Florida county wants 'disaster' status over economic woes

PORT ST. LUCIE — The Baehrs — Derek, Kellyanne and their two young daughters — are five months behind on their mortgage payments. They sometimes eat at a soup kitchen and shop at a food pantry. They expect to lose their three-bedroom suburban house before the end of the school year.

"This is just awful, and I know that we are not the only ones going through this," says Kellyanne, 37, an accounting clerk. Derek, 40, is disabled. "We used to try to go day by day. Now we are just trying to get to the end of each day."

The details of the Baehrs' descent into financial ruin are singular, but their predicament has become painfully common. Port St. Lucie, once the fastest-growing city in the country, full of families lured by affordable dream homes, is now pockmarked by more than 10,000 properties in foreclosure and drained by a 10.5 percent unemployment rate.

The grim landscape has prompted a St. Lucie county commissioner to propose declaring a state of emergency to access the $17.5 million in county reserve funds typically earmarked for natural disasters.

The money would be used to hire local people for public-works projects already approved in hopes of curbing soaring unemployment rates and saving homes.

"I know it's never been done before, but we have also never had an economy this bad," Doug Coward says. The proposal is part of a larger stimulus package the commission is expected to consider within 30 days. "We were hit with three hurricanes in 13 months, and it still didn't destroy 10,000 homes. That was a natural disaster. This is a man-made disaster."

In 2008, 10,764 properties were in the foreclosure process in the county, more than double the number in 2007. The county's 2008 foreclosure rate is the third highest in Florida. Unemployment rates jumped 4.1 percentage points between December 2007 and the end of 2008.

Such statistics offer a startling contrast to the earlier success of the county, which in recent years had worked to diversify its economy by attracting biotech and health-science firms.

Five years years ago, home buyers rushed to the southern edge of St. Lucie County, settling into a cluster of bedroom communities with stretches of parks and churches and shopping centers. But for almost two years, the median price of an existing single-family house in the metro area that includes Port St. Lucie dropped, leaving scores of homeowners upside down with no equity and few options.

To read the complete article, visit The Miami Herald.

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