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Economy a boon to rental market

The nation's economic downturn has boosted at least one part of Pasco County's economy. The apartment rental business is enjoying its highest occupancy rates, county officials say.

"The housing rental business has picked up tremendously," Pasco County Property Appraiser Ted Williams said. "That has been one bright spot of growth in the county."

Although exact data for the county were unavailable, most major apartment complexes reported occupancy rates of more than 90 percent. Summer Trace Apartments, a 200-unit complex on Trouble Creek Road in New Port Richey, reported that by the end of the month they will have 100 percent occupancy, manager Donna Nicoletti said.

"We have always been between 95 to 100 percent occupied," she said. "We now have a waiting list."

What has caused apartment-living to become so attractive?.

The country's shaky economic situation has some would-be homeowners putting off buying their dream houses for a few years.

"Renters are not confident enough in today's market to buy a home, so they choose to rent instead," said Randy Warner, Central Florida manager for American METRO/STUDY Corp., a national real estate research company.

Consumer confidence is at a low level, Warner said. And low consumer confidence fuels the rental market. With the country in the midst of a recession, people just don't see a home as the good investment it once was, he said.

In Pasco, property values have decreased in many cases, Williams said. He cites a group of condominiums on Moon Lake Road. The condominiums were once appraised at $50,000 in 1987, but now sell for $19,000.

"If I did not own a home, I think I would rent also, strictly from a business standpoint," he said. "If I was not sure it was going to go up in value, I would want to wait until the values stabilized."

New housing also is being priced out of the range of many people, making renting the only option.

New housing construction has been flat in the county for five years, with the first quarter of 1990 the worst in a decade for housing starts. The new homes that are being built are priced in the $80,000 range, out of reach for many, Williams said.

"One of the problems is that there aren't many new, cheap houses going up," he said. "Some people are priced out of the housing market."

That is the problem faced by Rick and Barbara Keith. The couple, who have rented an apartment at Oak Trail in Hudson for more than a year, said they can't find a house they can afford.

"We can't afford to be homeowners," Rick Keith said. "We moved here from out of state. All we can afford right now is to rent."

The demand for rental housing, coupled with the slump in house construction, has helped cause the boom in apartment construction.

Starting in 1985, large complexes were being built and the apartments rented as soon as they opened. On the east side of the county, the number of apartment complexes almost tripled, Williams said.

Construction of apartment complexes slowed in 1987, but not the demand for the apartments. Many older complexes revamped to compete. The former Post House East apartments in Port Richey sat empty for years before a builder refurbished them. Now, as Pelican Bay Apartments, they are designed to attract a younger clientele.

These newly built or remodeled buildings come armed with amenities such as swimming pools, weight rooms and tennis courts. And they court a younger and more mobile crowd, said Marianne Hossler, from Prudential Tropical Realty in Port Richey.

Hossler's company conducted a survey in August of the occupancy rates for seven large apartment complexes. She found that many younger people who work in Pinellas or Hillsborough counties are coming to Pasco to live.

"There are a lot of younger working-class heroes right now that can't afford to buy their own homes," she said. "Apartments are hot right now."

But some just enjoy apartment living. Keith Hammond, a lawyer with Mcpherson and Hammond in New Port Richey, lives in Carlton Arms, an 800-unit behemoth off Rowan Road. Hammond has lived in a house and likes apartment life much better.

"I don't have to cut the yard ... or fix little things around the house," he said. "All I have to do in an apartment complex is pay the rent and enjoy the facilities."