Falling Behind | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Falling Behind

A soccer ball with a Mexican team logo is buried in the weeds, next to a barbecue grill. Inside the two-bedroom condominium, the living room is empty but for discarded wrapping paper on the floor. This is a home that's been seized by a bank, for non-payment of loans. Here in Missionwood, a beige-and-brown collection of two-story town homes in Miramar, it's what foreclosure looks like — an increasingly common sight in the 34-year-old development.

Amid dying plants and gashed screens, Missionwood's mostly working class, Caribbean residents try not to let the contagion of failure get to them. Tennyson Neptune, a 46-year-old Trinidadian handyman who rents a Missionwood condo, lifted his head from beneath the hood of a sedan on a recent Sunday afternoon and said, "Everywhere you look it's the same thing: Nobody is able to sell, and nobody is able to buy."

One of every 11 Missionwood homes was foreclosed on last year, according to Condo Vultures, a Miami-based real estate brokerage that keeps tabs on troubled properties. Together, the owners of 22 Missionwood units owed $1.61 million on their mortgages before they were forced to throw in the towel, giving the development the second-highest foreclosure rate in Broward County. Missionwood comprises 239 homes.

"The unfortunate thing in Broward is that a lot of those foreclosures are real — they're residents," says Condo Vultures founder Peter Zalewski. "Whereas in Miami-Dade there have been many speculators, in Broward, working class folks are losing their primary residences."

Chris Miranda, a 24-year-old redhead who lives in Missionwood with his parents, says his family has been virtually forced to sell their home. His parents purchased the condo in 1985 for $45,500. Today it's appraised by the county at $140,070. They refinanced their mortgage a few years ago, Miranda says; now they owe $193,000, and their monthly mortgage payment has ballooned from $700 to $1,600. So they've put their condo on the market — asking $193,000.

The county's appraisals are typically 15 percent below market value, which means Miranda's parents' condo is probably worth about $165,000. If they somehow got their asking price, they'd be out of debt and homeless. That's their best-case scenario.

In the worst case, they'd end up foreclosed upon. And they'd have company. Seven Missionwood properties, with debts ranging from $58,500 to $194,900, are about to go into foreclosure, according to ForeclosureDeals.com, another South Florida real estate brokerage.

"Most of the people who live in here don't know much about real estate," Miranda says. "They heard that their place was worth $150,000 and said, 'Let's borrow money and go on vacation!' They didn't think about how they'd make the higher mortgage payments on a $20,000 income. Most of our neighbors have jobs, not careers. They get by for now."

When many units in one development are seized for non-payment of loans, they typically sit empty, adding to the burden of the remaining homeowners, who must cover the costs of development-wide maintenance. Even when sale prices are in line with the market, prospective buyers might be scared off by such unpredictable, additional costs.

With so many property owners unable to sell, condo buildings end up in the hands of a lot of amateur landlords. That's the case in Sailboat Pointe, a 376-unit development in Oakland Park that also currently has a high foreclosure rate. Sailboat Pointe was converted from rental apartments to condominiums in 2005, when one- and two-bedroom units sold for $115,000 to $170,000. Investors, not folks intending to make Sailboat Pointe home, bought two of every five units at the time, according to the homeowners association.

It must have seemed like a winning proposition. The property was densely forested, with a sparkling lake. The layouts are airy. But then Hurricane Wilma blew through and exposed Sailboat Pointe for what it really is: a cluster of shoddily built, peach-tinted units in a marginal neighborhood.

The tiled roofs needed to be replaced, but insurance wouldn't cover that; owners had to pay $7,000 apiece in a special assessment. The water pipes were leaking, the fire alarm system was unreliable, the wiring wasn't up to code, and there were termites. Also, it appeared that some tenants were dealing drugs in the complex. Meanwhile, the developers, led by Hialeah-based builder Maurice Cayon, were long gone.

With so many renters, the newly formed condo board couldn't keep tabs on the residents. Owners of several dozen units weren't giving the board information on their tenants for background screening.

No credit? No problem! Extensive criminal record? Welcome to the neighborhood!

"It was disgusting, what the developer did," says Sallye Schwartz, a 53-year-old probation officer and the director of the Sailboat Pointe homeowners association. The units were sold as-is, with no inspections, in one giant flip, she says. "The developer moved in people who didn't qualify," Schwartz contends. "He just had to get 80-percent occupancy, so he pushed people in."

Last year, banks seized 33 units in Sailboat Pointe — 9 percent of the development — with a combined debt of $2.07 million. Perhaps another dozen units are on the brink of foreclosure now. And 43 condos are for sale. Evidence of a hasty eviction — a crusty stove, soggy carpet padding, flimsy furniture — is piled next to pallets with new roof tiles and discarded Christmas trees, a melancholy scene with a lingering scent of pine.

On a recent holiday weekend, nobody was using the pool at Sailboat Pointe. Or the gym. And most of the parking spaces were empty. The gatehouse at the main entrance glowed with outdoor light bulbs, but there was no one inside. An occasional pedestrian wandered in from the street like a trespasser on the set of an episode of Twilight Zone.

Claire Gennaro, a nurse with short, spiky bleached hair, said she'd been renting a one-bedroom unit in Sailboat Pointe for 18 months. Her three-story building was full when she moved in, she said; now, so many tenants have been evicted that the building is half-empty. She says she walks her Springer spaniel around the grounds some nights and doesn't even see a car.

"It gives you a funny feeling that nobody's around."