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Crossing the Lehman Causeway into Sunny Isles Beach, you might wonder if you've been sucked into an interstate wormhole in the space-time continuum and landed in downtown Miami. Construction cranes perch atop a skyline that, though dominated by high-rises, still strains upward. The whine and hum of heavy machinery and manpower fills the salty air. On a recent weekday morning, men in hard hats are about the only pedestrians visible on the sidewalks of Collins Avenue.
A few blocks south of the bridge, Lucy Collins closes the windows in her 2/2 condominium apartment, despite the sea breeze. "I think I'll put on the air," she says apologetically. She shuts the screen door on her south-facing balcony, which has views of the Intracoastal and Oleta State Park. To the east she can glimpse the Atlantic Ocean, but it is fast disappearing behind The Donald's latest: Trump Towers, at 15901 Collins Ave., his third high-rise project in the area. A sign in front of the rising building reads, "Sunny Isles Beach Redefined."
"I had the whole ocean view before they started putting Trump up," says Collins. Worse, says the 60-year-old redhead, "foreclosure could be on the horizon." She purchased her apartment, number 408 at the low-slung Kings Point Imperial, in late 2005 when the market was hot. "You can't go wrong buying this property," she remembers being told. Thanks to an adjustable rate mortgage, she now pays almost twice what she used to spend on rent for a similar apartment — more than $2000 a month, and the bill is rising.
"I've already borrowed $12,000 on my credit cards just to keep going," Collins says. She is even considering cashing in her IRA, as well as looking for a job at Home Depot. "Instead of working less as I get older, I'm having to work more. I want out.... You see what's happening in Sunny Isles.... I'm thinking I would just leave the state."
This is the epicenter of Florida's mortgage foreclosure crisis. A June Money Magazine survey listed 33160 — which includes all of Sunny Isles and Golden Beach, and small parts of Aventura and North Miami Beach — as the area with the most foreclosures in Florida, second only to Atlanta in the southeastern United States. The North Miami-Dade zip code even broke into the national top 20, with 480 foreclosures filed in the first half of this year.
Other local zip codes making the nation's top 500 include parts of Brickell, a patch of unincorporated area south of Metrozoo, South Beach, and Homestead. Florida has 72 zip codes on the list; most are in South Florida. In June the region had 2175 foreclosure filings. That was up 167 percent from the same month last year. On a July 18 Fox News broadcast, real estate analyst Gary Kaltbaum referred to the Miami real estate market as "psychotic."
Sunny Isles Beach was once anything but. It was founded in 1920 by Harvey B. Graves, a furniture dealer from Rochester, New York. The interior of the shiny new city hall is lined with nostalgic photos of the town's Sixties-era Motel Row — places like the Marco Polo, the Aztec, the Waikiki, the Dunes, the Driftwood, the Sahara, and a dozen others, all of them long gone, replaced by the towers.
Harvey W. Graves, the 80-year-old grandson of the Sunny Isles Beach founder, hasn't visited since the Fifties. He remembers the town as being "very much in the boonies at that time. The thing I remember is scorpions and tarantulas," he says on the phone from his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Susan Lipp, a great-granddaughter of Harvey B. Graves, visited for the first time last November. "I remember my mom saying my great-grandfather had bought a lot of property in Florida, and I just didn't understand how much property had been bought. Sunny Isles is so different now. It's so rich now."
"They don't call it Sunny Isles anymore," says Helen, a waitress behind the counter at Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House, the neighborhood delicatessen that opened in 1954, and whose days are reportedly numbered. "They call it Shady Isles."
Peter Zalewski, who started the research firm Condo Vultures in March 2006 to help investors capitalize on the condo glut, says Sunny Isles Beach and neighboring communities are "filled with speculators who went in with no intention of staying.... Now they're desperate to get out." More than 30 of the most expensive 100 foreclosures in Northeast Miami-Dade are in Sunny Isles, according to Zalewski's research.
Area politicians point fingers elsewhere. Sunny Isles Mayor Norman Edelcup says he sees little evidence of a high foreclosure rate. "If it's not oceanside, it's taking longer to sell, but I don't really know where it's occurring," he says. "Perhaps [the foreclosures are taking place] in the Eastern Shores area [of North Miami Beach], or other parts of the zip code."
North Miami Beach Mayor Raymond Marin says that's not the case. "Most [foreclosures] would be occurring in Sunny Isles Beach and Aventura," he responds.
Aventura Mayor Susan Gottlieb didn't bother to return New Times's call.
Sunny Isles makes up the bulk of the zip code, and Lucy Collins expected to retire there. A sales associate for a cosmetics company, she has lived in the subtropics since she was eight years old, when her parents moved to South Beach from New York. She has always worked in sales, and says she excels at it: "I can sell anything."
She bought her unit in November 2005 — just after the market peaked — for $185,000. "Of course it was in its heyday," Collins says, as her yellow-and-gray-flecked cockatiel Sunshine perches on her shoulder. She says she needs to sell for $270,000 to pay off the debt she has taken on. She held an open house this past Father's Day. No one came.
"I don't believe in the American way," says Collins. She tried to refinance her mortgage, but the original lender, Countrywide, told her the loan had been sold to a third party. She can't renegotiate the terms. "I'm sick of loans. I remember, growing up, with my dad — if you couldn't pay for it in cash, you didn't buy it."
But that was a different time. The story in Sunny Isles Beach, says local real estate analyst Jack McCabe, "is a great metaphor for the correcting market and for the kind of speculation that's been going on. It hasn't even started yet. These foreclosures are going to multiply as the new buildings are being finished.... Miami is the most overbuilt condo market in the country."