The Changing Face of South Hillsborough

Meet the Neighbors (Part 2 of 3)

By Mitch Traphagen

APOLLO BEACH - One of the more memorable themes of the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams was, "If you build it, they will come."

At Mira Bay in Apollo Beach, it doesnít even have to be built - they will come anyway.

Early on a sunny, Florida Saturday morning in mid-June people lined up at the welcome center to see - and sign up for - a new line of homes that will soon be built. Known as Paired Villas, the homes are on the low end of Mira Bay pricing - roughly $200,000.

Of course that low end of Mira Bay is well above the median Tampa Bay home price of $132,900. At Mira Bay, however, 200 grand is a bargain. Although no one has yet moved into the development, the average sale has been around $600,000.

The open house was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. "By 7:30 in the morning we had 10 deals done on the porch," said Susie Nolan Marler of Mira Bay.

One man camped out overnight in the welcome centerís parking lot to make sure that he would be first in line.

According to Mira Bay staff members, he is an officer at MacDill and told them he has spent nights in a lot worse places. No one was shooting at him at Mira Bay.

The man was the first one in the door that morning, the first one to sign a contract for one of the new Sea Crest Villas.

For his night in the parking lot, that man literally earned $18,400 in appreciation on his new, as of yet non-existent home.

Not a bad deal for a night in a parking lot.

The first five Sea Crest units started out at $191,500. By the next day, the price for the very same unit was $209,900.

Over the weekend, the Mira Bay plan called for selling between 10 and 15 units. By the second day nearly 30 units had sold. Six million dollars in real estate traded hands in just 48 hours.

Welcome to paradise.

Meet the Neighbors

If all goes according to plan there will be roughly 3,130 new neighbors to meet in South Hillsborough county this year.

Reading the area newspapers, including this one, could give many the idea that south county will soon be overwhelmed with really rich people. In fact when I made appointments with four area real estate firms to research this article I asked each of them who is buying the homes with prices to $2 million. Three of the four brokers instantly responded with "really rich people."

There is no doubt that a high income level is required to buy many of the homes in Mira Bay but that doesnít mean that weíll soon have a bunch of new rich people here.

The truth of the matter is that rich people are already here.

"We donít qualify for enterprise grants and free zones because our economic base is pretty high," said Daniel Kushmer, director of the Ruskin Chamber of Commerce.

What that means is few agencies in the government feel sorry for the community because it is comparatively wealthy.

Rich people, like poor people, like middle income people come here because it is a nice place to live. Mira Bay is just giving wealthier people a new outlet. It is meeting the demand of that segment of the market.

And it is clear that they are buying. "In the planning stage our price range was from $200 to $500 thousand," said John Heagney, public relations director for Mira Bay. "We realized pretty early on that we were going to have million dollar homes in a heartbeat. We already have contracts for 1.5 million dollar homes. Our average contract is around $600,000."

But the 1,700 homes that will be built over the next several years in Mira Bay are not the whole story. It is not just wealthy people moving here - everyone is moving here and every segment of race, financial background, religious belief and age is making south county their home.

"Our buyers are coming from everywhere," said Luanne DeCarbo of Signature Realty in Apollo Beach. "Iím working with a lot of out of state people as well as local people who are investing."

DeCarbo went on to describe what could be a new phenomenon. "Iím finding that a lot of parents are buying houses for their children. Theyíre helping their kids because their kids will never see interest rates this low again."

Interest rates may be low but home prices in south county have risen dramatically over the past few years.

Despite that, however, all of the realtors interviewed for this story feel that compared to the rest of the nation, prices are still very low here. But the price increases have helped some of the local people cash in.

"I think most of the buyers are still working people," said Signatureís Judi Brogden. "Theyíve had a house that has come up so much in value that they are selling and buying up. A house someone bought for $80,000 twenty years ago may now be worth $250,000."

Craig Beggins of Century 21 Beggins Enterprises agrees. "From what Iíve seen, itís mostly local people buying in places like Mira Bay. We are seeing people coming from Brandon, people coming from Tampa."

Mira Bayís Heagney also acknowledges that many buyers are coming from the local market. "We have people coming from all over the place - out of state, one or two from out of the country, but weíre getting a lot of buyers from the Tampa Bay area."

The rich people are already here and they are us.

Of course not everyone is buying in Mira Bay. Kingís Lake and Covington Park between Gibsonton and Apollo Beach are quickly selling new homes priced from around $100,000. New, moderately priced subdivisions are literally flooding down U.S. 301 from Riverview. Many of those homes are selling for below the Tampa Bay median price.

A good number of those buyers arenít retired, they are working couples, often with children.

Hillsborough County has always bucked the trends in Florida. The average age of county residents, around 35 years, is well below the state average age. It is, in fact, almost exactly the average age of the country as a whole. Sun City Center, with an average age around 75, is the only major retirement center in the county.

And even Sun City Center may be getting younger.

"Weíre continuing to see a lot more younger buyers," said Marge Connolly of A-1 Agents in Sun City Center. "We used to see many buyers in their 70s and now weíre getting more people in their 50s and 60s. It does seem to be a younger group of people."

But building the kind of wealth necessary to buy in high end developments takes time. There are few first time home buyers in the $600,000 price range.

So what about the other end of the economic spectrum? Will people of average to lower income soon be priced out of the area?

"People will probably keep coming," said Sister Maureen Smith of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association. "There has been a lot of new housing, supposedly for low income people but I donít think that the rents are that low," she continued. "Perhaps two families will have to live in one unit to afford it."

"Some of the [older, less expensive] housing around here is not really great housing," she said. "But a lot of people take pride in what they have. Itís usually better than what they had before and they will try to keep that little house up. Itís not an elegant mansion like what they have in Mira Bay but itís their home."

Homes for Hillsborough is a nonprofit homebuilder based in Ruskin. For years the organization has been building homes in south county, requiring new home owners to put in 600 hours of sweat equity in the building of their new home and neighborhood. In exchange for their work, home buyers receive a substantial discount from the market value and assistance with the down payment.

The organization is currently building Summerview Oaks, a 72 home development on Big Bend Road and U.S. 301 and is working towards creating a 200 home subdivision in Ruskin.

"Our home owners are the same people who live anywhere," said executive director Earl Pfeiffer. "They have good credit and good jobs and they have pride in their home. They helped to build it."

According to Pfieffer, the new homes planned for Ruskin will have a market value of between $110 and $120 thousand. Because of the sweat equity, they will sell in the upper $80s.

"Our homes will have the same appearance and the same quality as any private sector subdivision," he said.

The migration in south county appears to be part of a larger continuum. Local residents are selling out and buying up, young people from Tampa and all over are buying in. South Hillsborough is becoming a destination.

Craig Beggins likes what he sees on both ends of the spectrum, from Homes for Hillsborough to Mira Bay. He is also confident that everyone will benefit.

"The rising tide raises all ships," he said. "We need diversity in the community and home ownership is the American Dream. Everyone is going to benefit from the same rising tide."

Next Week:

The tide is apparently rising in South Hillsborough and that is fueling rumors about home improvement centers, grocery stores and restaurants coming to the area. Are we destined to become another Brandon? What will happen to your town? Do you even have a town? Find out next week in part three: Itís a Bird, Itís a Plane, Itís a Home Depot!

Observer News Front Page