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George Packer: 'The Ponzi State'
Florida sky. (Photo: fallsroad/Flickr)

A Florida development. (Photo: fallsroad/Flickr)

It’s cold up north, and the world dreams of Florida. Warm, sunny, green and beckoning.

But the Sunshine State is in a world of trouble, and the trouble is all about real estate. When houses were hot here, they were very hot. Maybe the hottest. And as long as there was a new buyer chasing the sun, it seemed it would go on forever.

Until it didn’t. New Yorker writer George Packer calls it the “Ponzi State.” He’s been out in the home foreclosure deserts of Florida, watching a world fall apart.

This hour, On Point: On the front lines of the meltdown in Florida.

You can join the conversation. Have you seen it? Do you live it? The dystopia of life in the housing meltdown in the sunshine state? What about your state? Will Florida come back? When? How?


George Packer joins us from New York.  A staff writer for The New Yorker, he’s reported on war in Iraq, atrocities in Sierra Leone, civil unrest on the Ivory Coast. He’s the author of several books, including “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq.” His big article in this week’s issue is “The Ponzi State: Florida’s foreclosure disaster” (subscription required). You can watch Packer talk about the piece at newyorker.com. His New Yorker blog is Interesting Times.

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  • Patrick

    i would like to see your guest use the florida housing situation as an extreme case of the problems afflicting the national housing market. specifically i observe that a lack of confidence the in market, a large excess in housing inventories, and disfunctional/nonfunctional credit markets are essential problems in improving conditions in the market for homes. would your guest please address these problem areas, citing specific policy options, such as modifying the mark to market rule, use of a bad bank, the role for federal legistlation, the use of bankruptcy, etc.

  • pat

    you could also address the fact that many of these excess homes were built with out infrastructure in place or even planned; they kept on building even when large areas had empty houses; just seemed silly! thank you for topic!

  • N.J.

    One has to examine the causes of this collapse more closely. They tie closely into the tax cuts of the last eight years. Because the stock market was not an extremely hot place for those with a lot of money gained from the tax cuts to invest it, we are seeing a repeat of the mess that occured at the end of the 1980′s with commercial real estate, office buildings and such, occur in the private housing sector.

    Those who got large returns, too large to spend in a Sears outlet, went right into the mortgage securities which ended un pushing up the value of housing way beyond anything reasonable.

    Because these investments became so profitable for those who could afford to invest in them, mortgage brokers and banks were writing mortgages as fast as they could, and not being very careful about whether those taking the mortgages out could actually pay them off.

  • N.J.

    Also, I lived in Florida during the problems that occured with the construction of more office space than there were renters for, and when the “real estate investment trusts” went through their crash, there were similar office building complexes, completely empty or places where building had stopped in mid construction.

    I passed one such place every day for years. Eventually in the late 1990′s this place was turned, not into office space, but condomimiums and town homes, at the beginning of the more recent wave of housing construction and its related investment.

  • Wendy Babiak

    I grew up in Florida and came of age in the 80s. Surrounded by so much natural beauty, I grew up with a reverence for nature, and the “build it and they will come” craze had just begun. I had to leave the state as soon as I could in order to avoid having my heart broken by watching the unnecessary speculative over development in which strip malls in the middle of nowhere stood empty. Florida is reaping the karma of imagining that they could create demand rather than seeing demand and meeting it. Those empty houses and strip malls should have been left as habitat for the lifeforms, animal and vegetable, that originally called it home.

  • N.J.

    Oh, me too. I moved there in the early 1970′s and it was very beautiful. I remember when you could see the beaches from the road running next to it rather than the canyon of condominiums that stretch from Miami to West Palm Beach. Inland it got even worse as the eastern and western edges of counties went farther and farther out, almost touching in many cases. Strip malls were built and suddenly vacated as businesses moved to follow the population. It was truly terrible to see.

  • David Grandidge

    Moved to Fort Myers from NYC in March 08 after getting very good deal on house in gated community. OK there have been many foreclosures and a steep drop in prices. However many of the houses are 2nd homes that people bought to rent out or flip etc. Not many people ending up homeless really. Fort Myers is now very busy with the annual influx of snowbirds – there seem to be just as many as last year. They contribute significantly to our economy.

  • James Carr

    Just a note that the Marx Brothers first movie, the 1929 film “Cocoanuts” was based on the same idea of a huckster (Groucho) trying to sell a subdivision, “Cocoanut Grove” that didn’t yet exist. Groucho’s hoped-for ponzi scheme backfired when Chico got involved to “bid up” the prices…

    How things change..

  • James Carr

    …In Florida, of course, sorry.

  • Yves Tony

    I live in foreclosure ground zero, Lehigh Acres. I got caught right in the middle of the mess, having bought a house in mid-2006. I am fighting really hard to keep my house, but I am several months late on my mortgage yet.
    If the bank does not negotiate with me, I am just gonna have to let it go. I have no hard feelings against anybody, because nobody is really winning in this situation. Everybody is partly to blame; I accept my responsability and will move on. The banks, the developers and any other party to this mess need to do the same.

  • Susan

    I highly recommend “Fiat Money Inflation in France” by Andrew Dickson White (available online) to understand the reasons why fraud is becoming more and more a way of life.

    There is nothing new under the sun. A short history lesson provides the answers we need right now.

    I also recommend listening to Congressman Ron Paul on this subject.

  • steve

    I left hollywood FL in augst 2005
    and I was telling people i didnt want to buy beacse I didnt think things were worth that much. something is only worth what someone is going to pay for it. but everyone was saying “it will allways go up on the beach”

    great show tom as always
    steve in holland

  • http://wbur.org Larry Ashland MA

    Great program.
    My parents live in Vero Beach and I have been visiting there for 30 years.
    Many partially completed subdivisions all over with empty houses and streets
    with only ahouse here or there.
    My parents are now in assisted living and I have POA over their affairs, including their condo. 3 years ago it was valued at 170K and today I will be lucky to sell it for 75K. I need to sell it as their finances are dwindling and they will take a killing on it just to keep them in their apartment. They are not alone. The property
    (55+) is very well managed yet there is great concern about default on condo fees and foreclosures. A complex of 500 condos and 45 are for sale….the retired owners
    have lost their retirement nest egg voth through the market crash and the
    realestate crash.

  • Dave

    While Florida had rampant speculation and huge problems with subprime mortgages, an underlying, little mentioned cause of the current recession is the fact that median wages have been stagnant for the last 8 years. But, inflation, health costs, etc have continued to go up.

    This forced the average person to borrow money (credit cards or home equity) to maintain their lifestyle. Since history had (past tense) shown that people’s pay was likely to rise, this may have led to people purchasing homes that were a bit more than they could pay for since they would have assumed that their income would rise to cover their mortgage.

    This is all a result of wealth transfer from the bottom to the top. No money at the bottom to service the debt to the top.

    Solution, relief from taxes, credit card interest rates, and health care starting at the lowest pay levels and working upward. More money at the bottom = more spending and a healthier economy.

  • Miami Bruce

    I was born in Miami in 1958 and saw Florida go from a nice place to a sprawling mess. The Realtors, Bankers and Developers were all in on the mess that is there.
    This is nothing new. the same thing happened in the 1920s.
    I worked as a communications construciton engineer from
    I saw the crash begin and the hard crash coming and in 2005 my wife and I sold our house and left. We got out in the nick of time. It was becomeing harder to sell then. I wonder about the guy who bought our place as he got a no down loan. I hope he is still there.
    Absolutly blame the rotten 3. With the impending water crisis and lack of preperation for natural disaster development in Floida should be stopped and even reversed.
    We moved to North Carolina and I see the same things going on here. we do need a paradigm shift from this greed based slash and build mentality.

  • Antonio

    Hello, and thanks! I’ve had a 29-year career as a Florida Home Designer, who tried to avoid creating “McMansions” (to my $$$-loss).

    Residential Architecture has become only a “figment” of what’s appropriate and Florida-SMART. All the homes look the same, because….it makes it EASIER TO MARKET AND SELL something one already “knows”. That’s the priority, to sell! Liveability and Individuality are somewhere next-in-line, sadly.

    It makes folks live pretty-much alike, for it. Folks focused on “investment” instead of “liveability”. Folks who forget one’s home is only part of a larger community neighborhood/town. To create THAT part of one’s “home” requires Participation. Endless suburbias really, really makes that difficult, at a human-scale.

    Nope, Florida’s become filled with a majority of “selfish-minded” Folks who know NOTHING about what it takes to REALLY make a Place a Home. Can you really teach “flippers” to be down-home friendly-folks? Heck, no, because they are going nutz trying to pay the “mortgage-monster” All for what? Greed!!

    Its Insidious, but…all those Look-alike Homes will ALWAYS stymie Florida’s ability to create functioning Places worthy for we mere Humans to live Appropriately easily. A legacy of mind-boogling poor Urban Planning equal to the Wall Street one, and perhaps a vital cause of that one! A simple thing, just creating Human-scale Built-Environments, can change…EVERYTHING!

  • John M

    I wonder if the Boomers will come to Florida, when the effects of climate change comes more apparent in all of our lives. How will rising sea levels affect Florida?
    What about the possibility of stronger and more numerous hurricanes?
    I have a childhood friend who lives in Greenville, South Carolina who mentioned the last time I spoke to him over a year and a half ago, that a lot of people from Florida were moving into his area. Many of them were retirees who had initally relocated to Floria, but now were tiring of hurricanes.
    I wish either Tom, the guest, or a caller brought up this interesting angle.

  • Martha

    We bought a condo in Ft. Myers 4 years ago at the peak. We are not yet retired and probably will not in the near future because of what the stock market has done to us. So we at least try to have the condo rented part of the time, but even rentals are down in Florida! Our condo value has dropped about 20% at this time.

    We can only hope that the baby boomers will come back to Florida, that is the only hope for real estate, to start buying again.

  • Steve T NC,

    I worked in Florida from 03 to 06. From Ocala to Naples and all in between as a telephone DSL tech. The changes that I saw, came after the state, was continually hit by Hurricanes. People either moved out, or changed their minds about moving to Florida.
    In Ocala I was so amazed, a whole community of 15+ thousand with streets driveways, trees, fire hydrants, street lights, and utility’s and maybe two houses or none, block after block. Literally a ghost town. The amount of money must have been a staggering loss. Whoever speculated that mess?

  • carlos arredondo

    Para la Hispanidad buen programa como siempre Mpr #1 Yo tengo mi casa en hollywood fl y tengo problemas pagando mi renta ya que es dificil rentar mi casa,encima de eso como yo vivo en boston y no soy residente de fl pago casi el doble de inpuestos los cuales me complican mas mi situacion,mi vecina paga mas de dos mil dollares en impuestos mientras que yo pago casi cinco mil lo cual tambien no ayuda la situacion,yo estoy atrasado con mi renta y estoy tratando de ver si el banco baja la taza de pago mensual, yo no se que otra cosa hacer espero en dios no perder mi casa y dios primero esta situacion se resuelva pronto ya que cada dia que pasa la propiedad pierde valor ,tambien tube un atraso con mis impuestos y la ciudad de hollywood me dio una multa de casi diez mil dolares lo cual complico esta situacion en la que yo estoy,en el 2004 cuando yo compre la casa me fui de boston a florida,tres meses despues mi hijo que era un infante de la marina de los estados unidos perdio la vida durante una vatalla en najaf iraq lo cual fue muy dificil para mi hacetar tal noticia al punto que cuando me imformaron del evento yo me introduje el la van en que vinieron los marinos informantes de la noticia y yo prendi fuego a la van y me queme 26 por ciento de mi cuerpo con segundo y tercer grados de quemaduras lo cual estube en tratamiento medico por un doce meses y hasta hoy en dia recibo tratamiento de terapia la casa estubo vacia por un tiempo y se rento a una dama la cual no pago la renta por mas de seis meses,se volvio a rentar a otra persona la cual si pagaba pero cuando se fue de ella la dejo en muy mal estado la cual nesecito varias reparaciones para ponerla al dia creo que la razon que yo quiero mantener esta casa es por los acontecimientos que ocurrieron en agosto 25 del 2004 cuando murio mi hijo,ese dia tambien era mi cumpleanos ,bueno espero en dios lo mejor para todos en estos tiempos dificiles y les deceo buena suerte.gracias a mpr por estos temas,por darme la oportunidad de participar en el programa EN PUNTO y tambien al senor george packer por su trabajo de imvestigacion gracias carlos_arredondo@yahoo.con

  • Rod Mac Donald

    WOW florida has run a land boomm ! ! ! ANYONE that knows history should know that Fla. is the MotheR of land speculation. That this is news is just amazing . Ohhhhh everyone is going to come here it’s just so GREAT……. I remember taking a cab outside Miami and getting a New York cab driver ….. Annd he asking me where I was from outside Boston I said………. and some kind of haze came over him as he said ” ohh ya the seasons how I miss them MY WIFE MADE me come down here and I can’t stand it the same dull green how I miss the spring ” ….. And that is the glory of this latitude when MotheR earth SpringS back to life that GLORY IS IN FACT something to behold So bettter men than me have lost fortunes to the
    Florida sameness good luck to them and they may want to read of the Titans of industry a hundred years ago that lost out on selling the Florida Dream……. You HAVE to wake up from a dream

  • Mark P

    Enjoyed the show and will definitely read the article. Wished it could have brought to the attention a sad and emblematic footnote of the wildwest atmosphere here in Ft Myers of broker named Frank DeLasandro who worked his way up to the top, who’s name blanketed commerical real estate for a while and who died under mysterious circumstances kyaking off the coast of New Jersey, his childhood home. Rumor is he made a double deal with one of the ‘family’s’ as the market turned, and there was no way out but the deep blue sea.

  • megamike

    Great show! I too grew up in Florida in the 70′s in the Sarasota area and it was great back than. And without sounding like an old fogee I will not miss a halt to the mess that was erected here in Florida…Sarasota especially..hundreds of condos are empty..what will they do with them when they rot out sitting empty year after year! And I too left Florida just in time for the midwest..the Florida sameness, its disrespect of education, and the lack of cohesive neighborhoods is a big turn off. Regarding the Ft. Meyers area anywhere from Tampa/St Pete down to Naples should have been left alone..it was backward, and quaint now it is junky..when I was a kid Punta Gorda was maybe where you stopped to gas up and grab a snack on your way to Miami…good luck to you all in Florida

  • lois

    Gret show thank yow.
    I live in Lehigh and watched a nice affordable and safe community for the elderly and young famlies turn into a haven for criminals along with all the other problems sited in the story.
    On the positive note now its affordable again. If only the banks would lend some money!

  • Lycee Moliere

    I have a few reactions to the piece. On a prosaic level, I am glad that my parents taught me long ago that if it “sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.”
    The piece also brought to mind a few eerie visits I made with my former boyfriend to a half-completed but totally uninhabited luxury development in Mass. He swam in the tiny lake and I explored the unfinished houses.
    But, here is my main point. While I am sympathetic to the plight of those who got caught in the Ponzi web, the suburban life is fundamentally inimical to the health of most communities. Suburbs breed social isolation and over-dependence on cars (with resultant pollution and decline in exercise/increase in obesity). People who try to walk in the suburbs risk their safety and end up nowhere. While there has been a tremendous focus on the financial aspects of dying communities such as these, some of the consequences stem from the fact that sprawl development is a concept with serious flaws. I am hoping that the current crisis will serve not just as a stimulus for a financial re-examination but for a re-examination of the ways we as a society want to develop land and the types of landscapes we want to inhabit.

  • http://www.TheCommentDepot.com YEA!!!!!

    WOOHOO Media you did it! All of your negative talk about how bad the economy and housing market is for the last TWO years has finally SCREWED the economy big time! YaY you did it!!!! WOOT WOOT

  • Cheryl Ferrara

    The other impact of the builders leaving unfinished communities, their businesses going under, for whatever reason – is the fall out of employees losing jobs. This is huge here in the construction industry. My son is directly involved in the construction industry. He works in the aluminum & screening industry and is very good at his trade. He has had to change companies many times over the last several years just to keep work. As of 2/2/09 – he left his current employer. Though he worked for them for the last 4 weeks, he’s received no pay – he’s married with 3 children. His family is renting a house which we believe the owner is in default & will soon foreclose – therefore they have no clue when they may get noticed to move from their home.
    I agree, there was a time when there were pages of classified pages of skilled/unskilled labor alone. Lee County is now at 10% unemployment; highest in the nation. President Obama is coming here on Tuesday the 10th to visit Lehigh Acres & discuss our high unemployment – interesting huh?
    My husband & I have lived in Fort Myers, FL, for over 24 years, and have owned our home for over 22 years. Last month the home across the street from us was deserted, taken over by the bank, and put up for sale for less than we paid for our home 22 years ago. We’re here to stay.
    I have a close friend in Lehigh Acres who is losing their home, and their bank won’t even deal with them to try to help them save it!
    I, personally, can’t believe it took anyone/everyone in government to wait this long to make this public. To make people accountable.
    And where do these honest, hard-working people who are losing their homes and/or their jobs going to go – literally and figuratively. Depression is rampant.

  • Bob Pentz

    An excellent story, my wife and I were considering moving to Florida but I think we’ll postpone it for awhile.

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