he wrote, that they may not feel stuck at all.
"The fact that outer suburban growth has continued to falter two years after the recession ended calls into question whether today's younger generations will hold the same residential preferences as their forebears."
A mass farewell to long commutes would be good for the environment and social cohesion, bad for selling houses in Hernando.
So what do we do?
Ultimately, build up our own economy so our housing market doesn't depend on commuters: more manufacturing, more tourism.
Shorter term, we do what we've done before: sell houses to retirees, or "active adults" as they're called these days.
We started losing them in big numbers to the Villages several years ago, Polito said.
Getting them back isn't ideal. Think service jobs, low wages, limited opportunities.
But also think of selling houses, just a few houses, and maybe starting to fill some half-vacant subdivisions.
First we have to get past the credit squeeze and digest a new bulge of foreclosures that are depressing prices of existing homes.
But retirees do still want to move to Hernando, said Jeanne Gavish of the Keller Williams Realty office in Spring Hill. Canadians, taking advantage of a favorable exchange rate, "are buying everything in sight," she said.
Frey's report, with all its unsettling implications for Hernando, also documents "a mini turn-around for Florida."
"From 2010 to 2011, Miami, Orlando, and Tampa all gained population from domestic in-migration."
He calls it a "silver lining."
I'll call it a glimmer.