LEHIGH ACRES, Fla. (AP) — At Our Daily Bread Food Pantry, the conversation often centers on real estate. Once taboo details — home values and what people paid for their properties — are casually discussed, and there appears to be little shame in walking away from a mortgage or fighting the bank on a foreclosure.
With Florida’s Republican presidential primary just days away, the talk has turned to politics. At the food pantry and throughout hard-hit Lehigh Acres, frustrations over the housing crisis and the federal government’s seeming inability to help has turned into apathy at best, and rage, at worst.
“They destroyed Florida,” said 69-year-old Bobbie Ruggieri, a food pantry volunteer.
Lehigh Acres is about 30 miles east of the Gulf of Mexico’s sandy beaches in southwest Florida, slightly northwest of the Everglades. Once sleepy and rural, the area boomed high and hard between 2003 and 2007. The population doubled to about 65,000, mostly from service and construction workers living large off the success of the area’s new housing. The fall came just as fast. By 2008, Lehigh Acres and the entire Fort Myers area had the nation’s highest foreclosure rate. Currently, one in every 96 homes is in foreclosure.
Here and likely elsewhere, no politician is spared the fury over the housing crunch. Experts say neither President Barack Obama nor any of the Republicans who want to challenge him in November have solutions for falling prices, depressed construction and waves of foreclosures.
Obama said this week that he wants to help struggling homeowners refinance their mortgages. His GOP opponents generally say the government should not interfere in the housing market. But a growing number of experts are advocating a bolder approach to provide relief to the 11 million homeowners in the United States who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney stood in front of an empty, foreclosed home Tuesday and told a small crowd that he would encourage banks to work with homeowners. He also defended the banks, saying they also were hamstrung by the crisis.
“In this case, it’s because of the banks,” Romney said. “Well, the banks aren’t bad people. They’re just overwhelmed.”
Kit Bock, who owns a landscaping company, listened. He said his company has lost $10 million in business in the past decade. It once employed 160 people but now just 30 are on the payroll.
Bock said he thinks he’ll vote for Romney because of his success as a businessman. But Bock said he’s not wildly enthusiastic about any candidate.
“What I’d like to hear from a candidate is not how bad things are and how everyone else hasn’t done their job. I’d like to hear specifically what they can do to change things,” he said.
Food bank pantry manager Karen Balch was too busy handing out deli meat and bread to the needy to go see Romney. She wishes he or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or any other national politician would drop by.
“They’re all good people here,” sighed Balch, who started volunteering when she lost her job at a flea market. “Hard-working people. It seems like everyone you talk to here in Lehigh is losing a home.”
Walt Romberg, another pantry volunteer, bought a $139,000 home with his wife in 2004. They put down $75,000 after selling a business. It took them a while to find jobs, then they lost them. They nearly went into foreclosure, and would have, if not for a nonprofit that’s helping pay their mortgage for 18 months. The home is now worth less than $55,000.
Romberg said the nation’s problems started under President George W. Bush, but he doesn’t blame Bush entirely. He also doesn’t blame Obama, but thinks Obama “hasn’t helped all that much, either.” Romberg said he was thinking of voting for Romney because he’s “created some jobs, like Staples,” referring to the office supply chain that Romney’s former company, Bain Capital, financed.
Ruggieri, who also volunteers as a nurse at a free medical clinic with 200 people on its waiting list, said she won’t vote for Romney.
“I’m mad that he blamed Obama for this,” she said.
Ruggieri doesn’t see the housing crisis as any one politician’s or party’s fault, although she does have some choice words for the banks. But she’s one of the lucky ones in Lehigh Acres: She and her husband bought a foreclosed home for $33,000 in 2009, once worth $211,000.
Daniel Bozarth, who rents a home a few streets away from where Romney stood, applauded his remarks. The 26-year-old, who is collecting $160 a week in unemployment after losing his job repairing motorcycles and ATVs, also doesn’t blame Obama. He also likes that Romney made millions during his career.
“If we were to have someone like that, that’s what we need,” Bozarth said. “We need someone to get us a lot of jobs. I think we’ve hit rock bottom.”
Another neighbor, Michelle Wheeler, a 44-year-old staunch Obama supporter, refused to attend Romney’s event.
“This is not a situation that can get fixed in four years,” said Wheeler, who was laid off from her job at State Farm insurance after injuring her knee. Without health insurance, she can’t get surgery. Without surgery, she can’t walk much or work.
She is angry that Republicans, and some Democrats, haven’t supported Obama’s ideas.
“I blame anyone who is opposing him,” Wheeler said. “Just work with the president.”
Across town at Joe’s Cafe, owner Joe Golio shook his head when asked whether any Republican candidates can help Lehigh Acres. Business has been tough the last four years and he can’t afford to move. His home, worth $250,000 four years ago, is now valued at $67,000, he said.
His son, James, waits tables at the restaurant. His home is worth $27,000 and he owes $117,000 on the mortgage.
Neither man blames Obama. But neither really wants him to stay in office. And they aren’t sure any of the GOP candidates would be any better.
“They’re all cowards,” James Golio said.
Added his father: “I don’t like to listen to politicians. You hear the same thing from everyone. They’re short on detail. I just want the truth, whatever it is.”