New Census numbers show housing numbers not as bad as originally thought

The U.S. Census Bureau released new figures Thursday that shed new light on Southwest Florida’s housing vacancy rate.

In March, national media outlets picked up preliminary vacancy numbers that noted that Lee County had a 30 percent vacancy rate, the highest vacancy rate among Florida’s 10 largest counties.

But those reports were based on combined data — not just information on properties categorized as vacant or abandoned.

At the time, U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves wrote in a blog that the news media were using the data out of context. Groves wrote that using the count of the number of vacancies, which includes seasonal, recreational or occasional-use vacant units, would mislead a person who wants to measure the effect of the housing crisis on an area.

Thursday’s release broke down what had been originally categorized as vacant into several categories, including rental properties, seasonal properties and homes for sale.

Of the 197,298 housing units the 2010 Census found in Collier County, 64,119 — or 32.5 percent — overall were called vacant or abandoned in March.

The new data shows that just 5,288 of Collier’s housing units, or roughly 2.7 percent, were considered vacant or abandoned.

Some 7,500 of the units the March data showed as vacant or abandoned were actually for rent, or 3.8 percent of the county’s total housing units. Another 499 units, or 0.3 percent, were rented and not occupied.

A total of 5,533 units, or 2.8 percent, were for sale, while 788 units, or 0.4 percent, were sold but not occupied.

The data also showed that 22.6 percent of Collier’s total housing units, or 44,500, were deemed seasonal, recreational or occasional use.

Of the 133,179 occupied housing units in Collier, 96,159 were owner occupied and 37,020 were renter occupied.

The news brought relief and vindication to Brenda Fioretti, president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors.

Fioretti said the March numbers, and the subsequent news coverage, concerned a lot of Southwest Florida realtors worried about the reputation of the region’s real estate market.

“We knew that it was inaccurate and erroneous,” said Fioretti, who found the new Census numbers were on par with data collected by the Board of Realtors.

In Lee County, a similar picture arose. The March release estimated that of the 371,099 housing units in Lee County, a total of 111,281 — or 30 percent — were vacant.

The new data shows that about 4.7 percent of Lee’s housing units, or 17,485 units, were considered vacant or abandoned.

Thursday’s breakdown showed that 15,840 units the March data called vacant or abandoned, or 4.3 percent of the county’s total housing units, were for rent. Another 798 units, or 0.2 percent, were rented and not occupied. A total of 13,084 units, or 3.5 percent, were for sale, while 1,937 units, or 0.5 percent, were sold but not occupied.

The data also showed that 16.7 percent of Lee’s total housing units, or 62,137 homes, were deemed seasonal, recreational or occasional use.

Of Lee’s 259,818 occupied housing units, 184,477 were owner occupied and 75,341 were renter occupied.

Lee County Chamber of Commerce President Armando Nargi said he was not surprised by the new numbers and that, regardless of the perceived improvement, those vacancies are still there because of a lack of jobs since the construction bubble burst.

“There’s no sustaining industry here to have people occupy the houses,” said Nargi. “There are no jobs to sustain them.”

Florida’s numbers were also affected with Thursday’s release.

Of the Sunshine State’s 8.98 million total housing units, 1.5 million — or 17.5 percent — were considered vacant or abandoned in the March figures.

The new numbers show that 294,501 units, or 3.3 percent of the state’s total units, are vacant or abandoned.

The new numbers show that 371,626 of the vacant units, or 4.1 percent of the state’s total units, were actually for rent. Another 15,438, or 0.2 percent, were rented but not occupied. Some 198,000 units, or 2.2 percent, were for sale, and 31,911, or 0.4 percent, were sold but not occupied.

The data also showed that some 657,000 units, or 7.3 percent, were for seasonal, recreational or occasional use.

Of Florida’s 7.4 million occupied housing units, 4.99 million were owner occupied and 2.42 million were renter occupied, according to the data.

A former Census supervisor in Southwest Florida was not convinced by Thursday’s new figures.

“It’s not (accurate)…absolutely not,” said Naples resident Mary Casanova, a former field operations supervisor for the U.S. Census.

Casanova claimed in a Daily News article last year that some of the numbers collected in Southwest Florida were later changed to increase the number of vacant or abandoned units.

Casanova said Census workers 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, making about 10,000 properties show up as vacant or abandoned.

She feared the effect of national news reports about the March data, 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.

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