Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Signs on the road, sign of the times.

My trip to and from work every day takes me through quite a few contrasting areas and neighborhoods. I start out in the residential area just north of the Decatur city limits; work my way past Lavista, I-85, Buford Highway and Peachtree Street. I head north through the tawny and wealthy neighborhoods of Buckhead and cruise up to the north end of the perimeter where I hop on 400 north and feel the adrenaline rush of driving with the hogs of the road until I am finally able to escape the high speed and substitute it with the stop and go of a red light every 100 yards in Alpharetta. The path is flipped around in the late afternoon for the gas burn home. I have alternate routes for when the traffic plugs due to a wreck or water main break or God knows what.

The trip is interesting in the morning as I can cruise very well and make it through many red lights before I finally have to stop. I can see the neighborhoods as I pass and get a look at my surroundings for a little while. The OCD aspect of my personality is best suited for the drive as I count things while I drive. A trick to pass time that I picked up years ago when I would drive home to visit family when I was on leave in the Navy. I count red lights, mileage, elapsed time and a wide range of other things. If I run out of obvious things to count I’ll turn my attention to car makes, models and colors.

The other week I found myself counting For Sale and For Rent signs along the side of the road. I tallied 25 homes for sale and 7 for rent. Of the 25 homes listed for sale, 16 of them were in the upscale Buckhead neighborhoods. This didn’t include the numerous condo projects that are still being built and the ones that have recently been completed. 16 multi-million-dollar homes for sale just between Peachtree Street and Pill Hill on the northside, and this was seen on one road, Peachtree-Dunwoody. Think about that for a minute, I’ll come back to it.

When financial “bubbles” burst, they do one of two things: 1) A sudden and widespread deflation. 2) A slow and prolonged leak. The mortgage crisis is a bubble that leaks like the latter, it’s a slow and drawn out process. The highest number of sub-prime loans that had a reset has just come and gone. October was the month that saw the highest number of interest rate resets. The fall out from those resets will not be seen for quite a while. The folks who have already been caught up in the crisis were those who got on the bandwagon early. The ones who jumped on while it was in full swing are just now being pulled through the wringer.

As I drove north on Peachtree-Dunwoody that morning and caught myself admiring the many older, more lovely homes I noticed that it was the newer infill style McMansions that had the for sale signs and very few of the older homes were for sale. I thought about the millions of dollars spent to buy the land, paying crews to tear down the old homes and build the new houses. I thought about what some of those places will look like after they have sat vacant for months. I thought of the stories we are hearing out of Cleveland and the Slavic Village neighborhood.

Slavic Village, for those not familiar, is an old, established neighborhood in Cleveland that was settled by European immigrants starting back in the 1800’s. It has been the most severely effected neighborhood in the entire nation, by this mortgage crisis. The last figure I saw stated that about 800 homes are vacant in this area and the director of a foreclosure prevention center in Cuyahoga County stated that it takes approximately 72 hours after a home is vacated before the looters break in. The looters are stealing recyclable materials such as copper and aluminum.

I don’t think this would happen in Buckhead as there is too much concentrated wealth and power living there to allow it to happen and I don’t think “white flight” is going to be an issue like Detroit saw decades ago. The housing trend in Atlanta has reversed in recent years with more people moving back inside the perimeter. Still, the thought of massive McMansions sitting vacant all through this upscale and power laden neighborhood is chilling.

Reports across the board show that the worst is still yet to come. An analogy would be that what we see now is simply the salad being brought to the dining table and the main course is only now being put in the oven. We are being bitten by commodity inflation and a trip to get groceries carries it’s own sticker shock. The earned wages of Americans have not kept pace with inflation over the last 6 years and now we are in a spot where the dollars is breaking records on an almost daily basis for all-time lows in value. Money doesn’t stretch because it is becoming worthless. Where will this end?

Like those homes in Buckhead, there are people who have massive personal wealth, the sort who can survive this economic slide with no problem. There are also people who are on the periphery and barely making it, even in the higher income brackets and even in those tawny neighborhoods. We, like our nation as an entity, are getting close to the breaking point. How much longer it will last before the rubber band snaps is beyond my knowledge. The fallout is going to be massive and it doesn’t take an economist to see that.

All any of us can do is hold on and wait to see when the other shoe drops.

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