LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. — Desperation has moved into this once-middle-class exurb of Fort Myers, where hammers used to pound.
Its straight-ahead stare was hidden amid the chatter of 221 families waiting for free bread at Faith Lutheran Church on a recent Friday morning; and it appeared a block away a few days earlier, as laid-off construction workers in flannel shirts scavenged through trash bags at a home foreclosure, grabbing wires, CDs, anything that could be sold.
“I knew it was coming,” said Gloria Chilson, 56, the former owner of the house, as she watched strangers pick through her belongings. “You take what you can; you try not to care.”
Welcome to the American dream in high reverse. Lehigh Acres is one of countless sprawling exurbs that the housing boom drastically reshaped, and now the bust is testing whether the experience of shared struggle will pull people together or tear them apart.
The changes in these mostly unincorporated areas outside cities like Charlotte, N.C., Las Vegas and Sacramento have been swift and vivid. Their best economic times have been immediately followed by their worst, as they have generally been the last to crest and the first to crash.
In Lehigh Acres, homes are selling at 80 percent off their peak prices. Only two years after there were more jobs than people to work them, fast-food restaurants are laying people off or closing. Crime is up, school enrollment is down, and one in four residents received food stamps in December, nearly a fourfold increase since 2006.
President Obama is scheduled to visit Fort Myers on Tuesday to promote his economic stimulus plan. But residents here tend to view it as the equivalent of an herbal remedy — it can’t hurt but it probably won’t heal. Instead, in church groups and offices, people call for “industry” and repeat one telling question: “What do we want to be when we grow up?”
“That’s one of the things we struggle with: What is our identity?” said Joseph Whalen, 37, president of the Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t want to be the bedroom community of southwest Florida; we don’t want to be the foreclosure capital.”
A Legacy of the ’50s
Lehigh Acres, like much of Florida and many suburbs nationwide, was born with speculation in its DNA.
The area got its start in the 1950s when a Chicago pest control baron, Lee Ratner, and several partners bought thousands of acres of farmland and plotted about 100,000 lots. With Fort Myers, 15 miles to the west, developers left little room for schools, parks or even businesses.
What they sold was sun and quiet living.
“They used to bring 20 busloads a day,” said Bob Elliott, a former salesman for Mr. Ratner’s company who struck out on his own in 1982. “We had 300 customers, seven days a week.”
By 2000, the lots had been sold, but most stayed empty. Only about 30,000 people were living in an area roughly four times the size of Manhattan. The builders really started to arrive in 2004, setting up model homes on Lee Boulevard next to Mr. Elliott’s office with the faded wooden sign that said “$50 lots.”
Bill Spikowski, a city planning consultant in Fort Myers, said that because Lehigh Acres had so many parcels and few restrictions on what could be built, smaller companies battled for customers. From 2004 to the end of 2006, developers completed 13,183 units in Lehigh Acres — nearly doubling the total stock of 15,216 that existed in 2000, according to Lee County figures.
Residents remember the boom for its noise, with dump trucks lining the streets and power tools heard in nearly every neighborhood. Housing prices doubled, then tripled, and jobs were plentiful, nearly all of them tied to real estate.
Signs of trouble were ignored. “Sometimes houses would sell three or four times in a few months, and no one would move in,” Mr. Elliott said.
Then in 2007, it all went quiet. Houses stopped selling. Foreclosures multiplied. The median home price in the Fort Myers area dropped to $215,200 in December 2007, from a peak of $322,300 in December 2005. It had fallen to $106,900 two months ago.
Work disappeared with the profits. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Lee County lost a higher percentage of jobs (8.8 percent) from June 2007 to June 2008 than any other county in the nation. Unemployment in the county rose to 9.8 percent in November, from 3.5 percent in March 2007.