Only 43 homes built in three months? Must be Miami.

In South Florida, new home construction has virtually stopped and builders and workers are struggling to survive.

Rachel Feierman /Sipa Press/NEWSCOM/file
In this March 18 photo, one of Miami's few active construction sites informs workers that they are not hiring.

It used to be a busy scene on the sidewalks of Miami’s 184th Street at dawn. Armed with lunchboxes and sun hats, day laborers once clustered here in the hundreds, awaiting pickups from building contractors eager for their energy and manual skills.

Away in the distance stretches the city skyline they helped build, with its luxury high-rise condo towers overlooking Biscayne Bay glinting in the morning sunlight, a lasting symbol of Miami’s once red-hot building boom.

“Construction was so good, so busy, that cars were lining up at 6 a.m. looking for workers. There would be almost 200 day laborers. Times were good,” says Selene Echeverria, director of WeCount!, a community organization that assists immigrant workers in Miami-Dade County.

But now it’s a different story. Miami’s condo bubble has burst, new home building in south Florida has virtually ground to a halt, and contractors who once cruised 184th St. looking for labor are left seeking work themselves.

“Now you don’t see more than about 20 workers waiting in the mornings,” says Ms. Echeverria. “Many have moved to other states to look for work, many of them have gone back to their home countries. We give them food or help them find other income – but it’s sad, very sad.”

While the property crash and home-construction slowdown are familiar stories across America, south Florida is at the epicenter of the crisis, its market saturated with surplus inventory.

“New starts are almost zero or negligible,” says Brad Hunter, chief economist for Metrostudy, a national housing market research firm.

In the first quarter of 2009, construction began on just 294 housing units in south Florida’s six-county area. In 2001, it was 20 times that number.

Broward County alone saw just two condo units and 17 single-family homes get under way in the first three months of the year. In neighboring Miami-Dade County, work was launched on just 43 single-family homes – less than one twenty-fifth of the pace set prior to the housing boom.

Nationally, new housing starts fell in the first quarter of 2009, according to census bureau data. Single-family starts numbered about 78,200 by the end of March, a drop of more than 50 percent compared with the same period last year.

“Next to Las Vegas, Miami and south Florida was probably the second area in the country to reach such a fever pitch of speculation that the bubble burst under its own weight. The bubble got the most out of control here,” Mr. Hunter explains.

Oversupply of homes

Home prices had risen from bargain to unaffordable by around 2005, but with builders slow to realize that demand was shrinking, inventory continued to mount. By the end of March 2009, there were 24,244 new condo units still awaiting buyers in south Florida’s six-county region, representing a 31-month supply. Two months supply is considered the point of equilibrium with demand.

“Now we’ve got too many homes, so of course we’ve got to stop building, let the supply absorb,” says Hunter.

That could take some time. Sales of foreclosures and other distressed properties made up half the market in the first quarter of this year, and new housing data released Wednesday suggests that may continue. The number of US households facing foreclosure jumped 32 percent in April compared with the same month last year, with Nevada, Florida and California showing the highest rates.

More than 342,000 households – or one in every 374 US homes – received at least one foreclosure-related notice in April, according to data from RealtyTrac Inc.

Knock-on effect

What began as a ripple effect through the local economy and communities has swelled into a tsunami. Florida’s construction sector has shed 112,300 jobs over the last year, according to the state’s Agency for Workforce Innovation, forcing players at all levels, from property barons down to menial laborers, to adapt.

“We have all had to redefine ourselves or face extinction…. We’re down to the nuts and bolts,” says builder Ashley Bosch, who has shed 80 percent of his 40-strong workforce at Blok Urban Development in Miami.

In good times, his firm would deliver between 50 and 100 new units a year, mostly single or multifamily homes and condos. “Today we aren’t building anything,” he laments.

Some of his former workers have moved out of Florida or into different fields altogether, such as nursing and physical therapy.

Fernando Martinez, who owns Caribe Homes in Homstead, Fl., with his three brothers, reactivated his real estate license and reinvented himself as a real estate agent, switching from building new homes to selling existing ones. “We moved quickly, got rid of our inventory, and now our position is to basically wait and see what happens,” he explains.

But that has also involved slashing employee numbers from 100 to 15 while Caribe sits out the storm. Mr. Martinez has seen workers turn to minimum-wage jobs at supermarkets and fast-food joints. Some went over to the commercial construction industry, “but now that’s slowing down, too,” he says.

“Our industry has a knock-on effect on around 20 other trades – cabinetmakers, plumbers, electricians, surveyors. Then there’s the suppliers of wood, hardware, everything from the locks on the doors up – so many have gone under and closed. The air-conditioning guy doing business with us for a good 15 years, he’s shut his doors. Where do these people go and what do they do?”

At Shell Lumber and Hardware in Miami, co-owner Andy Hasse has seen business drop around 10 percent a year over the past three years due to declining demand from small contractors and remodelers, forcing him to cut back staff hours and overtime and lay off a couple of support positions.

“The biggest challenge is keeping morale up while convincing people to be better, work harder, but still take home less pay,” he says.

Yet there will always be a certain level of business, he says. “People may not be putting in oak moldings so much these days, but if their toilet breaks they’ve still got to fix it,” he says. “We see a glimmer of hope with every new sale and every customer.”

Signs of hope

Despite the gloom, modest green shoots have started to show themselves in certain areas of south Florida’s property industry. Metrostudy found that condo inventory has now declined over eight consecutive quarters – a positive sign that the surplus is gradually being shifted, paving the way for an eventual rebound, albeit one that remains distant.

“I believe demand will come back and population growth will resume,” Metrostudy’s Hunter predicts. “Home-building companies are in survival mode…. It’s just a matter of hanging on.”

Meanwhile WeCount! has teamed up with local churches and a food bank to help keep nonnative workers. While some see hope on the horizon, says group director Echeverria, for others the gloom of unemployment is too much.
Many of the consulates are working with the group to get people back home, she says.

“It’s very emotional for them; they are far from their families, they have no jobs, no purpose for being here. They say ‘We know how to raise corn. We can at least go home and grow food to feed our families.”

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