By the numbers
Collier County vacancy rate: 32.5 percent
Lee County vacancy rate:30 percent
Statewide: 17.5 percent
NAPLES — Don’t call it a comeback — yet.
There’s debate over whether the real estate bounce that Southwest Florida agents have been touting is happening now or if it’s actually more than a year away.
Data recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau from the 2010 Census fueled the debate when Lee and Collier counties showed up with housing vacancy rates that far surpass the state average.
The 2010 Census found that of the 197,298 housing units in Collier County, a total of 64,119 — or 32.5 percent — were vacant. Meanwhile, of the 371,099 housing units in Lee County, the Census found that a total of 111,281 — or 30 percent — were vacant.
Florida’s overall numbers were better, with 1.5 million — 17.5 percent — of the state’s 8.98 million housing units vacant.
The vacancy numbers were picked up by national media outlets, which noted that Lee had the highest vacancy rate among Florida’s 10 largest counties.
But a top Census official, former Census supervisors in Southwest Florida and a leader in the Naples real estate industry all raised questions about some of the conclusions being reached in media reports.
U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves wrote in a February blog that the data was being used out-of-context by some in the news media.
“We delivered counts of total housing units and counts of vacant housing units,’’ he wrote. “However, the total vacant count includes units intended for rent or for sale, units intended for seasonal, recreational or occasional use, units for migratory workers (a small number), and other vacant units that did not fit into these categories” because they are held off the market for personal reasons of the owner.
Groves wrote that using the count of the number of vacancies, which includes seasonal, recreational or occasional-use vacant units, can mislead a person who wants to measure the effects of the housing crisis on an area.
“Seasonal, recreational, or occasional vacant houses were prevalent in April 2010, especially in resort areas where there are cottages, condominiums and homes that are used only during the given tourist season,” Groves said of the month that Census takers used to document the status of a housing unit.
Naples resident Mary Casanova, a field operations supervisor for the U.S. Census, noted that she had stated in a Daily News article last year that some of the numbers collected in Southwest Florida were later changed to increase the number of completely vacant units.
“We were falsifying the information,” said Naples resident and census supervisor Mary Casanova, who complained to the Census Bureau about the orders she and others were given.
“We were falsifying the information,” Casanova said.
Last year, Casanova and David Kaiser, another former field operations supervisor, reported their concerns to U.S. Census officials about instructions given by superiors in July 2010 to classify what would be “vacant seasonal” properties as “vacant regular.”
They were told to erase the answers given to them and change them on the survey over the course of about nine days of data collection, thus falsely claiming about 10,000 properties as totally vacant, Kaiser said.
“This made us the worst case in the entire country. The worst place to buy a house,” Kaiser said.
The estimate of 32 percent of homes empty in Collier is based on false data, he said.
He fears what the effect might be of national news reports, such as a CNN Money article that quoted a housing market analyst for Moody’s Analytics that the Naples housing market won’t fully bounce back until the late 2030s.
Kaiser said that just looks to wrongly scare away current owners, new buyers and commerce.
Brenda Fioretti, president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors, suggested the high vacancy numbers might be due to the fact that Naples is a big second-home community and that the Census might have counted those homes as vacant.
“It (the numbers) seemed skewed to us,” she said.
“Our market has picked up tremendously,” said Brenda Fioretti, president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors “Our prices are actually going up. Inventory is the lowest it has been in three years.”
Marci Seamples, vice president of communications of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce, cited other estimates of the housing recovery from the recession.
“Nationwide, the S&P believes it will take at least 3.5 years to soak up foreclosure properties alone. A decline in asset value, a need for liquidity in investments and uncertainty in one’s employment future in the wake of the recession could make anyone think twice before purchasing a home, even at lowered pricing,” Seamples wrote in an email.
The public can expect reports from the 2010 Census in the future that will show the vacancy status for all vacant housing units and which also will show whether occupied units were owned or rented, Groves wrote in his Census Bureau blog.
Seamples and Fioretti agreed that Collier is working its way back up.
“Our market has picked up tremendously,” Fioretti said, adding that in the past year the Board of Realtors has seen a 10 percent increase in the median sale price of single-family homes. “Our prices are actually going up. Inventory is the lowest it has been in three years.”
Fioretti said that in March roughly 9,200 homes were for sale in Collier, a drop from the 12,440 on the market in March 2007.
Collier County government staff is closely paying attention to the trend.
“I’ve been telling the (commission) for awhile that when the economy turns and these vacant units get picked up, we are going to see a significant increase in demand for infrastructure and public services,” said Nick Casalanguida, Collier County’s deputy administrator for the Growth Management Division.
The interest in the housing market is showing, he said.
“I’m starting to see it. Our front counter has started to see it. Our planning section has started to see it,” Casalanguida said. “We’re off the bottom and starting to show signs that things are getting a little bit better.”