A Quaint Town in Georgia Struggles With the Real Estate Crisis

ghost towns of the great recessionI fell in love with a newly-built neighborhood called Vickery the first time I saw it in 2004. Located just north of Atlanta in Cumming, Georgia, Vickery's turn-of-the-century architecture and tree-lined sidewalks feels like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. The narrow streets and village storefronts suggest an ideal version of the American dream, one that I embraced fully when I moved in. Not surprisingly, the neighborhood was voted one of the best in Atlanta in 2006.

To the residents' dismay, Hedgewood Builders, which was developing the town of Vickery from scratch, declared bankruptcy in 2008, and all construction came to an immediate halt. Hammers were dropped on the spot, construction supplies were left to the elements, and many homes sat unfinished for months on end. Slab foundations remain untouched to this day and the empty storefronts exude the desolation of a ghost town. Vickery's empty lots are dotted with tall green plumbing posts instead of pine trees and new homes. The neighborhood shopping area once boasted boutiques and gift shops within walking distance, but the stores are all empty now.

Homes priced in the $800,000's have plummeted to the low $600,000's and unscrupulous foreclosure purchases have prompted law suits and investigations. In the meantime, a homeowner's association special assessment of $750 dollars on top of the annual fees of $975 has left residents wondering if the real estate bust is going to get worse before it gets better.

It's discouraging for residents to see that 75% of the lots in Vickery are bank owned, especially since we will continue to carry the load of homeowner association fees for vacant lots until the neighborhood is completely built out.

There's a sense among residents that the neighborhood will not be able to sustain itself if the current housing market conditions persist. As it currently stands, there are 31 liens against homeowners who have not been able to pay their HOA fees. As a homeowner struggling to pay the rising HOA fees and property taxes, I worry that at some point it may become too expensive to stay.

Not everything in the community is failing, though. The neighborhood YMCA is still going strong, and provides a meeting place and plenty of activities. Four restaurants anchor the empty retail village, maintaining a decent flow of customers despite the town's problems. And two new homes have been completed recently.

Even so, the recovery in Vickery has been painfully slow, and home values aren't showing signs of returning to original purchase pricing anytime soon.

Other communities around Atlanta are also suffering. But it's little comfort to know that surrounding neighborhoods have suffered the same fate as Vickery. And although the thought of leaving is sometimes a temptation, there is no point in leaving Vickery's woes only to jump into another struggling development, which may be even more desolate.

Given the weak economy and the frightful outlook for the jobs market, it looks like vacant muddy lots and tattered silt fences will be a part of the Vickery lifestyle for some time. However, as far as ghost towns go, I still think Vickery is one of the best haunts this side of Atlanta, so for now I'm going to keep hoping for a storybook ending.

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