4. Port St. Lucie, Fla.: The housing market in Port St. Lucie, located on the southeast coast of Florida, experienced one of the most aggressive pricing booms in the state, says Jack McCabe of McCabe Research & Consulting. But the run-up in real estate values wasn't underpinned by growth in population or jobs. "These were markets that were heavily dominated by investor flippers, speculative flippers," McCabe says. "They had no intention of ever occupying the property." When prices crashed, more than 55 percent of single-family homeowners found themselves underwater through the fourth quarter of 2009. And as stagnant sales undercut the housing sector's ability to create jobs, area unemployment reached 14 percent.
5. Fort Myers, Fla.: Over on Florida's west coast, the housing market in Fort Myers experienced a similar phenomenon. An aggressive boom-and-bust cycle has handed negative equity positions to 55 percent of single-family homeowners. And like other housing-boom hotspots, the pain hasn't been limited to real estate values. "We had extremely low unemployment during the boom years because it was all construction jobs," McCabe says. "There was no industry growth and there was no company growth. These were all real estate-related businesses—brokers, title companies, appraisers, and on and on." After the housing euphoria subsided, many employees of real estate-related companies lost their jobs. Unemployment in the Ft. Myers area hit 14 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009.
6. Bend, Ore.: Vacation home buyers, speculative investors, and unique land-use laws worked to drive home prices in Bend sharply higher during the housing boom, says Lester Friedman, president-elect of the Central Oregon Association of Realtors. But as the market petered out, prices headed south in a hurry. "When the market turned, all of a sudden instead of multiple bidders, you've got multiple sellers and very few buyers," Friedman says. Declining real estate values dragged nearly 41 percent of Bend's homeowners underwater. Meanwhile, the housing bust hit the local economy by eroding demand for wood products, an industry that expanded swiftly as real estate values climbed, according to Celia Chen of Moody's Economy.com. Friedman notes that weakness in the tourism sector, which slowed along with the broader economy, has also helped lead to an unemployment rate that topped 14 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009.
7. Ocala, Fla.: The central Florida community of Ocala, which is located north of Orlando, is in the same precarious position as the coastal cities of Port St. Lucie and Fort Myers. Thirty-six percent of homeowners in Ocala are underwater, and area unemployment stood at 14 percent in the fourth quarter of last year. "All throughout Florida—from one coast to the other and in between—the market was overdeveloped and overbuilt," McCabe says. "And that includes the Ocala market."
8. Detroit: A number of cities located outside of the housing-boom hotspots are also facing the twin dangers of high unemployment and negative equity. The erosion of its traditional manufacturing industrial base has helped drive unemployment in the Detroit area to more than 16 percent through the fourth quarter of 2009, Chen says. "And at the same time, there was some very aggressive lending going on during the housing bubble," Chen says. "So many buyers were getting credit who probably shouldn't have gotten credit." High unemployment and exotic home loans have combined to drag nearly 26 percent of area homeowners underwater through the fourth quarter of 2009.
9. Rockford, Ill.: These same forces have worked to land Rockford—a city of 157,000 located in northern Illinois—in a comparable fix, Chen says. Local unemployment hit 16 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009. "The Midwest did go into the recession earlier than the rest of [the country], so the situation has been eroding for a longer period of time," Chen says. At the same time, more than 22 percent of homeowners had negative equity in the final three months of last year.