And home sales in Lee County are picking up, running roughly even with foreclosures.
“Six months ago, you might get one out of 20 houses with a multiple offer,” said Kevin Williamson, a real estate agent who has lived in Lehigh Acres for 22 years. “A couple of weeks ago, I had one with 13 offers.”
But no one here would describe Lehigh Acres as out of the woods. Real estate agents said the homes that are selling here typically go for only about $45,000, a third of what they cost to build. They predict that foreclosures will continue to keep prices low for two more years.
Job growth is also still nonexistent. Randy Burns, 50, the gregarious owner of Lehigh Discount Furniture, says he now receives 15 to 20 calls a week from people asking him to buy their furniture or help them move out of town — and he said he planned to leave, too.
“Until there’s jobs and foreclosures stop,” he said, “nothing’s going to change.”
The Latest Battle
Creating a community in a deepening recession, many here now say, feels harder than dealing with a Category 5 hurricane. Panic is a powerful headwind.
Voters defeated a proposal last year to incorporate Lehigh Acres, partly because residents feared higher taxes. And Team Rescue, for all its strength as a unified front, is still trying to figure out how to curb the spread of desperation.
Most recently the group has been struggling with a growing wave of families that either visit multiple food pantries using aliases or return the food to supermarkets for money or other items.
Ms. Nicely, at Lehigh Community Services, said that in November she started using a magic marker to blacken UPC symbols on cans so grocery stores would not accept them as returns.
“We even had to do that on the toys for Christmas,” Ms. Nicely said. Without such limits, she said, the neediest families might not be served.
Still, she often feels torn, saying, “I can’t be sure I wouldn’t do the same thing if I was a single parent and my kids were hungry.”
“The needs are so strong now,” she added, noting that there were more canned peas than peanut butter on her shelves because of growing demand. “They’ve never been this big before.”
A similar struggle between cohesion and chaos was also evident at a recent evangelical men’s meeting, where 8 of the 15 members said they had been laid off in the last year. Even as the group had helped some of the men cope, others said their families had been broken up by the stress.
And then there is Ms. Chilson. She lost her house partly because of the boom (if not for easy credit, she might not have refinanced her mortgage a few years ago), the bust (which led to her husband being laid off from his pest control job) and overspending (which led to more than $20,000 in credit card debt).
She and her husband had lived in their simple green ranch house for 18 years, and the night they were kicked out, they stayed across the street with an elderly man whom Ms. Chilson had often helped with his medication.
Ms. Chilson put her couch in an old friend’s house, her frozen steaks in another. And as she scrambled to find work and a place to rent, she decided to thank those she could.
At one point, she tried to vacuum a neighbor’s house as an act of appreciation.
But the vacuum stayed quiet. Ms. Chilson discovered that the electricity had been turned off because the bill had not been paid. Any day now, she said, her neighbor will be leaving Lehigh Acres with all the others.