DAVID GREENE, HOST:
One of the biggest issues in the Florida GOP primary race is housing. Mitt Romney is using Newt Gingrich's past work for the housing giant Freddy Mac as a bludgeon to attack his rival. But the issue is certainly not just a political talking point. Three years after the economic collapse, foreclosures continue to affect real people every day in an extremely personal way. NPR's Ari Shapiro met some of them in Sarasota.
ARI SHAPRIO, BYLINE: Phil DeFreese has been a real estate broker since he was about 25.
PHIL DEFREESE: And basically, I'm a senior citizen. So that's a lot of years.
SHAPRIO: He's seen it all. He lost more than a million dollars in the real estate bubble here. But what happened to his colleague was truly awful.
DEFREESE: He had bought six properties just before the end of the boom, and he couldn't recover. Instead of just going back to the bank, he committed suicide, left a wife and two young kids - crazy.
SHAPRIO: These kids of stories are disturbingly easy to find in Sarasota. Florida has more foreclosures than almost any other state, one of the highest rates in the country. At nearly 10 percent, unemployment here is worse than the rest of the country. And Sarasota is worse than other parts of the state.
DON HEDSELL: We took names for our rental assistance program, and we had 1,400 people apply in one week. And we'll have about 50 vouchers available each year.
SHAPRIO: Don Hedsell is the director of the Sarasota Office of Housing and Community Development. He says the city was flooded with housing during the boom years. Everyone built everything they could and sold to anyone who would buy. Now he fears the situation might still get worse before it improves. He says some people have lost their faith in the American dream.
HEDSELL: I think people felt that they were worked real hard, they were able to get where they wanted to be and buy a house, and then to have seen that home taken away from them and they wonder whether or not they're ever going to be able to do it again.
SHAPRIO: Herlinka Jackson didn't even get that far. She was living in a rental unit she learned that the apartment's owner had not been making the mortgage payments.
HERLINKA JACKSON: They went to court one day, and the next day, we had to get out.
SHAPRIO: So you had less than 24 hours notice?
JACKSON: Yeah. One day.
SHAPRIO: How long ago did that happen?
JACKSON: Like, three days before Christmas.
SHAPRIO: Shereena Brown sits nearby, on a chair outside of the Trinity Multicultural Life Church. She had a similar experience: The man who owned her mother's apartment skipped town when he couldn't pay the mortgage on his properties, and after 15 years in the same home, Brown's mother had to leave.
SHEENA BROWN: When you dealing with a mother that's in her 70s and they're comfortable, they get in their comfort zone, and they have their issues with their illnesses, it's hard for them to tell them that, hey, I'm sorry, old lady. You got to go.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Her pastor at the church is Teresa Perkins. She owns her house, but just barely.
PASTOR THERESA PERKINS: They loaned me out money, and then they upped my mortgage payment. So I that's how we lost - I didn't lose my house, but I had to get a modification. And a lot of people can't get modifications because they got the loan for their house, and then the job went down, they lost their job, and then the housing is no more.
SHAPIRO: So the housing crisis, the unemployment crisis, and the larger economic crisis are all entangled here in Florida and across the country. At a round-table discussion in Tampa yesterday, Mitt Romney said it's impossible to solve one problem without solving all of them.
MITT ROMNEY: This market will not recover. You won't have home values start rising and ending the challenges that we're talking about until people are back at work.
SHAPIRO: That may be true, but to people like Pastor Theresa Perkins, it doesn't sound like a solution to the immediate problem. She believes there's not much any politician can do to fix this mess.
PERKINS: Promises, that's all they know. They're making a lot of promises that they're not probably able to keep.
SHAPIRO: As Romney sat around that table in Tampa yesterday, the only promise he made was a very general one: he reassured the people who were underwater, out of their homes, or out of work that it gets better.
Ari Shaprio, NPR News, Sarasota, Florida. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.