20 December 2010

Age-Restricted developments = sprawl (Hartford Courant)

As predicted ... developers dropping age restrictions to keep sales alive


Struggling 'Active Adult' Developments Drop Age Restrictions
By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, kgosselin@courant.com
The Hartford Courant
December 13, 2010

In the 1990s, towns across Connecticut enthusiastically approved plans to build housing developments restricted to adults 55 and over, attracted by the idea of solid buyers who would pay their taxes and be active in civic affairs but not add children to school systems.

For retirees, it was a chance to stay in the same towns where they had lived for years.

The number of these "active adult" communities in the state mushroomed — now at 200, by one estimate, representing thousands of single-family houses and condominiums. It worked well for many: Developments flourished and sold out.

But as the housing recession deepened, a growing number of the developments were left unfinished. Some developers have fallen into bankruptcy, others are struggling and looking for a way out.

Now, they've found one.

Following a trend that has unfolded in the past year elsewhere in the country, at least three partly completed "active adult" projects in Greater Hartford — two in Ellington and one in Tolland — have won local approval to drop the age restriction.

In Tolland, Belvedere Ridge provides the most striking example of the slowdown: Envisioned as a community of 66 homes, just two have sold since 2006.

Each of the three developers, including a bank that aims to sell the property to a new builder, are hoping the change will spur sales in a still-weak housing market.

While the conversions are likely to ease financial pressures on developers, they have the potential to spark controversy because the homes were specially approved under the condition that they be only for people over 55. So far, there hasn't been any organized opposition to the change, but some people are raising concerns about what the conversions mean for the future of housing for a fast-growing segment of the population.

Colin Milner, founder of the International Council on Active Aging, said a spate of conversions could reduce the backlog of housing for 55 and over — making it tougher for people that age to find housing in the future. It also could push up the prices buyers may have to pay, he said.

"Will older adults have the adequate number of communities that they will need?" asked Milner, who has been consulted by the White House on issues involving aging. "It's still up in the air."

A Jump Start?

Among the three developments in Tolland and Ellington, 243 housing units — a mix of single-family houses and townhouses — were envisioned. So far, just 17 have been sold.

There are early signs, however, that the conversions are likely to jump start stalled projects.

At Windermere Village in Ellington, the developer, who broke ground in early 2008, went 18 months without a single offer. At most there might be three people a week coming to take peek at a development, where eight units have been sold out of 123 that were planned.

"I felt like I was one of those stores in New York and people were just window shopping," said William H. Coons Jr., the project's developer.

Since the age restriction was dropped, as of Sept. 1, two buyers — a couple in their 40s and one in their 20s with a young child — have placed deposits on single-family houses, Coons said.

Coons and other developers say the nature of the developments, while now allowing children, won't change radically because the homes remain modest, typically under 2,500 square feet with 2 or 3 bedrooms and small yards.Nevertheless, the conversions are ruffling some neighbors who thought the developments would remain age-restricted.

When Christine Lacas and her husband built a new home in Tolland in 2007, she was told the nearby Belvedere Ridge was 55 and over. She was relieved to know there would be no children because there was a wooded area on her property with a stream that she can't easily see from her house.

"We were told this was age restricted and we expected it to remain that way," Lacas said. "I don't want my backyard to be a recreation area for kids in the upper part of that development."

'Everything Just Stopped'

When Estelle Williamson moved into Center Village in Ellington with her husband, John, three years ago, she was the second resident of the 55-and-older community. Then another single-family house went up and then another.

"We thought, 'This place is really starting to build up,'" Williamson said. "Then, it stopped. Everything just stopped."

The lawn of Williamson's Cape Cod-style house is well-maintained, and her home is decorated for the holidays with lights and festive globes of evergreen hanging in the front porch. But all around her are vacant fields.

She fetches a three-ring binder from a closet and opens it on her dining room table. She points to a map showing the 49 houses and a couple of duplexes that were supposed to be constructed. So far, just five houses and a duplex have been sold.

In 2009, Rockville Bank took over the property in a foreclosure from the original developer. The bank said opening the development to a larger segment of buyers made sense in a weak housing market. The bank says it is now in advanced negotiations with possible new owners and could reach an agreement early next year.

Williamson, whose husband died earlier this year, said she and her neighbors didn't oppose the conversion. She says she raised a large family, and doesn't mind that there might be children in the development. What is more important, she said, is getting the development moving again.

The roads in Center Village haven't been accepted by the town. The handful of homeowners have to share costs that should have been spread out among more property owners. Street lighting still needs to be installed.

"It's very dark around here at night," Williamson said. "I would like to see it finished."

Williamson, who paid $350,000 for her home in 2007, knows the house has lost value. A stalled development doesn't attract buyers and lenders are reluctant to finance purchases under such conditions.

The New Normal

The flow of buyers to 55 and over communities slowed to trickle in 2008, as home sales weakened dramatically and property values took a hit.

"It is difficult to sell today, and therefore moves to retirement communities have slowed down," said Susan M. Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. "Potential retirees whose homes are 'underwater,' with mortgages greater than home values make it difficult to sell."

Retirement savings also have been eroded in the financial services meltdown in recent years, forcing some to work longer than expected.

"Staying in place is the new normal," Wachter said.

Wachter said the move to convert to 55-and-over communities could gain momentum, especially if the recovery of the housing market is slow.

Towns in Connecticut didn't quickly embrace the change. In Ellington, town zoning officials initially rebuffed efforts to drop the age restriction, preferring to let the market work itself out, according to town planner Rob Phillips.

But as Center Village's developer fell into bankruptcy and owners there and in Windermere Village lined up to support the change, zoning officials softened their stance. The modest size of the homes, many of them with two bedrooms, are not conducive to raising large families — so the change wouldn't significantly alter what made the 55 and over restriction attractive to start with, Phillips said.

In addition, at Windermere Village, the developer agreed to set aside 20 percent of the units for "workforce" housing to be priced at $250,000.

Knocking on the Door

Not everyone is willing to pull back from the 55 and over market, however.

In Berlin, a developer backed by a group of private investors purchased the Beckley Farms development in August from Webster Bank, which had foreclosed on the project.

The $50 million development is expected to have 156 units in all, including 54 townhouses, to be built in five phases. The project has 22 single-family houses that were built and sold before the previous developer ran into trouble. There also are eight houses that were up and sided, but not finished on the inside.

Jeff Respler, the project's managing partner, said the new owners already have invested $500,000 in improvements. He said the community's feels like it is out in the country, but is still close to shopping and restaurants on the Berlin Turnpike.

"We had people coming knocking on the front door of our sales office, asking for more information," Respler said. "There's definitely a market out there."

But in Tolland, developer Lenard Thylan of New York-based Tomlen LLC said he is looking for a fresh start at Belvedere Ridge. The development also has a new name: Somerset Woods.

Thylan said he believes that the "active adult" market has suffered from overbuilding — and that the niche of the age restriction just shut out too many potential buyers.

"The change is very simple," Thylan said. "Real estate is predicated on market concerns. The market needed to be expanded. It made more sense, if we had the ability to sell to everyone."

Copyright © 2010, The Hartford Courant

06 November 2010

15 October 2010

Letter from a reader; My response

Dear Andrew:

I read your book, "Leisureville" twice, as we are considering moving there. There are a couple misconceptions that I would like to clear up. First of all, when I was your age, I also thought active retirement communities were ridiculous and my grown children actually remember me saying that. I am not against children. I do not mind having children around, and I would never consider moving if my children didn't relocate after they graduated from college and we are moving simply to live closer to them. If we move into a development, most of the families would be young and their conversations would be about PTA and such. I always had a problem with getting old, and although I love children (I was a teacher!), I feel older when I'm the oldest person in the neighborhood. In the Villages, or anywhere else for 55+ residents, I wouldn't feel so old, since I would be among my peers. Again, your book insinuated that we are moving away from our children. My son relocated from NJ to Florida, and our primary reason for moving is to be near him and after he's married, to be near our grandchildren. Since we have to move to be closer to him, it just makes sense to live someplace that has activities, so my husband doesn't watch TV all day. By being active, it keeps you young. Watching TV, or other inactive activity just makes you old much too quickly. Believe me, I have seen this with our parents.

I read your book because until recently, we didn't consider an active community, and Leisureville happens to be about the area we plan on moving to. My husband and I are very happily married for 34 years. Are the activities that go on in Katie Belle's really as bad as the book implies? I don't want to live in an atmosphere like that. Yet, my husband and I like to go out to dinner. We don't want to deal with people like Mr. Midnight. In general, is it like any other place, or is it a place for perverted old people?

Have you done any follow-ups to Leisureville? I'd definitely read them if you did.

Thank you for your time.

(kept anonymous by me to protect privacy of reader)


My Response:

Dear X,

My point in the book is that these communities are not "bad" per se, but rather that they are a symptom of a societal / generational breakdown. Lean times are ahead and I don't think segregation (voluntary or otherwise) is going to lend itself to cooperative sharing when the pie continues to shrink. Regardless, I suspect you'll rather enjoy life in The Villages. Most people there adore it. It is not a "perverted" place in any way, so there's nothing to fear in that way. And as judgmental as you sound about Mr. Midnight, he's actually a very decent guy, not some sort of ass-pincher. He's well liked and for good reason.

Keep in mind that The Villages is extremely conservative Republican for the most part; not particularly intellectual; there is very little diversity -- conformity is the rule, not the exception; there are lots of rules; and one family "governs" the place and they don't like dissent. And while the place itself is a playground paradise for active seniors, it's surrounded by sprawl and rural Floridians with a very different culture. If none of that is a problem, then I suspect you'll like it there very much. It's huge and there's lots to do. People make friends very quickly. But you won't hear from those who don't like it -- they've already left. Also keep in mind that parents who move to be near their children in today's world are often disappointed because their children often move again for jobs when necessary. Like I said, I don't see these communities as "the problem"; merely a symptom.

Best wishes,


11 October 2010

Another planned 55+ community evaporates

Reinventing our suburbs -- WSJ

How SoHo Can Save the Suburbs
Smart 'edge cities' are turning their shuttered malls and aging office parks into hip hotspots

In Lakewood, Colo., a long-shuttered mall is being rebuilt into a 22-block area with parks, bus lines, stores and 1,300 new households. Tysons Corner, Va., is undergoing a full transformation from an office park to a walkable, livable community. And officials in Ferndale, Mich., are promoting the arts scene and building affordable housing in an attempt to revitalize the small city outside Detroit. Remaking America's sprawling suburbs, with their enormous footprints, shoddy construction, hastily built infrastructure and dying malls, is shaping up to be the biggest urban revitalization challenge of modern times—far larger in scale, scope and cost than the revitalization of our inner cities.

Just a couple of decades ago, the suburbs were the very image of the American Dream, with their sprawling, large-lot homes and expansive lawns. Suburban malls, industrial parks and office campuses accounted for a growing percentage of the nation's economic output. Planners talked about "edge cities"—satellite centers where people could live, work and shop without ever having to set foot in major cities.

With millions of American homes now "underwater" or in foreclosure, the suburbs and exurbs have taken some of the most visible hits from the great recession. In a stunning reversal, big cities like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco have become talent magnets, drawing ambitious people, empty-nesters, young families and even a growing number of offices back to their downtown cores. As inner-city neighborhoods gentrify, blight and intransigent poverty are moving out to the suburbs. A Brookings Institution study released this week found that the number of poor people in the suburbs has grown by 37.4% since 2000, compared with 16.7% in cities.

The suburbs that have continued to prosper during the downturn share many attributes with the best urban neighborhoods: walkability, vibrant street life, density and diversity. The clustering of people and firms is a basic engine of modern economic life. When interesting people encounter each other, they spark new ideas and accelerate the formation of new enterprises. Renewing the suburbs will require retrofitting them for these new ways of living and working.

Even before the recession, our changing demography had begun to alter the texture of suburban life in favor of denser, more walkable mixed-use communities. The average age of marriage has been rising, households have gotten smaller, and home-buyers—surprising numbers of them single women—are looking for smaller houses closer in, with access to parks and cultural amenities.

Though most suburbanites are happy with where they live, many are unhappy with how much time they have to spend in their cars. A 2002 study found that more than half of Americans would prefer to walk more and drive less. Commuting by car is time-consuming and expensive, and according to research by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, it is also one of life's least enjoyable activities. Most suburbanites don't want to move to the city; they want the best aspects of city life to come to them.

Walkable suburbs are some of America's best places to live, and they provide their sprawling, spread-out siblings with a model for renewal. Relatively dense commercial districts, with shops, restaurants and movie theaters, as well as a wide variety of housing types, have always been a feature of the older suburbs that grew up along the streetcar lines of big metro areas. A 2007 study by Christopher Leinberger found more than 150 walkable towns in America's 30 largest metro regions—places like Hoboken, Montclair and Princeton, N.J.; Stamford and Greenwich, Conn.; Brookline, Mass.; Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and Royal Oak and Birmingham, Mich. Newer versions of walkable suburbs can be found in regions that developed later, like Palo Alto, Calif.; Boulder, Colo.; Coral Gables, Fla.; Decatur, Ga.; and Clayton, Mo.

These are the places where Americans are clamoring to live and where housing prices have held up even in the face of one of the greatest real-estate collapses in modern memory. More than that, as my colleague Charlotta Mellander and I found when we looked into the statistics, the U.S. metro areas with walkable suburbs have greater economic output and higher incomes, more highly educated people, and more high-tech industries, to say nothing of higher levels of happiness.

Walk This Way

The most successful walkable suburbs in the U.S., ranked by education levels, per capita income and travel time to work.

1. Bethesda, Md.

2. Princeton Township, N.J.

3. Highland Park, Texas

4. Evanston, Ill.

5. Birmingham, Mich.

6. Coral Gables, Fla.

7. Winter Park, Fla.

8. Menlo Park, Calif.

9. Lake Forest, Ill.

10. Kirkland, Wash.

Sources: Martin Prosperity Institute, Christopher Leinberger, U.S. Census Bureau

Of course, not all of America's suburbs have the option of developing compact cores along streetcar lines or transit, and not all are filled with wonderful old housing stock that is ripe for upgrading. Many are relatively characterless places, with spread-out working class populations living in cookie-cutter houses on large lots and commuting long distances to work. These suburbs have to rebuild from the bottom up.

Languishing older malls are a good place to start. In Phoenix, three abandoned strip malls clustered around one corner have been converted into a restaurant, an upscale grocery, a chic bakery and a cocktail bar. It's called La Grande Orange, and it has become a huge attraction, for both customers and local home-buyers. National Harbor, a mix of hotels, residential units, marinas, parks, stores and indoor and outdoor entertainment venues, is being built on the footings of two previous failed projects in Prince George's County, Md. When completed, it will extend along a mile and a quarter of the Potomac. Outside Minneapolis, the parking lot that surrounded a dead shopping center built on landfill was turned back into wetlands—which in turn attracted new "lakefront" townhome development.

Perhaps the biggest retrofit of all is happening in Tysons Corner, Va., the virtual archetype of an auto-dependent, sprawling edge city. Located near the junctions of three major highways, it boasts 25 million square feet of office space and four million square feet of retail space. Decades ago developers hailed it as the wave of the future—one of hundreds of new satellite centers that would render our old downtown commercial centers obsolete. But Tysons Corner has lately been losing out. Its perpetual traffic gridlock and its lack of human energy have caused home-buyers to choose other places. Some companies that were headquartered there have even moved back into the District of Columbia.

Now developers and landowners are seeking to make it more walkable, with a more integrated mix of uses. In June, the county's Board of Supervisors adopted a comprehensive plan that would transform Tysons Corner into a "24-hour urban center where people live, work and play." Its hallmarks will be green construction, access to public transportation and abundant public amenities, like parks and bicycle trails—something that sounds very much like a real city.

There are countless other opportunities for reclamation, all across America, as Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson document in their 2008 book, "Retrofitting Suburbia." Under-used golf courses can be transformed into parks and nature sanctuaries; abandoned car dealerships can be landscaped and developed as new, mixed-use neighborhoods. Developers can cut streets through formerly walled-off corporate campuses and add restaurants, stores and public spaces.

Historically, America's economic growth has hinged on its ability to create new development patterns—economic landscapes that simultaneously expand space and intensify our use of it. The rebound after the panic and long depression of 1873 was based on the transition to an urban-industrial economy organized around great cities and their early streetcar suburbs. Our recovery from the Great Depression saw the rise of massive metropolitan complexes of cities and suburbs. Today the challenge is to remake our suburbs, to turn them into more vibrant, livable, people-friendly communities and, in doing so, to make them engines of innovation and productivity.

—Richard Florida is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the author of "The Rise of the Creative Class" and "The Great Reset."
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

06 September 2010

The American Spectator takes on age-segregation

The American Spectator
THE NATION'S PULSE: Active Adult Communities and the 'Grace of Chaos'
By James M. Thunder

On August 10, Colin Mason of the Population Research Institute wrote the essay "Are Children the Enemy of Productivity?" He quoted Frank Cottrell Boyce's article in the Guardian:

There's a belief that to do great work you need tranquility and control, that the pram is cluttering up the hallway; life needs to be neat and tidy. This isn't the case. Tranquility and control provide the best conditions for completing the work you imagined. But surely the real trick is to produce the work that you never imagined. The great creative moments in our history are almost all stories of distraction and daydreaming -- Archimedes in the bath, Einstein dreaming of riding a sunbeam -- of alert minds open to the grace of chaos.

Mason agrees with Boyce that children do not distract us from productivity, but he added that he believes they actually enhance our productivity and enhance our lives generally. Children, he writes, "remind us that the greatest insights in the world were discovered not while ponderously meditating, but while delighting in the simple pleasures and pains of life."

Boyce's and Mason's words reminded me of when I was 42. My wife and I and our daughters, ages 16 to 5, moved to a suburb outside Milwaukee. Our next-door neighbors were a retired veterinarian, Dr. Frank Gentile, and his wife, Irene, both about 80. As it turned out, they knew my sister and her family who lived in the next suburb.

We moved away a few years later. And Frank and Irene moved into an assisted living home and passed on.

But my family does not forget them. I have memories of snowblowing their driveway and sidewalk and watching election returns with them. My daughters recall with great fondness their invitations to eat cookies with them after school in their kitchen. One of my daughters and I and Frank sang in the same church choir.

During these same years, we became family to my sister's widowed father-in-law, Jack Schlosser, who was in his 80s and lived nearby. He came to many events of both my sister's family and my family. And one of his grandchildren lived behind us.

In this past year, I've known a couple of people who have moved into active adult communities. Active adult communities are planned, often gated, residential areas for people ages 55 and up, without children under the age of 18. Our three elderly friends outside Milwaukee could have moved to one of them. If they had, all three of our generations (elderly, middle-aged and children) would have been deprived of fruitful, loving relationships.

The number of active adult communities continues to grow in our country. Why?

Residents are repelled by certain aspects of urban or suburban life: the noises of children and of teenagers, crime, and high property taxes that supported schools. And they are attracted by amenities -- bike and walking paths, golf courses, clubhouses, swimming pools, tennis courts, a full plate of indoor recreational activities. While these same amenities are typically available in urban and suburban communities, active adult communities provide them together and close at hand.

I submit that active adult communities are inimical to a rich human life. While still active, while still mobile, while still employed, the residents have purposefully disengaged from their elders, from teenagers, from children -- except on the specific dates and time and places they select. On the spectrum of what should be regarded as examples of faith-based land use planning and what should not, active adult communities fall on the extreme of "not."

When I was in college, I would return home of course. In church, it would feel quite odd to be among young children, teenagers, middle-aged people and the elderly. At first I was happy to return to campus and be with my same-age peers. Later, it was the campus rather than the church that seemed odd. I started calling college campuses "youth reservations." But at least college campuses have redeeming value. They are devoted to the development of the intellect and the transmission of knowledge. They are populated by people intending to remain no more than four years and then go out and change the world. Residents of active adult communities, on the other hand, could remain 20-plus years, and to what good purpose are they devoted?

There may be value in being a "gun-free" or "tobacco-free" or "drug-free" zone, but where is the value in having grown-ups post "child-free" signs? Where is the value in having them post signs declaring "under-age-55-free zones"?

I submit that the groomed and tranquil landscapes of active adult communities are a blight on our larger communities and our nation.

In utter contrast to this blight is the recent development of one-room portable modules that house elderly persons. They will be placed temporarily on the lot of a caregiver's permanent home. The Commonwealth of Virginia recently passed legislation allowing such siting to supersede local zoning laws. The juxtaposition of permanent and temporary housing structures may not be aesthetically pleasing but, in similar fashion, school districts around the country have sited temporary classrooms next to school buildings for the sake our schoolchildren. Hopefully, these modules for the care of our frail elderly will blossom across the landscape. Virginians have welcomed "the grace of chaos."

James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. lawyer who has spoken and published on what he calls "faith-based land use planning."

05 September 2010

The Villages' big IRS problem (pt. 2)

IRS-Villages dispute shows no sign of resolution

Lauren Ritchie
September 1, 2010
Second of two parts.

In May, the Internal Revenue Service agent conducting the review of $355.4 million in outstanding bonds issued by the Village Center and the Sumter Landing community development districts suggested a settlement in the ongoing war between the two.

The district should redeem all its bonds and repay the debt. It should pony up $16 million in back taxes on the bonds and should agree never to issue tax-free bonds again.

The settlement suggested by the agent wasn't received with dancing in the streets. Though there is no written rejection in the files at the district office, the answer that filtered back to the IRS was quite clear.

And it touched off a new set of skirmishes in what has become an expensive battle — already $209,000 spent in mostly lawyer fees — that I described in Sunday's column.

IRS Agent Dominick Servadio responded to the district's disdain for his idea in July by officially opening new investigations on another $60 million worth of bonds issued by the Sumter Landing Community Development District.

Complaints about agent

The district retaliated by calling Servadio's boss and complaining.

On July 20, he fired back in a letter: "All of the complaints/issues you have raised are totally without merit, and I would only hope that in the future you would have the courtesy to direct any similar comments or complaints to me instead of going behind my back.

"I can only assume that the intent of these recent phone calls is to distract attention away from the examination issues, or possibly to indirectly intimidate me or impede me in the performance of my officials duties.

"I can assure you that you will accomplish none of those things."

He stated that "everyone's best interest" would be served if the district honored his request to deal directly with him and quit calling his bosses.

The district's next move was to file a Freedom of Information Act demand, wanting to know with what third parties (especially the evil media) Servadio had discussed the case. That's because the district seemed convinced from the beginning that this is all about a conspiratorial smear campaign by Villages haters or else a career-building maneuver by the agent. (That's standard response to criticism in The Villages. Anyone who questions the financial structure is either jealous or has a secret agenda to destroy the happiness of 80,000 lucky people. It couldn't be anything else.)

The IRS just laughed and said no. It wasn't releasing any documents from an ongoing review to determine whether nearly a half billion dollars in bonds should be considered tax-free.

Outcome of dispute unclear

Since then, Servadio has been promoted. A field agent in Charlotte, N.C., was assigned the case, and in March she asked for hundreds of pages of information about how the districts function and what they own.

The agent wants evidence of the written consent for establishing the districts from all the landowners whose property is included in the district, a legal description of the external boundaries of the district and a land-use plan showing what is intended for the property in the future.

Meanwhile, an IRS appraiser from Palm Beach County came tocalculate the value of what the district bought from the developer with the bond money. Part of the dispute involves the IRS contention is that the developer made as much as 700 percent profit, which Servadio said would never have happened if the developer hadn't controlled the district.

So, there you have it. Nobody's position has changed much, and the dispute is just humming along through the system.

Millions of dollars are still at stake, and the future for homeowners in The Villages is no more clear when this investigation started several years ago.

Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

Update on The Villages big IRS problems (pt. 1)

IRS relentless in probe of Villages bond transactions

Lauren Ritchie
August 29, 2010
First of two parts.

A year has passed since the Internal Revenue Service suggested that The Villages retirement community redeem more than $344 million in bonds the IRS says were improperly issued as tax-free.

The agency wanted $16 million in back taxes and a promise by community development districts never again to masquerade as a legitimate government.

The Villages thumbed its proverbial nose at such a notion, and then it was on.

What's happened in the interim may be entertaining for those of us watching from the outside but probably isn't amusing for 80,000 residents of the community that sprawls over Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.

It's got to be unsettling and frightening to wonder what's in store. Not to mention expensive. The district already has spent more than $209,000 of residents' money so far, nearly all on high-powered lawyers on both coasts.

Here's a refresher on the situation:

As The Villages was built, its developer Gary Morse created a form of government called community development districts, the same type scrutinized in this column last week.

Some 294 of these Florida districts have issued bonds, and 42 percent of them are in trouble. Either the districts cannot collect enough assessments to pay for the bonds or the reserve accounts have been raided to make the payments, or the developers behind the communities have gone bankrupt, leaving unsold lots and unpaid assessments.

Villagers can take a deep breath on those fronts. Morse and his family are extremely well capitalized — fabulously wealthy is probably a better description — and because homes in The Villages continue to sell, default on the bonds is an extremely remote possibility.

'Blue-sky' transactions

In the Villages, two main community development districts have sold bonds to buy the infrastructure and recreational facilities — things like lights, roads, sewer and water plants, clubhouses, golf courses, gatehouses and more — from the developer.

That's the way it worked, too, in the other Florida districts that have issued bonds. However, The Villages bond deals differ in two key ways — and that has brought them a load of continuing trouble from the IRS, which contends that the developer perverted law to make himself rich at the expense of retirees who buy homes there.

First, the seats on the district governing boards in other developments typically are turned over to the residents as buyers purchase lots and move in. Not so in The Villages, where the districts selling the bonds in question are controlled by the developer and deliberately are set up so he can keep them out of the hands of residents for as long as he wants.

Second, these districts — remember that they're controlled by the developer — are using part of the bond money to buy "blue sky" from the developer. In this case, it is simply the right to collect assessment fees from residents. The developer gets all the fees in his bank account now instead of having to wait for them to dribble in over 30 years. Lucky residents get to repay the bond through fees — with interest — for 30 years to come.

What a beautifully magnificent source of unfettered, risk-free cash for the developer. The other districts in Florida buy things they can touch, such as water plants. "Blue-sky" transactions haven't been included in their bond deals.

Community development districts that buy infrastructure from developers are a rip-off to the consumer, never mind The Villages' "blue sky" purchases, which are just a secondary piece of legal thievery.

In subdivisions without districts that issue bonds, buyers pay for the infrastructure in the price of the house. In those with districts, they do, too. But in addition, they pay a second time for that infrastructure — with interest — as they pay off the bonds, which often add an extra $20,000 to the price of a house.

Three-year probe

All of this caused the IRS to start looking into the district's bonds three years ago and asking questions about who the district really is and who it benefits. It came to the conclusion that a developer-controlled district benefits only the developer and should not be viewed as a real government with the privilege of the ability to sell tax-free bonds.

The district has contended that it is, indeed, a legitimate government under Florida law and as such, should be recognized as such by the IRS.

Oh, my. What a mess.

Now that you are up to speed on the background, we'll take a look Wednesday at the latest moves on both sides and what they might mean for the average homeowner.

Copyright © 2010, Orlando Sentinel

03 September 2010

Kids as Contraband -- Sun City Leads the Way!

Article in the NYTs that discusses the phenomenon investigated in Leisureville -- special enforcement details designed to hunt down families and kick them out of age-segregated communities.


August 28, 2010
Retirement Haven Hunts Youthful Violators

SUN CITY, Ariz. — From behind the wheel of his minivan, Bill Szentmiklosi scours the streets of Sun City in search of zoning violations like unkempt yards and illegal storage sheds. Mostly, though, he is on the lookout for that most egregious of all infractions: children.

With a clipboard of alleged violations to investigate, he peers over fences and ambles into backyards of one of America’s pioneer retirement communities, a haven set aside exclusively for adults, where children are allowed to visit but not live.

Mr. Szentmiklosi, 60, a retired police officer who settled here four years ago, has remade himself as the chief of Sun City’s age police, the unit charged with ensuring that this age-restricted community of sexagenarians, septuagenarians and even older people does not become a refuge for the pacifier-sucking, ball-playing or pimple-faced.

One recent morning, as he slowly wheeled between ranch homes and palm trees, Mr. Szentmiklosi kept a sharp eye on the driveways and yards, surveying for any obvious signs of youth. It could be a stray ball, a misplaced pint-size flip-flop. In sniffing out children, he said, he relies on his three decades as an officer.

But it is when he strides up to a home, dressed in shorts, sandals and a polo shirt, and knocks on the door that his detective work really begins. He tells the suspected violator that a neighbor has complained and he asks gentle questions to get to the bottom of things, all the while peering around for signs of youthful activity. His work is helped by a simple reality: children are hard to hide.

They leave tracks and make unique sounds. Newborns bellow, toddlers shriek and teenagers play music that is not typical around Sun City.

Mr. Szentmiklosi and his fellow child-hunters have their work cut out for them. The number of age violations in Sun City, a town of more than 40,000 residents outside Phoenix, has been rising markedly over the years, from 33 in 2007 to 121 in 2008 to 331 last year, a reflection of a trend at many of the hundreds of age-restricted communities nationwide.

This year’s figures are expected to be even higher, said Mr. Szentmiklosi, who knows that despite his patrols Sun City is probably harboring more children that have not yet been detected. The economic crisis is aggravating the problem, he said, forcing families to take desperate measures to cut costs, even if it means surreptitiously moving into Grandma and Grandpa’s retirement bungalow.

The vigorous search for violators of Sun City’s age rules is about more than keeping loud, boisterous, graffiti-scrawling rug rats from spoiling residents’ golden years, although that is part of it. If Sun City does not police its population, it could lose its special status and be forced to open the floodgates to those years away from their first gray hair.

The end result would be the introduction of schools to Sun City, then higher taxes and, finally, an end to the Sun City that has drawn retirees here for the last half-century.

At 50, Sun City is not old by the standards of Sun City, where the average resident is in his or her early 70s.

To remain a restricted retirement community, at least 80 percent of Sun City’s housing units must have at least one occupant who is 55 or older, allowing for younger spouses or adult children. But the rules are clear on one thing: no one, absolutely no one, who is a teenager, an adolescent, a toddler, a newborn, any form of child, may call Sun City home.

“Visits are O.K. as long as they’re limited,” said Mr. Szentmiklosi, who describes himself as a doting grandfather and insists that he does not have an anti-child bone in his body. “You can have children visit for 90 days per year. That means if you have 10 grandchildren, each one can visit, but they can only stay nine days each.”

Mr. Szentmiklosi, the compliance manager for the Sun City Homeowners Association, said that although the city was scrupulous, it remained compassionate. For instance, it allowed a young woman with an infant who was renting a home without the association’s knowledge a year to move out.

But the association also plays hardball, issuing fines and threatening legal action to pressure youthful violators to leave. One reason Sun City is so vigorous is because of what happened on the other side of 111th Avenue, one of the main roads traversing the neighborhood.

Although Del Webb, who developed Sun City in 1960, gets credit for inventing the idea of a community of active retirees, the concept actually started years before on an adjacent tract in what was called Youngtown. But the developers there were not diligent in drawing up their legal paperwork. A challenge by the family of a teenage boy led the state to strip Youngtown of its age restrictions in 1998.

So on one side of the road, little people can be seen running around. On the other side, many people remember the Great Depression, and not from reading about it in a book.

“It was so much quieter before,” said Librado Martinez, 80, a retired machine operator who lives on the Youngtown side of the line and has to put up with children playing ball in the park in front of his house. “You heard no screams before.”

That peace is what Sun City residents want to keep. They rose up last month to block a charter school, which is not governed by the same rules as other public schools, from moving in.

“They were concerned about children roaming the streets and terrorizing things,” said Marsha Mandurraga, who works for the school’s founder.

To prevent future incursions, Sun City’s leaders are using their clout to urge state legislators to change the law to keep Sun City school-free.

“I’ve raised kids,” said Chris Merlav, 61, breathing through an oxygen tank and resting on the side of a Sun City pool designed for walking, not swimming. “After a while you get to the point where you don’t want to be bothered anymore.”

Mr. Merlav, who moved here from Rochester, had evidence at hand that he was not anti-child. His 20-year-old stepdaughter, Danielle Anastasia, was lounging in the pool with him. She understood the desire of Sun City residents to be with people their own age. “It’s like me hanging with my college friends,” she said.

Some of Sun City’s more hard-line anti-child activists can sound as though they somehow bypassed youth completely.

“There are people here who have never had children, don’t care for children and don’t particularly want children around,” said Jan Ek, who runs Sun City’s seven recreation centers, eight golf courses, two bowling centers and assorted other entertainment venues, some of which sometimes open up for child visitors.

At Sun City’s museum, the resident historian, Bill Pearson, 62, played a videotape used to lure retirees to the development in the 1960s.

The narrator said then what many residents still say now: “Of course we love them and enjoy their visits, but you deserve a little rest after raising your own.”

30 August 2010

Unrelated but interesting Op-Ed I've written for the LA Times


latimes.com; August 30, 2010

Raising a child to be Jewish and German

Germany has made remarkable efforts to face up to its horrific Nazi past, but the reminders make it a complicated place to be a Jew.

By Andrew D. Blechman

One recent warm afternoon, I buried a miniature treasure chest filled with shiny "gold" coins and smooth "gemstones" for my young daughter to find in the sands along the Rhine at our favorite picnic spot.

When I called her over and showed her the cartoon-perfect image of the chest's edge poking out of the sand, her face lighted up in excitement. After minutes of furious digging, she pulled the chest to the surface and exclaimed in German, "Papa! Piraten Schatz!" ("Pirate treasure!"), followed by a more conspiratorial, "Shhh, nicht verraten!" ("Don't tell anyone!")

It was one of those unforgettable moments, and something of a salve for the last shiny object my daughter had found just weeks earlier. It was a bronze-plated cobblestone on the sidewalk outside an apartment house in our Duesseldorf neighborhood. When she was a 2-year-old in a stroller, explaining its significance to her was easy — it was simply a shiny object, and she enjoyed spotting them all around the city. But now she's 5, and things have started to become more complicated, especially when she points to the lettering etched onto the metal. I finally told her the truth: The cobblestones commemorate the Jews who once lived in these buildings.

"We're Jews, right, Papa?"

"Yes, sweetheart, we are."

"What happened to those people?"

"They were killed."

"That's bad, Papa! By who?"

"By Nazis, honey."

"What are Nazis?"

"They were bad Germans."

"I'm German, aren't I, Papa?"

"Yes, German and American. The best of both."

This year, Germany marked the 65th anniversary of the end of the war and the liberation of its many former concentration camps with a series of appropriately grim state ceremonies. But while the horror of Germany's Nazi past has few if any precedents in human history, the country's attempts to publicly confront its past are similarly unrivaled. Unlike so many other nations, Germany delivers its apologies readily. Memorials, monuments and museums are scattered across the country, and Berlin is so chock-full of them that they've become the city's de facto tourist attractions.

By comparison, Russia has only just acknowledged the Katyn massacre, the United States apologized for slavery about a year ago, and we still haven't fully acknowledged our mistreatment of Native Americans. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to deny the Armenian holocaust, and Japan refutes its use of wartime sexual slavery.

That said, it remains an unusual experience to live as a Jew in a nation that systematically murdered 1.5 million Jewish children, among millions of others. My way of dealing with it has been to examine Duesseldorf's own topography of terror. There's little sign of Judaism left. One thousand years of vibrant Ashkenazi life in the Rhineland has seemingly disappeared into the ashes of Auschwitz and other death camps in the epochal equivalent of an eye blink. But I've learned that a beloved city park was built partly with Jewish slave labor, and that the old freight yard near my daughter's kindergarten was used to ship Jews to the ghettos and concentration camps in Poland and beyond. They were processed there —1,000 at a time — in front of their former neighbors, then forced to sleep in the city's (decidedly unkosher) slaughterhouse before being marched several kilometers in broad daylight with heavy luggage to waiting trains, for which they were forced to purchase "tickets."

On the other side of town are the remnants of the old Jewish cemetery. The graves start out in Hebrew and then switch to mostly German as the population assimilated. During the 1920s, the tombstones were costly Bauhaus-inspired slabs; a few years later they grow smaller, more makeshift, and eventually crumble from the neglect of a nearly extinct community. The community's once-stately synagogue in the center of town was so solidly built that it survived the fires of Kristallnacht. It was later dismantled brick by brick, with the congregation invoiced for the destruction.

The new synagogue is in my small neighborhood. It's protected by concrete barriers, remote cameras, a bulletproof entrance and free 24-hour police protection. It nonetheless remains an attractive site, although I find little solace inside. As is typical in Germany, it's an Orthodox congregation of mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe. I'm not religious, and I'm one of the few there who speak English. Aside from tribal affiliation, I'm not sure what else we have in common. Without the help of my small Reform congregation back home in the U.S., I feel it's left to me to teach my daughter about Judaism. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that I'm doing a journeyman's job of it at best.

Then there's my daughter's other heritage. She comes from a family of resisters, smugglers and ultimately orphans, but as with so many German family trees, there's at least one really bad apple whose actions may have contributed to the need for commemorative cobblestones.

These are issues that I will no doubt need to address as she grows older. But for now, she has bigger concerns. She's learning two languages, struggling to balance her little pink bike without training wheels and excitedly contemplating where to hide her pirate's bounty.

Andrew D. Blechman is the author of "Leisureville: Adventures in a World Without Children" and "Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of a Revered and Reviled Bird."

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

26 August 2010

Housing bust leads to desegregation of 55+ communities (as predicted in Leisureville)

An article from the Boston Globe about developers needing to open up unsold 55+ communities to families -- exactly as predicted in my book.

27 June 2010

STDs and Active Adults

Older Sexually Active Adult "Swingers" May Serve as a Reservoir for STDs

By Barbara Lock, MD
June 24, 2010
The man was clearly intoxicated; he said he had come to town looking for some action, had used some cocaine, alcohol and marijuana, and had a wild party that included sex with people he didn't know. Pretty wild, I thought, especially for someone who was 72 years old.

Yes, the swinger coming to me to be evaluated for exposure to sexually transmitted diseases was 72 years old. I wondered if it was him who needed protection from the careless sexual practices of others, or if they needed protection against him. Protection probably would have been a good idea all around.

That's what I told him, use barrier protection, or condoms, to prevent disease instead of coming to the Emergency Department afterwards.

A few days later, another man came in, this one in his early 40s, asking to be tested and treated for gonorrhea and chlamydia. As he left, he asked how soon he could have sex again. I told him tonight, if he used a condom. He sort of smirked and said, no really, how soon? And I said, no really, use a condom.

Dutch researchers have revealed that the average age of "swingers" in the STD clinics is 43. That means that half of these sexually promiscuous adventurers were older than 43. Swingers, defined as people with sexual networks of concurrent partners and high rate of unprotected sex, were more likely to carry chlamydia and gonorrhea than female prostitutes. Swingers may be thought of as potentially serving as a reservoir for sexually transmitted disease in the community. Not a very sexy distinction, I think.

31 May 2010

Gay active adult communities growing in popularity -- as predicted in Leisureville

We’re Here. We’re Queer. We’re Retiring.
As America’s gay population ages, LGBT seniors are opting to retire among their own.
by Linda SternMay 26, 2010

Faith Cathcart
At home, at ease: Residents at Rainbow Vista, a gay-friendly retirement home in Oregon.

The last place lesbians and gays want to go when they retire is back into the closet. Just like the larger population, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) seniors want to settle into comfortable, low-maintenance homes in welcoming and affordable communities. “There are estimated to be up to 6 million LGBT baby boomers, and 1 [million] to 3 million over the age of 65,” says Jan Cullinane, coauthor with Cathy Fitzgerald of The New Retirement: The Ultimate Guide to the Rest of Your Life.

Related Article: Long Invisible, Gay Seniors Seek Respect, Services »
To meet the demands of America’s aging gay population, developers are targeting the LGBT market with everything from active-adult rental apartments to retirement communities that promise lifelong care. Exactly how many such developments there are in the country is hard to quantify, but according to the Web site Gay Retirement Guide, there are about 25 existing gay retirement communities in the U.S., and more on the drawing board. That’s a significant increase from 2001, when NEWSWEEK first covered this story and only one gay retirement community was open for business.
Such growth is in contrast to the slower pace of development and the financial troubles hitting traditional “straight” communities. While it’s true that gay communities are getting a later start and haven’t already saturated senior areas like Florida and Arizona with developments, Culliane notes that older LGBTs may be more likely to move to retirement communities than heterosexuals. Why? Gay baby boomers are more likely to worry about their later years than are their heterosexual counterparts, according to a new study on sexual minorities and aging by the Metlife Mature Marketing Institute and the American Society on Aging: “More than a quarter of LGBT boomers reported great concern about discrimination as they age.” And as Culliane notes, “They often have no children to help care for them, may be alienated from other family, or just feel more comfortable in a setting with other gay or lesbian neighbors.”

Justin Sullivan
What to Spend On: Money saving tips.

Quiz: Do You Really Want to Buy That?
The key “amenity” sought after by sexual minorities is respectful medical care that recognizes the rights of same-sex partners to visit and be included in discussions and decisions. But there are others. “You need separate pools for the men and the women, and a place for dogs. Pets are very big,” says Veronica St. Claire, who is planning a full-featured continuing-care retirement community in Palm Springs, Calif., with her business and personal partner, Mary Thorndahl. They created the the Gay and Lesbian Association of Retiring Persons to build the new community. “It’s going to be soup to nuts in terms of lifelong health care … and we’re going to have a flower room for making flower arrangments,” she says. “We’re not going to be playing bingo, I’ll tell you that.”

That being said, the amenities that attract sexual minorities to a particular retirement community aren’t strikingly different from traditional or straight communities, and, in fact, in many areas developers aren’t allowed to discriminate against straight (or gay) retirees. (Many states and municipalities ban housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but it’s not against the law everywhere.) The new gay-focused retirement communities typically say they would not discriminate against straight residents; they simply are aiming their marketing efforts at sexual minorities, perhaps with carefully planned pictures of same-sex couples on their Web sites and in their advertising brochures.

The new crop of LGBT retirement communities runs the gamut from rental units in active-lifestyle resorts to buy-in long-term-care facilities. The self-proclaimed oldest gay and lesbian retirement community is the Palms of Manasota, a villa community in Palmetto, Fla., that opened in 1998. The most recently added community is the Stonewall Retirement Community, which opened earlier this spring in Woodbine, Md. It’s a single building with rental apartments and amenities, including group dinners and a theater.

While concious of the economy’s uncertainty, developers around the country are optimistic that their specialized communities are here to stay. “We have interest from a huge number of people who are very affluent. They are lawyers, doctors, Indian chiefs, everything,” says St. Claire. “They want the same thing the straights have got. A nice safe place to be.”

Boomer's wealth evaporation hurting Active Adult housing market

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:
May 25, 2010

First-timers, boomers seen as key in housing recovery

By Alan J. Heavens


Although the situation is open to interpretation as well as change, there are growing concerns that the effects of this economic downturn could have a long-lasting effect on the housing market.

A study by the Mortgage Bankers Association, conducted by University of Kentucky economics professor Joe Peek, concludes that "the current financial crisis and recession exceeded the devastation created by other post-World War II recessions."

Saving rates have risen substantially. Many Americans will continue to cut spending sharply out of necessity, "others out of fear of what the future holds," Peek said.

When it comes to housing, he said, it was unlikely that the dramatic rise in loan delinquencies, foreclosures and bankruptcies would show a "meaningful" decrease in the foreseeable future.

"High unemployment and low house prices are widely projected to remain for an extended period, as well as the rise in problem loans at banks that will restrain their willingness and ability to provide credit," Peek said.

Two groups expected to feel the pinch are young first-time buyers and the so-called active-adult purchasers who downsize as their children grow and move out.

"The impact of a higher unemployment rate for Americans ages 16 to 24 could have a lasting effect on lifetime earnings and attitudes toward risk and social policies," Peek said.

In addition, those nearing retirement are delaying it and re-entering the labor force "in an effort to rebuild some of the retirement wealth that was wiped out by the recession," he said.

The housing industry had been banking on both of these groups to sustain growth during the coming decades - especially the empty-nester baby boomers.

"The tougher economic circumstances for twentysomethings and fiftysomethings will weigh on housing demand over the coming decade," said Mark Zandi, Moody's Economy.com chief economist in West Chester. "The first-time buyer and second home markets would be most directly impacted."

Economist Patrick Newport of IHS Global Insight of Lexington, Mass., said that Peek's assessments "are a lot more dismal than ours, and our is hardly rosy."

He said today's housing market "is imposing a bit more discipline by requiring bigger down payments and better credit scores for buying homes."

The financial-reform package passed last week by the Senate includes provisions that, in addition to restricting prepayment penalties and controlling mortgage-broker compensation, would force lenders to consider applicants' income, assets and credit history before making a loan.

If this change is permanent, perhaps homeownership rates will come down to pre-1995 levels - the year they started to climb.

"I do not think this would be such a bad thing," he said.

The homeownership rate slipped to 67.2 percent in the first quarter of 2010 - its lowest reading since the first quarter of 2000.

Home-ownership rates averaged 64 percent from 1985 to '94, but accelerated in 1995 because of government policies that encouraged homeownership, especially for previously underserved low- and moderate-income buyers.

Rates reached record highs of 69 percent "because of easy lending during the housing boom," Newport said.

Although it is probably likely that the lack of good-paying jobs will delay the entry of the current 16- to 24-year-olds into the home-buying market, "it's less clear what effect the re-entry into the workforce of baby boomers is going to have," said Rick Sharga, chief economist of RealtyTrac.

"In some cases, this may keep inventory levels down, as the boomers stay in their current homes while going back to work," Sharga said.

"On the other hand, they may opt to 'trade down' in an effort to maximize their retirement dollars while they're replenishing their IRAs and 401(k) accounts," he said.

"At best, this all suggests a pretty slow, marginal recovery over the next few years," Sharga said.

02 May 2010

New Reality TV Series based on LEISUREVILLE

Here are some links:





01 May 2010

Ex-Villager's had enough of Village's Life

Dear Andrew,

I wish, wish, wish I had read your book before I'd made the decision to try the Villages.

Having lived in Bermuda, Trinidad, Nasau, and Paris during my tenure with IBM Int. Marketing, I should have known better. BUT, married friends of mine from my Bermuda days simply raved about the place. Little did I know that the Villages was Orwell's 1984 redux.

I lasted about 16 months in a village quite near the Lake Sumpter landing. One objective involved finishing my novel which I had screwed around with for about 6 years or so. I guess I finally came to the conclusion that the Villages and their incessant propaganda machine wasn't for me. In short, as one in his late 60's I grew more and more despondent when all I saw were 50,000 other gray-hairs who only lived for drink and golf for the most part. I missed seeing kids, young couples.

To name a few, I was incensed when I got my annual Village tax statement that indicated an extra $ 550 "reserve" fee that was never mentioned at closing. Moreover, while my house was advertised at $ 207K, it was really $ 222K which included the "bond." Not only that but the Morse's also charged me INTEREST on the bond: talk about usury.

The constant brain washing was driving me over the edge. I told myself I'd better get the hell out of here. And when I told some of my friends the place just wasn't for me, I was almost immediately shunned.

I've many more vignettes I can reveal that you didn't cover in your excellent reportorial work. More importantly, I was able to sell my house with just a minor loss in Feb. 2008. Hail Mary ! I now live in a "mixed" age community in Vero Beach, FL and simply love it.

Bob G, Vero Beach, FL former Villager

12 April 2010

Great Reader Email #2

Dear Mr. Blechman:

In the course of dealing with unemployment ennui, I picked up a copy of Leisureville.

When my grandmother died in the mid 90s, I rendezvoused with my mother at a Christian retirement community in Florida so that we could deal with funeral affairs. My grandparents had lived the last 20-some years of their life in this community, which was on the wane, due largely to its religious exclusivity. In the rental car on the way home, we stopped to visit my mother’s parents, who were investigating housing options at a new retirement community north of Orlando called “The Villages.” Mother and I spent most of the next two days marveling at the nerve of it all. There was no Spanish Springs yet, nobody yet dared to promote a fake history, and the only building I remember was a brewery with a conspicuously large smokestack that was just too reminiscent of a crematorium for its own good [it is no longer there]. My mother and I both remarked at how absurd the community seemed and that we would never want to spend the last years of our lives in Florida.

Well, my mother and her husband now live in The Villages, and also my octogenarian grandfather. I travel there at least once a year to see them. The place has the most maddening effect of being soothing and horribly frustrating all at once. I deeply appreciated your book; it more than articulates the discomfort I experience when I am there. It is not something I can discuss with my mother or my other relatives living there; they are so happily entrenched in their life of leisure that objective discussion about it is impossible. My mother’s remark to any criticism of the place or the lifestyle is to say what I saw several times in your book: “nobody has to live here; if they don’t like it, they can leave.” In the interests of family harmony, I just don’t discuss it anymore, and I always attempt to spend most of my activity budget outside The Villages, such as kayaking and horseback riding in neighboring parks and recreation areas. Going to Villages events and observing the patrons at the clubs and restaurants in Sumter Landing and Spanish Springs usually leave me gasping for normalcy. Your quote from Homer’s Odyssey about the lotus eaters was absolutely right on track!

I am still trying to understand the Chapter 190 situation in Florida and found the chapter about Villages’ governance in Leisureville a bit confusing. I realize, though, that this is certainly not your fault. It is clear to me that Gary Morse and his minions deliberately obfuscate the situation. I strongly suspect nobody in my family—nor most of the residents—clearly understand the high-stakes real estate game that is being played under their noses.

Thanks also for talking about the Daily Sun, which I would put on the same journalistic par as a church newsletter. I find myself getting out of Dodge to get a sanity-saving copy of New York Times at least a few times every visit.

I appreciated your interviewing people on the margins, such as the group of children living on the outside. I have often wondered about what the locals think about being in economic servitude to this giant bunch of people frantically pursuing their own pleasure, and have found that many of them don’t want to talk much about it. Too many of them have jobs in (or because of) The Villages. These days, I suppose many of the waitresses and lawn care guys are too grateful to have work to complain about their low wages or lack of benefits.

I was grateful for Leisureville because it brought to light other aspects about life in The Villages I had not thought much about. It has always been the whiteness and the homogeneity of the place, rather than the childlessness of it, that have captured my attention and left me feeling disturbed (this may be because I myself do not have children). While I am pretty convinced that undercurrents of racism and fear are lingering under the Villages veneer of happiness, I’m grateful that you pointed out more of the societal consequences of large numbers of senior citizens dropping out of real life. I have always remained frustrated with the complacency people in the Villages appear to have for the problems of children, immigrants and poor people and their disdain for anyone who wants to change the status quo. Now I have a better understanding of the consequences that this group withdrawal has for us culturally.

Ultimately, I wonder whether the geritopia [great word, by the way] is a sustainable lifestyle. My last visit to The Villages was in February. The biggest item on the news while I was there was the wretched state of the local real estate market. I found myself wondering, given how many of my friends and peers are not going to enjoy the generous pensions and health care plans that our parents do, how the Villages will be able to sustain itself 15 to 20 years from now. I do not believe that a large number of people in my age bracket (late 40s) are going to have sufficient money to move to Florida when we are retired. We’re not going to make many thousands of dollars on the sale of our homes, and we’re going to have the dickens of a time clinching 30-year mortgages as retirees. I feel pretty certain that a changing economic reality for younger people is going to morph our retirement into something very different from what our parents enjoy(ed). Right now we’re all too worried about losing our jobs and houses and how the hell we’re going to pay for kids’ college educations, much less have anything resembling a financially unfettered retirement.

At any rate, I was immensely grateful for Leisureville and found it engaging. Your book answered questions and left me realizing that the whole scenario isn’t that far removed from me. I look forward to your future books. Thanks for a good read,

Jill R. Walker
Chicago, Illinois

Great Reader Email #1

Dear Mr. Blechman,

I just finished reading “Leisureville” and I’d like to thank you for writing such an intelligent and entertaining book. Your work reminds me of Joel Garreau’s “Edge City” insofar as it strains to describe a phenomenon in a balanced way while still making your own concerns quite clear. As much as I enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s rants, he’s never been accused of moderation, but that’s what makes him so endearing. There were also hints of Jane Jacobs' later works, "Systems of Survival" and "Dark Age Ahead". “Leisureville” closely resembles a geriatric version of Setha Low’s “Behind the Gates” (although I admit your writing style is a bit better). Ms. Low was primarily concerned with the social and political fragmentation and mistrust that inevitably results from the self-segregation of gated suburban enclaves.

As a young man I fled the suburbs of the Jersey shore and ultimately settled in San Francisco. A few weeks ago I returned to Toms River, New Jersey to visit my mother who now lives in Holiday City. I talked to her about how she likes her new living arrangement. She said it was a mixed bag. Safe. Clean. Affordable. Lonely. Dull. Restrictive. She confirmed all the stereotypes about sex-crazed neighbors and rule obsessed committees. I had lobbied very hard for her to come and live with me in California siting the cultural offerings and free accommodations, but she ultimately wanted to stay near my sisters and brother and all the grand kids in Jersey. She also wanted to live independently. Fair enough.

As an adolescent I had plenty of contact with the elderly residents of these ever-expanding adult communities. I did housekeeping and gardening chores for many retirees as a way to earn money for college (Rutgers ’96). I enjoy the company of old people so it was a good fit. And to be honest, the generation I was dealing with back then was more likable than the new crop of boomers. They were savers and planners. They had survived the Depression and war. They told stories of how they were smuggled out of Poland “just in time”, or described burning their dining room furniture one piece at a time to keep their Brooklyn tenement warm through the winter. These people didn’t need plastic surgery or granite counter tops. They appreciated the fact that they had good food, a tidy home in the country, and money in the bank at a time in life when their own parents had been destitute. Boomers? Not so much…

I have very few fond memories of my early years in the suburbs. My family was working class and just barely managed to stay afloat. The suburbs are predicated on the concept that if you can't afford your own detached home and private vehicle, you don't belong. Public transport is considered a form of communism. Suburbia is a pay-per-view environment: private country clubs, summer camp, dance lessons, music lessons. Even the beaches in New Jersey are privately owned and charge admission. We couldn't afford any of that. To save money for college I rode a bicycle everywhere and I can't tell you how many times as a young man I was pulled over by the police and questioned. I would ask what I had done wrong, and they would always say that riding a bicycle along the highway, especially after dark or in bad weather, was suspicious. The unspoken message was that only the poor and undesirables do that sort of thing, so they needed to see what was in my backpack. Books usually. They always seemed so befuddled and sent me on my way with a warning. Nerd. Guilty as charged...

I hadn’t been back to Toms River for fifteen years. (I preferred to pay for airline tickets so my mom could visit me in California instead). I was reminded why I left. When I was a kid, the small historic downtown of Toms River still had a working movie theater, a shoe store, restaurants, and a dress shop. All that fell away by the time I graduated high school as strip malls and chain stores chewed up the landscape outside of town. The only things that remained were the government buildings since Toms River was the county seat. Now, most of the old buildings aren’t even there anymore. Little by little they were removed as the roads were widened and parking lots were installed. Downtown is just another kind of mall now, this one devoted to municipal services. Two hundred years of history were paved over so commuters could get through town and make a right hand turn forty five seconds faster.

When I express my concerns about sprawl people often suggest that San Francisco is an anomaly and out of step with how most Americans want to live. After all, nothing like a compact mixed use city has been built anywhere in the country for a hundred years now. I respond by saying that a hundred years from now San Francisco will still be well populated and vibrant. I don’t think the same will be true of most cul de sacs and strip malls. Most of the suburbs will have become mulch by then.

Again, many thanks for your good work.

- John S

29 March 2010

Chalk this up under the "who knew" column

Who knew that a risky financial instrument would have its own daily news site? -- "Reverse Mortgage Daily"

Recession forces builders to open up 55+ Communities to everyone (even kids)

As predicted in Leisureville, developers are forced to open up their wares to a larger pool of potential owners when such communities become "non-performing" assets. More importantly, this proves that these communities aren't really communities, they're developer-owned investments. That means a developer can do just about anything s/he wants or needs to do to earn a profit -- even change the communities "by-laws" to change it from 55+ to all ages, regardless of what folks thought when they were first buying in. Lesson: When an individual owns a community, they can do what ever they want with it. Unlike a municipality, residents have no voice.

55-plus community in N.J. opens development to all ages

By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY

Elazer and Barbara Lew were the first to move in to
Pine River Village in Lakewood, N.J., a development
for people age 55 and older.

"I liked the idea of moving to an adult community,
with all the services and amenities," says Barbara,
63, who works at a nearby school for children with
special needs. "I liked the idea of having people our
own age to socialize with."

That was three years ago — just before the housing
market crashed and the recession hit. Suddenly,
older buyers who wanted to enjoy the amenities
age-restricted communities offer, couldn't sell their
existing homes. On top of that, their retirement
funds were taking a beating as stock prices
plummeted. Some who had planned to retire and
move decided to stay put and keep working.

RECESSION'S TOLL: Active adult developments
struggle to find residents

Only about 20 Pine River Village homes had sold
when the developer approached the homeowners
with a proposal: agree to lift the age restriction on
housing built on half of the development.

"There were mixed feelings," says Ronald Gray, 65,
who was among the first to buy in to Pine River with
his wife, Rachel.

Somerset Development vowed to keep the new phase
completely separate. It even has a different name:
Somerset Walk. Residents have their own clubhouse.

Lifting or easing age restrictions in active adult
communities is the latest consequence of the
recession and housing collapse — especially in new

New Jersey, with a 16-year supply of age-restricted
housing, is at the forefront of this movement. The
state's towns and counties welcomed no-kids
housing with gusto because the developments
created revenues without putting a strain on local
school budgets.

"They used that tool too often — to excess," says
Robert Lang, urban sociologist at the University of
Nevada-Las Vegas. "It was overstocked because it
was easy to get approved."

Ralph Zucker, whose company is building Pine River
and Somerset Walk, said many developers "pushed
back on regular development because it was a lot
easier to do age-restricted communities … Now, we
see an active market for non-restricted housing."

Last year, New Jersey passed a law that allows
developers to ask municipalities to do away with age
limits on projects that have already been approved.
More affordable housing would be built in return.

Struggling developers see non-restricted building
as a way to tap in to a larger market, including first-
time homebuyers. Residents accept it because they
would rather live in a built community than be
surrounded by dirt lots.

"We can't get our streets paved the way we'd like to
because development hasn't been finished," Barbara
Lew says. Opening it up to families could attract new
business. "We still have our separate development;
we'll still be just in our section," she says. "I see it
as a good alternative to just sitting and waiting."

Gray, who runs a foundation for disadvantaged
children, says "In the final analysis, we realized it
was in our best interest. We felt we'd rather live in a
community than in a construction zone."

The changes also may satisfy older residents' desire
to be close to their children and grandchildren by
creating a multigenerational community, Zucker

The Lews, who lived in Staten Island, N.Y., for 31
years, have two daughters who live in Lakewood.
"For people to have their children buy on the other
side is a very good idea, especially as people get
older," Barbara says.

Large retirement communities are still thriving, says
Dan Owens of the National Active Retirement
Association, a trade group involved in marketing
and building for people older than 50. He predicts
that when the economy improves, the market will get
a big boost because of pent-up demand.

"Even though some communities are drifting away
from age restrictions, you can't ignore the
demographics," he says.

07 February 2010

from a reader

Mr. Blechman,

My wife and I just returned from renting a home at The Villages for the month of January. A friend loaned me his copy of your book after he heard we had vacationed there. I must say your book is quite factual, and it accurately reflected many of the experiences my wife and I had while there (no….we are monogamousJ). We used the time to visit other areas of Florida and can adamantly say The Villages is not on our itinerary for next year’s vacation. I actually came inches away from a fist fight with an over-emotional golf cart driver who almost ran into my wife and me as we walked hand in hand along the cart super highway adjacent to Chatham. I actually had to restrain his forearm quite forcefully to keep him from slugging me. Once he realized I had more strength than him, he jumped back into his chariot and sped off, still spewing epithets about my family lineage. Gotta love it!

I enjoyed your writing style and even more, your thoroughness in researching a very difficult and sensitive topic. You represented both sides fairly. You should be a social scientist. If you’re ever in Maine, please get in touch and we’ll wet a fly line.

Best regards,

Bill S.

02 February 2010

A diversion to my last book, Pigeons: a reader email that makes this author swoon

Andrew, I would just like to say that your book about pigeons has totally changed my opinion of pigeons and has led me to become somewhat of an expert in the field in order to try and become their voice and give them a "fair shake." I try to use this newly acquired knowledge to educate a very uninformed public.

I must confess that I have become so fond of the species as a result of reading your book that I have taken to doing the UNTHINKABLE: feeding them in parks, which now has made me a PART OF THE PROBLEM.

I try to justify this by convincing myself that my campaign to have the City of Vancouver set up city run dovecoves based on the PiCAS models. I will be working with the head of the Humane Society of Vancouver to put some clout into my endeavours. You have turned me into a clone of David Roth (minus all the pijjie poop).

Why am I telling you all this? Because I am proof that your book did and will continue to change pigeon prejudice, one human at a time. Thank you for writing such a wonder book. It continues to be my pigeon"bible."

21 January 2010

Boomers see retirement later, less likely

Wed, Jan 20 2010
By Helen Chernikoff

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - People just starting to consider retirement are less optimistic about their ability to stop working than older people, but many still want to move when they reach traditional retirement age, according to a survey commissioned by homebuilder Pulte Homes Inc.

Of those who turn 50 this year, 41 percent say they will never be financially capable of retiring and 23 percent have not even started to save, Pulte revealed at the International Builders' Show, homebuilding's annual industry event, held here this week.
The study compared attitudes toward retirement by older and younger baby boomers, the massive age cohort born between 1946 and 1964 whose sheer size makes it a prize demographic across industries.

Pulte's Del Webb subsidiary, which builds amenity-heavy communities featuring golf courses and swimming pools for the market aged 55 or older, is homebuilding's biggest "active adult" business with operations in 21 states.

Along with luxury homebuilder Toll Brothers Inc, Del Webb is one of only two nationally known homebuilding brands, Pulte Chief Executive Richard Dugas has said.

Del Webb was about half of Pulte's business until it acquired rival Centex Corp in 2009. Now the combined company's business is about a third Del Webb, a third first-time home buyer and a third first-time move-up buyer, said spokeswoman Caryn Klebba.

Pulte's own decision to diversify away from Del Webb by buying Centex demonstrates the active adult category is a tough business, said UBS analyst David Goldberg.

But the company, the largest homebuilder in the United States since the Centex acquisition, has confidence in Del Webb's future, despite the relative pessimism expressed in its survey by younger boomers, said spokeswoman Caryn Klebba.

There are 78 million baby boomers, more than enough to give Del Webb long-term viability, she said. Del Webb, which opened its doors in 1960, has sold 170,000 homes in its 50 years of operation.

Also, between 30 percent and 40 percent of younger boomers still plan to move when they retire, despite financial worries, according to the survey.

Of those planning to move, about 50 percent plan to move to a different state and about 25 percent plan to move to a different city.

"There's no doubt there's a very large percentage of the population that's aging that would like the lifestyle choices that Del Webb offers. It is a good business over the long term from a demand perspective," Goldberg said.

Still, the study reveals deep financial concerns on the part of potential Del Webb buyers who are turning 50 in 2010. Even those who do plan to retire say they will do so later, at a median age of 67 compared with 63 for the older survey respondents.
The older group surveyed is more optimistic about its retirement prospects, however. Only 15 percent say they will never be able to retire. Also, about a third of the older baby boomers say they will be financially prepared for retirement, while only 16 percent of the younger group say they feel that way.

Del Webb can adapt its product to changes in the active adult market's financial profile, Klebba said.

The company has made its homes smaller to enhance their affordability, for example. It has modified Del Webb floor plans to accommodate the more widespread desire for home offices among older buyers who are still working. And it is building more in North and South Carolina, which cost less than the traditional warm-weather retirement destinations, Klebba said.

HarrisInteractive conducted the online survey, consisting of a representative sample of 504 people turning 50 and 510 turning 64 with a sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, in late 2009.

© Thomson Reuters 2009

Homebuilders Turn to Private Equity as Bank Lending Dries Up

Homebuilders Turn to Private Equity as Bank Lending Dries Up
By John Gittelsohn

Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- More than 40 U.S. homebuilders have teamed up with private equity firms to acquire and complete unfinished subdivisions as banks cut construction lending.

The investments will pay off for the builders and their investors if the prices are low enough and the locations are in areas where demand is recovering, said Megan McGrath, a home building industry analyst at Barclays Capital Inc. in New York.

“I’ve been getting the question: Why aren’t housing starts at zero?” McGrath asked. “The answer is, they’re probably as close to zero as they’re going to get and in some cases it still makes sense to build.”

Managers of at least 22 funds raised $12 billion in 2009 for development projects and other residential real estate deals, Bloomberg BusinessWeek magazine reports in its Feb. 1 issue, citing data compiled by Bloomberg, Institutional Real Estate Inc. of San Ramon, California, and Real Estate Alert, an industry newsletter in Hoboken, New Jersey. Those firms have invested with at least 42 builders, the data show.

Hovnanian Enterprises Inc., the nation’s seventh-largest homebuilder by revenue, last year announced joint ventures with two New York-based private equity firms, in which the investors provided at least 80 percent of the money for the developments. GoldenTree Asset Management and Hovnanian are working on 11 projects around Chicago and Palm Beach, Florida, while Angelo Gordon & Co., with $21 billion under management, teamed up for other projects in Florida.

“For every one that we’re doing business with, there are 10 more that we’re talking to,” Ara K. Hovnanian, chief executive officer of the Red Bank, New Jersey, homebuilder, said at a Nov. 17 conference in New York organized by UBS AG.

Building Permits

Home building permits climbed to 653,000 in December, the most since October 2008 and a sign of optimism about demand, the Commerce Department reported yesterday.

The private equity firms are a new source of funding for the homebuilding industry, which has traditionally relied on bank loans and bond sales. Banks slashed lending to homebuilders because regulators pressured them to reduce real estate assets as defaults on construction loans climbed, said Robert Seiwert, vice president of the American Bankers Association.

“What got us into this situation was people making loans that shouldn’t have happened,” Seiwert said in a telephone interview from the organization’s headquarters in Washington.

Outstanding bank loans for land and new development sank to $113 billion in the quarter ending Sept. 30, down 44 percent from a peak of $203 billion in June 2008, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. Loans for all construction and development fell to $492.2 billion from a peak of $629.5 billion in June 2008, the FDIC said Nov. 24.

Housing Supply

The supply of new homes on the market rose to 7.9 months in November, compared with the five-year average of 7.2 months, according to the Commerce Department. With unemployment and foreclosures still at quarter-century highs, demand could remain weak for a while, especially with federal tax incentives for home buyers set to phase out in April.

Confidence among homebuilders fell this month to the lowest level since June, as traffic hit a 10-month nadir, the National Association of Home Builders said Jan. 19.

U.S. sales of new homes fell to an annual pace of 355,000 in November, down 11 percent from October, the Commerce Department reported Dec. 23. Homebuilders have seen orders and revenue decline since 2005, when 1.28 million new homes sold, according to the Census Bureau.

Picky Investments

Grosvenor Investment Management of Philadelphia and KeyBank Real Estate Capital Residential Investment Partners, which raised $100 million in 2007, took almost two years to make their first investment, said John Hay, manager of the fund for KeyBank Real Estate Capital Markets, a private equity unit of Cleveland- based KeyBank NA.

The managers wanted to buy ready-to-build lots for about 20 cents on the dollar. They wouldn’t invest in markets such as Las Vegas, South Florida, or Southern California. So far, the fund has entered five deals totaling about $30 million each for subdivisions outside Atlanta, Denver, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, and Raleigh, North Carolina.

“This investing, while it’s ahead of the game, is still very, very challenging,” Hay said.

Reuben S. Leibowitz, managing director of JEN Partners LLC, a New York-based private equity fund, said he invested $50 million in 2009 for land and construction partnerships in Southern California and Arizona, where he believes the buyers are coming back.

Cater to Retirees

In May, Leibowitz bought Canta Mia, a 600-home “active- adult” community outside of Phoenix that caters to retirees. The original developer, Tousa Inc., filed for bankruptcy and Leibowitz acquired the project -- complete with model homes -- for less than the cost of improvements, such as roads and waterlines. He expects to get his money back in four to seven years, although he doesn’t think there are many other good deals out there. “There won’t be many people who are successful” at bottom-fishing in this market, he said.

At least one private equity fund has pulled up stakes. Rockpoint Group, a Boston investment firm, raised $470 million for a residential real estate fund from investors including a $270 million commitment from the California State Teachers Retirement System. In August, Rockpoint suspended the fund, returning the money to investors, after it failed to find enough workable deals.

18 January 2010

Community "Back in Business"

A "community" that was left half-finished by a cash-starved developer is now "back in business."

Since when are real communities "businesses"?


Community west of Delray Beach back in business
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Folks in the Tivoli Isles community west of Delray Beach have been living with unfinished homes and a clubhouse that was only 85 percent complete since 2008 when construction halted.

But building has begun again after the purchase of the unsold homes and clubhouse by New Jersey-based K. Hovnanian developers, which will begin selling inventory and new homes under construction in January.

Of 315 homes in the active-adult community east of U.S. 441 and north of Atlantic Avenue, 155 them are occupied by owners and 32 are in various stages of construction. That leaves 128 lots for new homes.

The 6,000-square-foot clubhouse is expected to be finished by February.

"We are pretty popular with the homeowners right now," said Mark Hodges, Southeast Florida division president for K. Hovnanian. "They care deeply about their community."

The community also will get a new name, Four Seasons at Delray Beach.

K. Hovnanian purchased the development's mortgage note from BankAtlantic after a foreclosure judgment against Home Devco Tivoli Isles LLC. Hodges said the amount of the purchase is sealed under a confidentiality agreement until K. Hovnanian takes official title to the property, which will happen by the end of the year.

Home Devco, which had a $54 million loan for the development, started selling homes in late 2005 in the mid $300,000s up to $800,000.

Hodges said the homes sold well until 2007 when the market turned sour. Sales were suspended in 2008. K. Hovnanian's pricing will begin in the $200,000s.

"We see the market returning," Hodges said. "If we aren't absolutely at the bottom, we're near it."

Hodges said to look for K. Hovnanian to buy more sites in the near future.

"We are acting absolutely bullish," Hodges said. "Land values have found their way back to bring affordable housing to the market again."


A new senior-living community is planned for the Abacoa neighborhood of Jupiter after the $3.9 million purchase of a 7-acre site by Divosta Homes LLP.

Construction on the 140-unit, three-story development is expected to begin in summer 2010, with the first units available the following year.

The development, which will include studio, one- and two- bedroom residences, will be at the intersection of Indian Creek Parkway and Central Boulevard.

It will be operated by Hallmark Senior Housing.

For more information on the Allegro at Abacoa, go to www.theallegro.com.


Short sales litter the distressed real estate market but are still uncommon on Palm Beach.

Island residents, however, are not immune to financial woe, and Realtor Gary Pohrer of Fite Shavell and Associates recently closed a short sale on a Palm Beach home at 237 Seabreeze.

Realtor Paul Schafranick with Frank Lanosa Realty represented the buyers in the deal.

The 237 Seabreeze property is between South County Road and Cocoanut Row, and originally was listed at $5.5 million.

The home is newly built, with construction finishing in January.

County records show that former owner Lauro Bianda took out a $3.7 million loan on the property in 2007 with Wachovia Mortgage Corp. Wachovia filed a notice of foreclosure on the property in August.

Pohrer said he hired an attorney with his own money to negotiate the short sale.

"I had spent so much time on the property, I wanted to see it through," he said.

Pohrer said slightly more than $4 million was owed on the home. It sold for $3.95 million.

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