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Lessons to be learned from Florida’s housing past

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Michael Allan Wolf

Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law; Professor of Law
Fredric G. Levin College of Law

History tends to repeat itself, and, for those paying attention, Florida’s current housing and mortgage crisis should be a case of déjà vu.

Similar to Florida’s 1920s land boom—a speculation bubble that, when it burst, caused a long-lasting, depressed housing market in the Sunshine State—today’s housing and financial crisis has crippled the state’s economy, and local governments are feeling the pain.

“We have some of the nation’s highest foreclosure rates, particularly in South Florida and Orange County,” said Michael Allan Wolf, a University of Florida professor of law. “These high foreclosure rates generate the need for more public services at the local level, but, at the same time, the state Legislature and voters have placed tremendous pressure on the ability of local governments to collect the revenues that they need to deliver these services.”

As an international expert on the relationships between government and private property, Wolf should know. He earned his law degree from Georgetown University and holds a doctorate from Harvard in the history of American civilization—an academic combination that provides unique perspective on Florida’s current situation of history in the making.

In addition, as the Richard E. Nelson Chair in Local Government Law, Wolf hosts the annual Nelson Symposium, which brings together local and state government officials and attorneys with the common goal of exploring the unique challenges Florida faces as it grows and develops. Symposium topics have included green building, sustainability, urban revitalization, local government funding, eminent domain, and environmental and land use issues.

“Since the late 20th century, local government has had a set of tools to raise revenue to foster economic development and provide necessary services, and one by one, Florida lawmakers and courts have attempted to take away or weaken those tools,” Wolf said. “Now, when local governments are facing significant challenges, they have fewer tools at their disposal to solve their communities’ problems.”

Nonetheless, Wolf views the current condition of Florida’s economy as an opportunity for lawmakers and residents to take a hard look at improving local and state funding mechanisms to support the essential services residents expect.

“Florida has a fairly long anti-tax tradition, but I think people are going to realize there are consequences to under-funding all levels of government. It’s not sustainable,” Wolf said. “Under that model, the Florida of tomorrow is the California of today. It’s time now to make the changes necessary to avoid the problems that California is facing—pollution, water shortages, north-south fights, stinginess in taxes resulting in under-funded government.”

“That’s our future unless we start doing things differently. That’s what we have to look forward to,” he said. “Orange County, Florida will become Orange County, California.”