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Tampa Bay neighborhood ravaged by the housing crash makes its way back; but could it happen again?

When the Kings Lake subdivision sprouted in the early 2000s, it offered affordable suburban housing with little to no money down. Home prices doubled within a few years. Then came the foreclosure crisis. [LANCE ROTHSTEIN | Special to the Times]
Published Oct. 17, 2016

GIBSONTON — During the boom years of the early 2000s, the dream of home ownership lured hundreds of buyers to a new community called Kings Lake.

For less than $135,000, they could get a two-story house with four bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths. They could get mortgages with little or nothing down. No worry — prices were quickly heading up, doubling in a couple of years.

Until the market crashed.

In the worst slump since the Great Depression, more than 6 million Americans lost their homes. In Florida, few counties were hit harder by the foreclosure crisis than Hillsborough, and no place in Hillsborough suffered more than Kings Lake.

Of the 589 houses built in the suburban community off Big Bend Road, one in every five wound up in foreclosure. On Waterbrook Court, seven of the street's 17 homes were repossessed. On one short stretch of Kings Lake Drive, five out of six houses went back to the banks, including the place Michael Sloan bought at the peak.

"My plan was, I was going to turn over the house in the first year and if the market goes the way it was supposed to go, I'd make a couple of dollars,'' he says. "But the bottom fell out.''

LUIS SANTANA | Times

The Kings Lake community in Gibsonton was the epicenter of the area's housing crisis with one in every five homes in the southern Hillsborough County community going through foreclosure during the recession.

LUIS SANTANA | Times

The Kings Lake community in Gibsonton was the epicenter of the area's housing crisis with one in every five homes in the southern Hillsborough County community going through foreclosure during the recession.

Now, a decade after the crash, Kings Lake remains a cautionary tale of Florida's boom-bust economy.

Prices are rising again, though they aren't back to pre-2006 levels. Most of the houses are occupied, although dozens are now owned by giant investment firms and filled by renters. Crime is down, but security patrols still cruise the streets to keep away burglars and drug dealers.

And even as Kings Lake is still recovering, hundreds of new houses are going up in south Hillsborough County, some directly across Big Bend Road in the fastest growing new-home community in all of Tampa Bay. Some of the houses are being bought with little money down — one of the factors that contributed to the last housing crash.

Related story: New communities are springing up in south Hillsborough as older ones still recover from the crash

Just 128 of the original Kings Lake homeowners are still there. Cassandra Bryant is one of the survivors. The houses on either side of her and the three directly across the street all went through foreclosure. Bryant doesn't know the new residents; she thinks many are renters.

"I've been here almost 13 years,'' she says, "and I can't tell you who my neighbors are."

•••

Once an area of citrus groves and vegetable farms, south Hillsborough County has the kind of vast, cheap acreage beloved by developers. It was the logical place to put in new subdivisions aimed at a rising middle class priced out of other areas.

But Kings Lake had growing pains at the outset.

Babcock Investment, a family-owned real estate firm that amassed the undeveloped tract in 1995, had trouble marketing it to developers. Babcock executives told Hillsborough County commissioners they had "minimal success" pitching it as a single-family homesite for years.

One builder, American Heritage Homes, contracted for some lots in 1999 but backed out. Only after commissioners eliminated certain construction fees for developers in March of 2000 did Lennar Homes and Maronda Homes sign deals to buy lots and build on them.

After that, Kings Lake took off.

Both builders drew praise for their models, sweeping the annual Parade of Homes awards in 2002 in the category of houses in the $100,000 to $125,0000 range. New buyers included sheriff's deputies and Walmart clerks, auto mechanics and teachers. A dozen worked for the military. About 10 were truck drivers.

But there were hints of trouble. Many were able to finance 100 percent of the purchase price, giving them little or no equity. Lending standards were often lax. A member of the Air Force qualified for a loan though he had declared bankruptcy just two years before. A couple got a loan even though the wife was just three years out of bankruptcy.

Universal American Mortgage, which handled a majority of financing for Maronda and Lennar, boasted that it was providing loans for many buyers who might not have qualified under traditional terms.

About 70 percent of the first 60 Kings Lake buyers made less than the median family income of $50,500 at the time, a Universal loan manager told county commissioners, and 35 percent received down payment assistance.

Many came for one reason: Kings Lake had the cheapest nice homes around.

Luis Santana | TIMES

The Kings Lake subdivision in southern Hillsborough County was attractive to home buyers because houses were new, large and relatively inexpensive. But many started getting in over their heads.

Luis Santana | TIMES

The Kings Lake subdivision in southern Hillsborough County was attractive to home buyers because houses were new, large and relatively inexpensive. But many started getting in over their heads.

Patricia Greene, a certified nursing assistant, was working in Hillsborough but living in Sarasota. Prices there were too high, so she jumped at the chance to build a new house closer to her job for just $134,000.

"The interest rate probably could have been lower,'' says Greene, a single parent with a baby then 18 months old. "I was probably too excited to get a house."

In early 2004, Greene and her son moved into their four-bedroom home. Prices in Kings Lake were already rising, and the next year she refinanced for $163,800. In 2006, she refinanced again for $224,400.

"It was too easy to get money,'' she says. "Every day, they were throwing offers (to refinance) at you — you can get money to do this, you can get money to do that.''

At the peak, in 2005-2006, property values in Kings Lake could still justify such large refinancings. Several houses had resold for double their original cost; prices soared as high as $325,000.

In late 2005, firefighter Jacob Lilly paid $228,000 for a house that had sold a few years earlier for $115,000. He financed 100 percent of the purchase with two loans, the larger one an adjustable rate mortgage.

"I did have some concern what would end up happening after it started to adjust,'' he says, "but kind of like everybody else I assumed the market was going to keep going up and up and up and I could keep refinancing to a better rate.''

In early 2007, though, Lilly noticed the economy was slowing down. Houses were selling for drastically reduced prices or weren't selling at all. He had a side business installing pool enclosures but he wasn't getting any calls.

"Most peoples' disposable income was nonexistent, or a lot lower than it had been before,'' he says. "That kind of nonessential home improvement work is something people don't do.''

With his income sharply reduced, Lilly went into foreclosure in 2008. So did Greene, whose second refinancing had swollen her monthly mortgage payment to around $2,000 at a time when her salary had been cut.

"Refinancing, that's what killed me,'' she says. "I missed one payment and that was the end of it. I could not catch up.''

By 2009, Kings Lake was in the full throes of the foreclosure crisis.

Steve Madden | TIMES

This graphic shows all the homes in the Kings Lake community in southern Hillsborough County. Homes marked in red have gone through foreclosure since the housing crisis.

Steve Madden | TIMES

This graphic shows all the homes in the Kings Lake community in southern Hillsborough County. Homes marked in red have gone through foreclosure since the housing crisis.

"Everybody was buying and getting those loans and then the bottom dropped out,'' says Stephanie Delapaz.

Delapaz was among the homeowners remaining as the exodus swelled. Then a reservist on duty at MacDill Air Force Base, she had chosen Kings Lake because it was close to Interstate 75 but far from what she called the "rat race'' of the city. She and her husband built a house on the lake, added a pool and continued to enjoy life in the community along with close neighbors who also were able to keep their homes.

But everyone felt the effects of foreclosure.

Because so many people defaulted on their dues, the Kings Lake Neighborhood Association couldn't afford to keep paying for all residents' cable TV. Once neat lawns were taken over by weeds.

"At a lot of the foreclosures, the grass was growing really tall,'' Delapaz says. "They gated the playground and you had to have a passkey to get in because they were having trouble with teenagers. They had a lot of issues during that time with break-ins.''

There were far more serious crimes, too.

Like many in Kings Lake, Egan and Nicole Atkins had overpaid for their house in 2006, plunking down $275,000, or double what the original homeowners paid just four years earlier. Like many, they received nearly 100 percent financing.

But within two years, the couple had filed for bankruptcy. They held on to the house, battling foreclosure for years — even after they divorced.

Early one morning in July 2011, Egan Atkins returned to the house where Nicole still lived and stabbed her to death as she slept in a room with her boyfriend.

Times File

This 2011 photo shows a Lake Vista Drive home in Kings Lake where Egan Atkins had fatally stabbed his ex-wife, Nicole Williams. The Atkins, who had also filed for bankruptcy, battled foreclosure against their home for years. The homeowners association took over title in 2014, shortly after Atkins was sentenced to life in prison.

Times File

This 2011 photo shows a Lake Vista Drive home in Kings Lake where Egan Atkins had fatally stabbed his ex-wife, Nicole Williams. The Atkins, who had also filed for bankruptcy, battled foreclosure against their home for years. The homeowners association took over title in 2014, shortly after Atkins was sentenced to life in prison.

In February 2014, just a few weeks after Atkins was sentenced to life in prison, title for the house finally switched over from Atkins to the Kings Lake Neighborhood Association.

As houses like the Atkins' were auctioned off at foreclosure sales, investors swooped in. A Mississippi couple bought 11 houses. Blackstone, the huge private equity firm that snapped up thousands of foreclosures nationwide, bought 32 houses through its Invitation Homes subsidiary.

Blackstone and another big company, American Homes 4 Rent, now own and rent out nearly 10 percent of the houses in Kings Lake.

One consequence of all those rentals: Many residents say they know few, if any, of their neighbors.

Stephanie Rohde, 43, who moved from Niagara Falls, N.Y., last April and is renting a house with her husband, Brian, says she has "not a clue" about those living around her.

"I know that sounds bad," she says, "but it's hard to get a relationship going when a year from now who knows where people will be."

Several of the rentals belong to the Kings Lake Neighborhood Association, which took title to the houses after the owners defaulted on their dues. The income helps offset the association's continuing deficit, but president Josh Folckemer would like to see an end to investor-owned houses and a return to owner-occupied ones.

Lance Rothstein | Special to the Times

Kings Lake Neighborhood Association President Josh Folckemer and his son Jonah, 11, outside their lakefront home. He wishes investors would sell homes in Kings Lake to owners to improve property values.

Lance Rothstein | Special to the Times

Kings Lake Neighborhood Association President Josh Folckemer and his son Jonah, 11, outside their lakefront home. He wishes investors would sell homes in Kings Lake to owners to improve property values.

"When (investors) buy a $150,000 house for $90,000 at an auction, obviously that doesn't help property values,'' he says.

Home prices in Kings Lake are rising again, as they are in the rest of Tampa Bay, but they're still 20 to 25 percent below the peak. Kings Lake is getting old by south Hillsborough standards and lacks some of the amenities of newer subdivisions, like fitness trails and community pools. Streets are so narrow that recycling trucks can barely squeeze by if cars are parked on curbsides.

But as before, Kings Lake is drawing buyers because of its relatively big houses and relatively low prices.

"It seems to be more reasonably priced than what's going on around Tampa,'' electrician John Lang says. In August, he and his wife Angela, who works for the Hillsborough County school system, bought a four-bedroom, three-bath house for $175,000. That's almost $50,000 more than the previous owners paid in 2009, but far less than the $234,000 it sold for at the peak.

The Langs, like many of the original buyers in Kings Lake, financed almost 100 percent of the purchase price. The difference, Lang says, is that he and his wife were thoroughly vetted.

"They really put us through some financial investigation,'' he says. "They definitely made sure we could afford it.''

The recovery of Kings Lake has accelerated in recent months.

Not long ago, Monica Banker says, she would notice a "For Rent" or "For Sale" sign at every two or three houses as she walked the streets near her Kings Lake Drive home. Now, there are fewer and fewer signs.

Lance Rothestein | Special to the Times

Monica Banker and Kevin Nyquist work in the yard of the home they began renting in Kings Lake a year-and-a-half ago. They've noticed frequent police patrols and have not seen much crime there beyond teenagers breaking into cars.

Lance Rothestein | Special to the Times

Monica Banker and Kevin Nyquist work in the yard of the home they began renting in Kings Lake a year-and-a-half ago. They've noticed frequent police patrols and have not seen much crime there beyond teenagers breaking into cars.

Residents still complain about car break-ins and bike thefts, but many are upbeat that the neighborhood is becoming safer. The HOA hired a private security firm that patrols night and day. State troopers are also visible on the streets of Kings Lake — they are county roads — to discourage speeders.

Lake Vista Drive resident Phil Willman says the roller-coaster has been dramatic, from the great suburban promise when he bought the house in 2003, to getting "really bad" during the spurt of foreclosures, to a bounceback that has been more pronounced just over the past year. One encouraging sign: Willman's mother, who also lives in Kings Lake, recently sold her house for more than expected.

"I'm really hoping," Willman says, "that the neighborhood will get back to where it was."

Related: How long can the good times roll for Tampa Bay's 2016 housing market before the bubble pops?

And what happened to those who lost their homes?

Michael Sloan, who hoped to "make a few dollars'' when he resold, rented an apartment in Ruskin and declared bankruptcy. Although now 79 and living on Social Security, he has thought about buying again: "I can get a VA mortgage tomorrow, but I'm not sold on the way the economy is going now.''

Octavio Jones | TIMES

Michael Sloan. 79, stands in front of the Kings Lake home he moved out of in 2009 after it was foreclosed on. The New York retiree says he wouldn't move back.

Octavio Jones | TIMES

Michael Sloan. 79, stands in front of the Kings Lake home he moved out of in 2009 after it was foreclosed on. The New York retiree says he wouldn't move back.

He says he would never return to Kings Lake.

After Greene, the nursing assistant, got notice that her house would be sold at a foreclosure auction in 2013, she immediately moved out with her son and rented an apartment in Bradenton.

"At first I was devastated,'' she says about the foreclosure, "but after a year, it was, 'Oh my God, what a relief.''' She's still working and has applied to buy a house in Ruskin through a program for lower-income buyers.

Unable to pay the mortgage after he lost income from his side job, Lilly, the firefighter, walked away from his house in 2008 and moved into an apartment in Bradenton. Worried that the bank might sue him, he declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy to protect himself from any legal actions. He began paying off his debts through a court-approved plan, which he successfully completed in 2014.

Now married, Lilly lives in a house in Bradenton bought in his wife's name but with his name on the deed, too. They have what he calls a "safe'' 30-year mortgage, unlike the risky adjustable rate mortgages that were so common during the boom years.

Occasionally, on his way to Tampa, Lilly used to drive through Kings Lake, just to see how things had been going since he left.

Even now, he says, "I get a little sentimental about my house.''

Watch Times reporter Susan Taylor Martin discuss the story with 10News WTSP.

Times research staff Carolyn Edds, Caryn Baird and Barbara Moch contributed to this report. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate. Contact Jeff Harrington at jharrington@tampabay.com. Follow @JeffMHarrington.

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