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As Tampa Bay housing rebounds, don't forget grim foreclosure era

Tampa Bay's housing market sure seems to be roaring back to life. Just look at some headlines on recent stories from my fellow staff writers.

As Tampa Bay foreclosures plunge, prices jump

Tampa Bay home sales soared in June

Is Tampa Bay's real estate market Florida's best-kept secret?

They are all completely legitimate stories. But let's not carried away just yet. And let's definitely not forget the reasons this metro market and state are still crawling out of the dark hole left behind by the burst housing bubble of nine years ago.

First: The U.S. homeownership rate fell, again, in the second quarter of 2015, hitting 63.5 percent — a low not seen since 1967. In the first quarter, the rate dropped to the lowest level since 1989.

That's not exactly a trend line the country's leaders (or real estate agents) like to see. It is assumed homeownership conveys stability — of family, of finances and of community — that a more transient renters' world does not. When Bill Clinton was president in the 1990s, and later when George W. Bush was in the White House, they and Congress pushed policies that drove up homeownership in America by helping more people "own" where they lived.

I put "own" in quotations because far too many of these folks were able to take on mortgages that exceeded their longer-term ability to pay — given the overinflated prices of homes before mid 2006, before the stock market crash of 2008-2009 and the devastating recession that pushed unemployment to double digits. A perfect storm.

In such an aftermath, especially in Tampa Bay and Florida where the damage was among the most severe, is it any wonder homeownership is at a low not seen in nearly a half century?

Second: The overall health of the Tampa Bay housing market just earned a lagging 24th place among 25 major metro markets in an analysis by WalletHub. It examined 10 housing metrics and found, for example, that 28 percent of the homes in Tampa Bay still have negative equity. That means the market value of these homes is less than the outstanding mortgage debt secured by them.

Sad to say, but 28 percent is a sharp improvement from several years ago. But it's hard to boast about a housing market in which more than a quarter of the homes remain "underwater."

Beware of this red flag: The WalletHub study found that nearly one of every four home loans in Tampa Bay's housing market was obtained with no proof of income, assets or debt. That was the highest percentage among the 25 cities in the survey.

Those are the kinds of loans that empowered so many borrowers to buy homes but fail to keep up with their payments, often ending in foreclosure. (See the sidebar for more details about the WalletHub analysis.)

Third: The cost of renting in the Tampa Bay area — measured as a percentage of median income here — is more than in any other big metro area in the Southeast except Miami. Tampa Bay renters spend almost a third of their income on rent. In cities like Atlanta or Charlotte, N.C., renters spend closer to a quarter of their income.

Anybody who's looked for a bay area rental lately knows how tough it is to find a place that's both inviting and reasonably priced.

This is not just about higher rents. Lower incomes in the bay area are a big factor. High rental costs depress the ability of younger people — many saddled with significant student debt — to save enough to consider buying a home.

That's one big reason that a recent report from Pew Research Center shows that a higher percentage of millennials, adults born in 1981 or later, now live with their parents than in 2010, despite the ongoing recovery.

"The expectation has been that their living arrangements would change, and they'd begin to establish households," Pew senior economist Richard Fry recently told the Wall Street Journal. "That expectation, at least so far, has not been borne out."

Fourth: While the Tampa Bay and Florida housing markets see stronger days ahead, the Sunshine State is about to be harshly reminded of the grim days of massive foreclosures from the past decade.

In September, a movie called 99 Homes hits select theaters with a dark tale about the foreclosure nightmare so many Floridians suffered in recent years.

It's a story about struggling single father Dennis Nash, who gets evicted from his home by corrupt real estate broker Rick Carver. Nash ends up working for Carver in hopes of reclaiming his house but gets swept up in Carver's lifestyle, performing the same eviction practices that were used on him.

It's a harsh flick. Appropriately so. (It stars actors Michael Shannon, Laura Dern and Andrew Garfield. While the movie takes place in the days of foreclosure-fueled Florida, it was shot in New Orleans. But that's a topic for another column on which states offer incentives for filmmakers.)

"America does not bail out losers," broker Carver tells Nash in the movie. "America was built by bailing out winners."

The title, 99 Homes, is an unsubtle play on the country's long-simmering income inequality debate that remains a prominent theme in the early days of the 2016 presidential race.

"Only one of every hundred's going to get on that ark, son," broker Carver warns Nash. "Every other poor soul's gonna drown."

A bit heavy-handed? You bet, but it's not unlike the poor handling of the foreclosure crisis that hurt millions in Florida, ending their shot at the American Dream.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.