Sunshine doesn't pay the bills

Second of two parts: Signs of an exodus are here. Some blame the real estate slump; others aren't so sure.

Published June 11, 2007

THONOTOSASSA - The half-dozen child-sized violins lined up on Cynthia Jolley's driveway were once played by students at her Temple Terrace music studio.

She closed the studio in October because of increasing expenses and declining enrollment - including 10 students whose parents either left the state or told her they planned to. By last month, the violins had become yard-sale fodder to unload before she and her husband, Walter Hause, move to her hometown in central Tennessee.

"Actually, if we stayed, we wouldn't have had anybody to teach, " Jolley, 40, joked. "It seemed like we were losing everybody."

So it is across the state. Squeezed by rising property taxes and homeowners insurance rates, and frustrated by crowded roads and schools, increasing numbers of residents are moving from Florida, which since World War II has been one of America's favorite states to move to. To be sure, Florida remains a strong lure, particularly for retirees, but evidence is mounting that the migration boom it experienced in the first half of the decade is over:

- Public school enrollment, expected to climb by nearly 49, 000 students last school year, dropped by 3, 571, the first decline in 24 years.

- The number of Florida drivers seeking licenses in other states has increased since 2005, while the number of out-of-state drivers moving to Florida has fallen.

- Three of the nation's largest van lines moved more customers out of the state than into it last year, reversing a decades-long trend.

Many housing analysts say these are signs not of a long-term population shift but of the slumping real estate market.

"It's temporary, " said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wachovia Corp. "Housing prices will correct. ... We need a couple of years with no hurricanes to right the ship."

But Harvey Bennett, senior vice president of Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit group supported in part by corporations, a sees the statistics as warning signs that the state Legislature should heed when it meets this week to address rising property taxes.

"You look at these numbers and wonder whether this is a watershed moment for Florida, " Bennett said.

On the other hand ...

Growth has been so strong for so long in Florida that even wondering about it is momentous, said Gary Mormino, professor of Florida studies at the University of South Florida.

"This is the first time since the recession of the 1970s when real question marks appear about the future of Florida, " he said.

About 90 percent of the state's population growth since 1950 - from about 3-million to more than 18-million - has stemmed from migration, said Stanley Smith, director of the state Bureau of Economic and Business Research, "and the lion's share of that is migration from other states."

This stream of net immigration - the measure of people moving into Florida minus those moving out - has clearly dwindled since statewide sales of existing homes peaked two years ago this month. The slowdown aside, few housing analysts or population researchers are convinced it has stopped or begun to flow the other way.

"There are always a certain number of people who move to Florida and shuffle around to other parts of the South, " said Chuck Longino, a professor of gerontology at Wake Forest University. "I know the media calls them 'halfbacks' and says they are extremely numerous, but I don't buy it until I see some hard numbers."

The evidence against a historic exodus includes statistics from U-Haul, which continued to move more residents into the state than out of it in 2006, and the total number of Florida drivers, which increased last year by 1.4 percent. Also, growth in the state has dropped dramatically during previous economic downturns, in the mid 1970s and early 1980s, Smith said.

Finally, the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic and Business Research show strong growth, with the state agency calculating that Florida gained 430, 905 residents in the 12 months ending April 1, 2006 - one of the largest annual increases in the state's history and well above the rate Florida is famous for: 1, 000 new residents per day.

The state's new estimate, due out in August, will show slower but continued population growth based on the number of new residential electric customers and building permits, said Smith, though he cautioned that the report is meant to track trends, not pinpoint annual gains.

"It's possible that it overstated the true growth because of the bubble and the speculation, " he said. "Year by year, it can be a little misleading."

Popularity as myth

Or a lot misleading, considering the high level of speculation throughout Florida, said Jack McCabe, owner of McCabe Research & Consulting in Deerfield Beach.

He also thinks the Census Bureau's estimate, based mostly on tax filings for the 2005 tax year, is too old to be meaningful.

"The population surveys we're getting from government agencies are not anywhere near what's happening in real life, " said McCabe, who said the state - and certainly its most crowded and expensive counties -may be losing more migrants than it is gaining.

Most of South Florida - Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties- has seen declines in numbers of public school students and licensed drivers in the past year. So has Pinellas County, which lost 2, 265 students last school year and 7, 601 drivers in 2006.

Meanwhile, Florida's housing market "underwent a large sales slump last year, " said Lawrence Yun, an economist with the National Association of Realtors. "Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas by contrast all had record home sales in 2006."

Atlantic Relocation Systems of Tampa, an agent for Atlas Van Lines, moved more people out of the state than in for the first time in memory last year, said Bob Glenn, vice president and general manager. Many more out-of-state moves have been delayed by the sluggish housing market, he said.

"We've got people who have been on the active list (to move) going back to September and they still haven't been able to sell, " he said. "People are almost being held hostage by their homes."

McCabe said, "It's anecdotal evidence but it's a preponderance of evidence. The idea of 1, 000 people per day moving to Florida is an absolute myth at this point."

The bottom line

Whatever the extent of the shifting migration, the root cause is money, most analysts and demographers say: Florida didn't lose its allure; it became too expensive to compete with other Southern states.

The state's housing prices were overinflated by speculation during the boom, said Vitner, the Wachovia economist. Even with recent declines in Florida prices, the median-priced home in South Florida costs more than twice as much as one in Atlanta, according to the National Association of Realtors. The median price of a house in the Tampa Bay area, $203, 200, is at least $18, 000 higher than one in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., or Columbia, S.C.

Surging housing costs drove the increase in property taxes from 2001, when the average amount of state and local taxes Floridians paid ranked 36th in the nation, to 2005, when the state ranked 26th, according to TaxWatch. Inflated home prices also contributed to higher insurance premiums, which have jumped from an average of $930 in 2004, when the state was hit by four hurricanes, to $1, 600 in 2006, according to the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

"In the past, Florida was a low-tax, low-cost, low-wage state, " said Bennett, of TaxWatch, "but increasingly it is just a low-wage state and that's a serious concern."

If housing prices continue to fall and lawmakers can reduce taxes and control insurance rates, the thinking goes, Florida will resume attracting Northerners, including a large share of the 77-million baby boomer retirees.

"I haven't seen the data that people are a whole lot more inclined to stay in Buffalo than their parents were, " said Larry Polivka, professor of aging studies at USF.

The congestion state

Departing Floridians usually have many reasons for leaving the state. Money plays a part. So do the consequences of the state's rapid and, some say, poorly controlled growth.

"At what point is there so much growth that the dream turns sour? I don't know if anyone knows that answer, " Florida-studies professor Mormino said.

Jolley and Hause, the Thonotosassa couple planning to move to Tennessee, sold their manufactured home on half an acre for $148, 000. The couple, who plan to live temporarily with Jolley's parents, say they are looking at slab-built homes on larger lots that cost as little as $84, 000. They will also be leaving behind the traffic jams that turned the 10-mile drive to their studio into a half-hour crawl.

"I was shocked at everything being so expensive and crowded down here, " said Hause, 59, a retired pharmaceutical chemist from Pennsylvania.

Eddie and Peggy Castro sold their house in the Old Southeast neighborhood of St. Petersburg for $233, 000 and bought a townhouse for $129, 000 near Augusta, Ga. Their annual savings on homeowners insurance will be nearly $2, 900, they said, but more important, they escaped crime, crowds of boaters in their favorite waterways, and out-of-control condominium development.

"This is not the little town I grew up in, " said Peggy Castro, 51, who had lived in St. Petersburg since 1966.

Britt Wirt, a real estate agent from Redington Shores, said he and his wife, Virginia, plan to build a retirement home in eastern Tennessee on a wooded 5-acre tract with a stream and a waterfall they bought for $40, 000.

"When we saw that waterfall, we said, 'That's it. The search is over, ' " said Wirt, 64.

"I was born and raised in Florida and my wife has been here 35 to 40 years. ... With the taxes, the insurance and the crowds, we've just about had our fill."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or (352)754-6116. Staff writer Tom Zucco contributed to this report.


About this series

Florida has been transformed over the last decade by a huge migration from other states. But there's mounting evidence the tide has turned.

Sunday: A look inside the migration boom. Among the shifting patterns: By 2005, the Northeast had replaced the Midwest as the top source of migrants to the Tampa Bay area. Read more at news.tampabay.com.

Today: Is Florida losing its allure? Data on school enrollment, driver's licenses and moving companies all indicate a slowdown of Florida's growth - and reversal in some cases.