Finally, the U.S. Census Bureau has been able to confirm what we know from our shrinking home values and our throbbing heads: The hangover from the speculative housing market in Hernando County was brutal.
The proof, in recently released 2010 census data, is a subcategory of dwellings called "other vacant." This is a catch-all term for houses that are neither winter residences nor vacation homes. They aren't the seasonally empty quarters of migrant workers. They aren't even up for sale or rent.
If a bank has filed for foreclosure but a judge hasn't yet ruled that the house can be sold at the courthouse, the bureau drops the property into the "other vacant" category. When homeowners walk away from houses and mortgages but the banks haven't caught up with them yet, those dwellings, too, are classified as "other vacant." So are houses bought with mortgages that changed hands so often that banks temporarily lost track of them.
In short, if the Census Bureau offers a sure indicator of an out-of-control housing market, it's in this one miscellaneous category.
I bring this up because when the first round of census data was released in March, Hernando didn't look all that bad — or at least it didn't look conclusively bad.
Its total percentage of vacant homes, 15.1 percent, was lower than the statewide rate of 17.5 percent. And though some reporters interpreted this to mean that nearly one in five houses in the state had been abandoned, that was just not true, Hernando County's demographic planner, David Miles, said at the time.
In Florida, there have always been lots of second homes counted as vacant, he said. We wouldn't get a true picture of how many houses were really abandoned until the bureau produced more data.
Well, now it has, and that 15.1 percent doesn't look so reassuring.
Of all the categories of vacant housing, the healthiest is "seasonal dwelling unit." These homes are still owned by someone — a snowbird, typically —who cares for the property and is in town part of the year.
Statewide, about 42 percent of vacant houses are in this category. In some nearby counties, such as Sarasota, Manatee and Sumter (home of the Villages mega-development), well over half of the vacant homes are. In Hernando, less than one-third are.
Having a large percentage of vacant homes up for sale isn't a good sign either, especially considering how many foreclosed houses are on the market. In Hernando, the rate of vacancies in the "for sale" category is nearly 19 percent, considerably higher than the percentage statewide and higher than in any of the dozen other counties that Miles looked at in western and central Florida.
Also on the high side, of course, is the percentage of homes in that dreaded "other vacant" category. Of those dozen nearby counties, only Marion's rate is slightly higher than Hernando's 28.4 percent.
You've seen the images that usually accompany stories about the housing mess in Florida: weed-choked lawns, broken windows, pools half-filled with algae-green water.
In fact, around here, you can see these properties for yourself in Royal Highlands and parts of Spring Hill where the speculation was rampant.
Now that we know all these neighborhoods are hot spots for "other vacant" properties, the picture is more complete.