Image: A sign advertising lots for sale is seen in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
J Pat Carter  /  AP
A sign advertising lots for sale is seen in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Friday. A county commissioner has proposed declaring the foreclosure-hit county a disaster area to make it eligible for relief money.
updated 3/2/2009 5:38:19 PM ET 2009-03-02T22:38:19

Just five years ago, Port St. Lucie was America's fastest-growing large city. Then the foreclosure crisis slammed it like a hurricane.

Today it sits in one of the hardest-hit counties in the nation. Thousands of houses are empty or unfinished. Neighborhoods are littered with for-sale and foreclosure signs and overgrown, neglected yards. Break-ins are on the rise.

But one politician believes he has a unique solution: Declare St. Lucie County a disaster area as if it had been hit by, well, a hurricane.

"This is a manmade disaster," County Commissioner Doug Coward acknowledged. But he said that is why "we've got to do something. Clearly, the economic crisis of the country far exceeds the ability of local governments to solve it, but we're trying be a part of the solution."

The declaration would act like a mini-stimulus plan, giving government officials access to a $17.5 million county fund usually reserved for natural disasters.

The county would be able to put some of that money toward shovel-ready construction projects and loosen the bidding requirements so that local contractors got the jobs. That, in turn, could enable residents to pay their mortgages and stave off foreclosure.

Other politicians fear a disaster declaration could scare off investors and drive down the county's credit rating, which would make it more expensive to borrow money. But the idea has appeal among many homeowners, particularly those in the construction trades, which are seeing unemployment rates of up to 40 percent.

Housing bust
Jacqueline Byers, research director for the National Association of Counties, said she knows of no other U.S. county that is contemplating such a move.

"Everybody is kind of foundering around. Counties are looking for ways to address their shortfalls. This might be an innovative way to do it," she said.

During Port St. Lucie's boom, houses sprang up by the thousands as young and old flocked to the area, lured by affordable prices, open space and a bit of a slower lifestyle.

Port St. Lucie — the spring-training home of the New York Mets, situated inland from the more expensive Atlantic Coast along Florida's Turnpike, about 100 miles north of Miami — nearly doubled in population from 88,000 in 2000 to 151,000 in 2007. Three biotechnology institutions opened in the county.

But then the foreclosure crisis struck and the economy went south. Many people soon realized they had bought more house than they could afford.

The county had more than 10,000 foreclosures last year, up from 4,165 the year before. Unemployment stands at 10.5 percent, more than double three years ago.

The newly out-of-work have been showing up in large numbers at St. Lucie Catholic Church, where free dinners are served every Thursday night. The church began serving meals to about 35 people a year ago. Last week, there were 175.

"We even give them a little bag to take home to try to help them through the week," said volunteer Karen Cuevas. "But we can't give out too much because we're not getting as much in."

Emergency relief
Coward, who hopes to put the disaster-declaration idea to a commission vote within a few weeks, said that the laws regarding the emergency fund refer to manmade as well as natural disasters, and that the county attorney believes the idea is legal. He said the money could go toward new roads, a courthouse expansion, utility improvements and other projects.

Among those who could benefit are Bonnie Bigger, 60, and her 29-year-old son, Jason. Their lender began foreclosure proceedings against them last week for falling $4,500 behind on their $776-a-month mortgage payments on a condo they have been living in since 1984.

She retired a year ago from her job as a 411 operator, but Social Security and disability payments just aren't cutting it, and she has had trouble finding part-time work. Her son, who works in construction, just had his hours cut back by 40 a month.

"We're hurting," he said.

But Port St. Lucie Mayor Patricia Christensen warned that labeling the county a disaster area could have a devastating effect. She said that after word of the idea got out, the city's New York bond issuer called to check on whether it was on the brink of ruin.

"I understand what the county is trying to do," Christensen said. "But we're starting to see improvements in our city. The real estate market is turning around, and although the homes aren't selling for the high prices that they were a few years ago, they are starting to sell."

'Band-Aid on cancer'
The idea may or may not help folks like the Derek and Kellyanne Baehr. They are six months behind on their $2,160-a-month mortgage and struggling to avert foreclosure.

Derek, 40, has been unemployed for the past 10 years after being diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder that will eventually put him in a wheelchair. The couple have lived in their modest, single-story stucco home for four years, and admit they got in over their heads with the $209,000 purchase. They said the house is now worth just $135,000.

After months of trying to work with their lender, they got a slight reduction in their interest rate, but "it was like putting a Band-Aid on cancer," Derek said.

"We can't continue to go on this way," said Kellyanne, 37, who fears she could soon lose her job as an accounting clerk because another round of layoffs is coming. "I cry about every day."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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