You can say the real estate boom is "over," but that's like saying the nuclear bomb that hit Hiroshima was "over" six months after it hit. Lives have been forever altered. Things will never be the same.

I'm not a home-owner, and I don't want to be. I love my rental apartment: my landlady fixes anything that breaks, and I've got no tax, insurance, or maintenance bill. It is great to be a renter in South Florida.

But even I can't help but get upset when I hear that the house beside my apartment (a shabby 1950s affair) just sold for nearly a million dollars. It's not that I wish I could buy it; it's that I wish a resident could buy it. This new owner's just an investor like the last one was. The house has been standing empty for as long as I can remember.

And that house is not alone: all up and down my street the vacant smiles of real estate agents glint from swinging metal signs. A few of them have been defaced with horns and Hitler-style moustaches. Those of us who really live here feel threatened by these absent owners and their grinning minions. They buy, they flip. They buy, they flip. Our neighborhoods are disappearing. And the prices have left Earth orbit!

South Florida doesn't have a "Silicon Valley"; we have tourism. But most who work in hospitality can't afford to live here anymore. If you're wondering why the waitress is so rude, try to imagine how far away she must live to be able to pay rent on her tips, and then figure out what tiny fraction of her gas bill you just paid with the tip you left.

As a native Floridian, I know how important it is to keep the tourists and snow birds happy. Instead, we've raised their rates and made life hell for the wage-earners whose faces they see when they come here. This is not smart business, and this is not a smart way to run a state.

On top of that, it seems unAmerican. I don't like the thought that -- beside waitresses and hotel clerks -- nurses, teachers, and firefighters can't afford to own a home, especially while so many homes stand as empty investments for who-knows-whom.

The public officials whose response is to build housing projects for the middle-class have entirely missed the point of living in the U S of A: freedom. The freedom to choose our careers, and to choose a middle-class career that will make society stronger, even if one can never get rich doing it. The freedom to choose where we live, and not be told "here is the ghetto for people who do not pursue money at the expense of all else."

There must be a place of honor in a society for skilled, educated, moral people who devote their lives to saving ours, or to educating our children. These people are heros -- and while everyone acknowledges that, it's little more than lip-service if we cannot do the one and only right and moral thing and give them raises commensurate with the cost of living.

They have names for countries in which the majority of hard-working people cannot afford to own a home, where property is owned by a few local investors, and rich foreigners. "Third world country" has given way to "developing nation," but what do we call a place that has the hallmarks of a "developing nation," but is not, in fact, developing? A place in which the middle class was once strong and healthy, but is now shrinking and weakening? What do we propose to call ourselves? A regressing country?

There is a reason that real estate has become so emotional a subject, a reason that South Floridians debate housing price trends with fevered brows, whether they own homes or have any connection to the business, or not. It has become emotional because this is not about buying a house or making a payment: this is about the collapse of the middle class. This is about our entry into the brotherhood of less-advanced countries. It's about a dysfunctional market digging its sickly claws into the heart of the American Dream, and squeezing until the life is gone.

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