Florida is growing, but at what cost?

An editorial by the TAMPA BAY TIMES

First the good news: Florida was the fastest-growing state in the nation last year, new figures show. That growth breathes new life into the economy and makes Florida more attractive and competitive on the global stage. But the state is lagging behind in key investments — in housing, health care, transportation and other core sectors — that threaten to turn today’s growth into tomorrow’s bubble.

The Sunshine State had the fastest-growing population in the country last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released last week, the first time the state had taken the top spot since 1957.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Ian Hodgson reported, the nation’s third-largest state grew by 1.9% from July 2021 to July 2022, netting more than 400,000 new residents, and bringing the state’s population to about 22.2 million.

While Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis likes to credit his own economic and social policies and relaxed approach to COVID-19, the reasons for this influx are many and more complex. After all, Florida’s population has grown every year since the 1940s, often outpacing the national average.

And like the rest of the U.S., that growth rate slowed to historic lows during the first years of the pandemic before bouncing back last year.

Demographers at the University of Florida say the state’s warm climate, lack of an income tax and business- friendly environment are major attractors. The majority of people moving to Florida last year were older U.S. adults at or near retirement age, these experts said. Residents have also moved to Florida to take advantage of working remotely as the pandemic changed the workplace, selling properties in New York, California and other relatively high-cost states and buying cheaper properties in Florida. But as out-of-state money competes for scarce housing, that drives up the price, so “cheaper” isn’t what it once was. Worse, those newcomers soon learn firsthand about the state’s ongoing property insurance crisis when they find themselves paying premiums two to three times higher than they did up North.

This migration has also pushed up rents. And it’s made it harder for employers to hire enough workers to staff Florida’s traditional industries, from retail and restaurants to the broader services sector.

Several new reports last month show Florida’s continued difficulty in attracting teachers and training skilled nurses. And as the metropolitan areas continue to grow, business leaders are worried about Florida’s ability to staff its core industries, from schools and hospitals to the ever-important tourist sector.

The plight of rising costs on the working class was evident throughout Tampa Bay earlier this year, when residents packed city council meetings in St. Petersburg and Tampa crying out for restrictions on rising rents. Many of these residents complained that their modest wages or retirement savings were no longer sufficient for rising everyday costs, from housing and insurance to groceries and gasoline. What will the trend lines of Florida’s population look like in the coming years if this economic imbalance continues to grow?

And will transplants to Florida have the workforce to provide their expectations of a quality life? That out-of-state gravy train will keep rolling only so long as the workers already here in Florida have the education to do the job and the wages to afford to stay here. So many new residents also raises the question of where, exactly, to put them.

As Hurricanes Ian and Nicole made clear, we have to be careful about where to build and how to build safely. Sea level rise and climate change only complicate these questions for a low-lying state like ours.

Pressure on our wild spaces threatens the very Florida many come to seek, and our strained aquifers will struggle to provide the fresh water to slake the thirst of these legions of new Floridians.

These are some of policy questions Florida lawmakers need to ponder, and there’s no greater reflection point than the New Year. The goal shouldn’t be growth but sustainable growth, which requires a diverse economic base and stable living opportunities for residents of all incomes.