In the new stucco subdivision, bullets flew near a school bus stop. Crowds gathered. Police lights flashed. And right away, residents grumbled about the growing number of renters in Carriage Pointe. Two months later, the homeowners association discussed new rules to screen prospective tenants in the Gibsonton neighborhood. Landlords worried they would lose money as homes sat empty. One board member fired back. "Some people would rather have a vacant house than the people who live there," Kasey Green said. "They're destroying what we worked hard for."
A mixture of owners and renters has long been common in Florida neighborhoods.
But the balance shifted after the housing boom, a St. Petersburg Times analysis of local property records shows. From urban streets to gated communities, the percentage of single-family homes without homestead exemptions increased in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties.
That means more homes are owned by non-residents, and are likely to be rented or remain vacant.
The effects are most evident in some of the area's newest neighborhoods, where investors snatched up homes during the boom. In several Pasco and Hillsborough neighborhoods, the proportion of such homes increased more than 130 percent between 2003 and early 2008.
Before, there were glossy brochures, model homes and the promises of new communities.
Now, residents are dealing with a different suburban reality. Garbage piles up at the end of a driveway. A renter gets heckled at community meetings. Frustrated owners ask a sheriff's deputy how to evict their neighbors.
A man sits quietly through most of a Carriage Pointe homeowners association meeting, until he yells out: "When was the last time there was a shooting in your neighborhood?"
In Tom Opfer's Brandon work room, bright lights shine on signs of the changing real estate market.
Gold and black, green and beige, cream and terra cotta. He paints them in calm suburban hues, designed to follow neighborhood rules and blend into the background.
But their message is clear: "For Sale" and, more frequently these days, "For Rent." Some Realtors have even started requesting "For Sale/Lease" signs.
"If they can't sell it, they'll rent it," he said.
But that wasn't necessarily the owners' plan.
"Their intention was to flip it, and when the music stopped, they didn't have a chair," said Dana Pittman, director of the Florida Association of Residential Property Managers.
Now the rental market is hot, with many wary of buying or looking for a place to live after losing their homes to foreclosure.
"It's a good news-bad news situation," said Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
Renters can bring socioeconomic and racial diversity, he said, and a chance for owners to make money even when times are tough. Some of them start out as tenants in a neighborhood and eventually become buyers. But there may be a flip side.
"You can see renters in what used to be owner neighborhoods as the canary in the coal mine," he said.
• • •
At the height of the real estate boom, homes sprouted on the last edge of sprawling Spring Hill. With 521 new home starts, Sterling Hill was one of the fastest-growing subdivisions in the region in the third quarter of 2005.
Ads beckoned buyers to the gated neighborhood in Hernando County with slogans such as "Escape to Perfection!" and "Awaken Your Senses." Builders boasted of younger, wealthier newcomers creating a family-friendly community.
But owners have sought homestead exemptions for only 40 percent of the subdivision's 1,059 homes, records show.
Many of the rest are rentals, homeowners association president David Skliar said.
"Not all of them are bad," he said. "There was one man who lived across the street from me who was a fanatic about his lawn. I had no idea he was a renter until he moved out."
But when renters let their grass grow or break other neighborhood rules, Skliar said, reaching owners — who are ultimately responsible — can be difficult.
Often, registered mail comes back. Once, the association's manager called an owner in China. Unable to communicate, they hung up a few moments later.
At least one street is sharply divided, Skliar said. Homeowners live on one side. Renters live on the other. Their children, he said, do not play together. Some homeowners claim the renters' children play in the street too much.
One day, a homeowner drove around the children and through the renters' lawns.
• • •
Sometimes, the shouting begins as soon as Lisa Dunn starts to speak.
In 2005, she moved with her family from New Jersey to a rental home in Riverview. Since 2006, she has been on the Rivercrest Community Development District board.
At meetings, one proposal has come up more than once: get rid of the renters.
"There's a lot of viciousness going on, people questioning the reason I actually want to be on there, people saying I don't have any stake in the community," she said. "I live here, too. I don't live here for free."
About 45 percent of the subdivision's 1,122 single-family homes did not have homestead exemptions in early 2008, Hillsborough County property records show.
But often the impacts are more subtle than shouting.
Last year, Jose Calderon's 8-year-old daughter was devastated. Her best friend, who lived in a rental house, moved away.
"There are always new people coming in," he said. "I thought it was going to be more like a close community."
So did Rick Bunkley, who moved to Rivercrest from a double-wide mobile home in the country. With bad credit from a foreclosed house, the 53-year-old truck driver and minister said he was forced to rent.
Shortly after moving in last February, he tried to find out about community events on a neighborhood Web site. Because he was not a homeowner, Bunkley was denied access to the site.
Then, at a meeting, Bunkley heard his neighbors yelling about a renter's overgrown lawn.
"They weren't just upset. They were ready to fight," he said. "Never once did I hear one of them stop to consider, 'Why is this person not mowing their grass? Are they sick? Does someone have a broken leg? Is there something I can do to help?' "
If Bunkley buys a house again, he plans to return to the country, far away from association rules and deed restrictions.
"They talk like they want to get together as a community, but their body language and their actions speak in the opposite direction," he said.
• • •
Still, complaints about rental properties keep coming: junk cars in the street, overgrown lawns, cars racing, dog bites, break-ins, drug deals.
"People are concerned," said sheriff's Deputy Jeff Service, who coordinates crime watch groups in south Hillsborough County. "They used to just ask me about speeding issues and gun laws."
Now, he said, residents often ask about renters and evictions.
Complaints about problems such as loud noise and cars parked on lawns are on the rise in neighborhoods across the Tampa Bay area, said Jean-Claude Eckstein of Ameri-Tech Property Management.
"When you look at our list of violations, the vast majority (are) rentals," he said.
At Thousand Oaks in Trinity, homeowners association officials remain in close contact with absentee owners to remind them to follow rules.
"You just don't want to see total transition in your community overnight," association vice president Steve Donaldson said.
Concerns about problems in parts of Rivercrest are so intense that the leaders of the homeowners association are fighting back, trying to make it easier to keep track of who is renting, said association president Lisa Fernandez.
New rules could include restricting short-term rentals and requiring updated contact information for absentee owners. But such changes to the subdivision's rules would require approval from 75 percent of the community — a number likely hard to achieve with so many absentee owners.
"It's a phenomenon that all the communities that were born at the time ours was are facing," Fernandez said.
In Carriage Pointe, where most homes were built in 2006, plans for increased security and greater oversight of rentals began before last year's shooting near the school bus stop. But by February's homeowners meeting, tensions had boiled over.
Service, the sheriff's deputy, came to discuss creating a crime watch group in the neighborhood, where just 32 percent of homes had homestead exemptions early this year. Residents worried they wouldn't be able to collect enough owner signatures — the same problem that stalled a recent push for speed bumps.
The board decided to create a screening committee to evaluate rental applicants.
Local or state laws should require homeowners to do background checks and seek homeowners association approval for tenants, Service said in an interview.
Such proposals are increasingly common.
"Community associations are kind of scrambling to be prohibitive," said Pittman, the head of the Florida Association of Residential Property Managers.
This month, she'll head to a national community association conference in Orlando to try to educate leaders about creating too many restrictions, and remind them that professional property managers already perform background checks.
"If an owner can't rent his property, then it's going to be foreclosed, and their property values are going to decline, as opposed to having a quality tenant," she said.
• • •
Chad DeStories points at the house next door and narrows his eyes.
"Our neighborhood watch started because of that house right there," he said.
The 37-year-old firefighter moved from Coquina Key in St. Petersburg to a new home in Apollo Beach's Covington Park subdivision in 2004. Builders said the neighborhood would have few investors, he said.
But records show the subdivision is in the heart of the Hillsborough County area that saw the largest increase in the percentage of properties without homestead exemptions between 2003 and early this year. Only 55 percent of homes on his street had a homestead exemption.
After less than a year in his new home, DeStories said, he saw drug deals in front of the house next door. Doors slammed at all hours of the night. Vandalism in the neighborhood went up.
So he helped create a crime watch in a neighborhood with a butterfly on every mailbox.
The renters next door were eventually evicted. The house is in foreclosure. The crime watch remains, and so will DeStories.
"Even if I wanted to move, I couldn't. I knew I was moving in here for a long stay," he said. "We were looking for a home, and we got one."
• • •
Higher numbers of rentals in single-family homes aren't only a suburban phenomenon.
"When you have a higher percentage of absentee owners, you have less of a pride of ownership," said Jim Longstreth, 51, who works for a company that manages rental properties and also has served as president of the neighborhood association in Kenwood in St. Petersburg.
More "For Rent" signs have popped up alongside "For Sale" signs there, he said.
But Historic Kenwood knows how to deal with bad renters. Before the 1990s, some properties were run down and the area had little sense of community.
The neighborhood association strengthened. If residents dabbled in drugs, the community used police and code enforcement officers to edge them out. Now the area is a popular place to live, and renters are some of the neighborhood association's most active participants.
Newer subdivisions facing the same issues, he said, may have to follow suit.
But how much control they have could depend on the neighborhood's original covenants, said Pete Dunbar, a Tallahassee attorney and former state representative who co-wrote The Law of Florida Homeowners Associations.
"There's not a one-size-fits-all solution," he said.
Meanwhile, business is booming for companies specializing in property management.
"When the market flips, I'll have relationships with the investors and a network of renters who will need to move into a new house," said Erik Parks, a Realtor who manages properties for Charles Rutenberg Realty in New Port Richey.
Levy, of the National Center for Suburban Studies, said a mixture of renters and owners is healthy. But with such a rapid shift, he said, owners must be vigilant.
"If people get over their fears, and make sure that the properties are maintained, then there's no reason for housing prices to drop any more than anywhere else," he said. "But sometimes fear creates its own housing market."
Times staff writers Matthew Waite, Chandra Broadwater, Stephanie Garry, Rebecca Catalanello, Dong-Phuong Nguyen and Erin Sullivan and staff photographer Lance Aram Rothstein contributed to this report. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.