Tampa Bay is still clustered among the most financially distressed major metros in the country. But cheer up: Consumers here are healing at a faster pace than anywhere else.
In fact, out of the country's 30 biggest metros, Tampa Bay was one of just three to post better scores than last time in the Consumer Distress Index being released today by credit counseling agency CredAbility. And the other two metros on an upward swing, Orlando and Detroit, improved only marginally compared with a noticeable boost for Tampa Bay.
A year ago, CredAbility placed the bay area in the "emergency crisis" category, which signifies a tipping point when a significant number of households struggle to pay for basic needs like food and housing. Now, Tampa Bay has moved up a notch and is in the middle of the "distressed unstable" range.
With an index number of 64.1, the region still needs to improve considerably — surpassing 70 — to break into the low range of what's considered healthy. The U.S. index, by comparison, fell to 70.7 for the quarter, barely above the distress cutoff.
The biggest problem pushing down the national index — and most of the big metros — are strained household budgets because of higher payroll taxes that went into effect in January and federal budget cuts.
"The fact Tampa Bay could have gains in employment and housing that more than offset that (payroll tax cut) shows the strength of your local economy," said CredAbility spokesman Scott Scredon.
Tampa Bay added 35,900 new jobs over the year, helping push its unemployment down from 9.1 percent to 6.9 percent, the single-biggest plunge among top metros. The region's housing market remains troubled, but it is improving quickly with the mortgage delinquency rate dropping from 12.1 percent to 10.7 percent in just one quarter.
If the trend continues, the bay area has "a good chance" to climb out of the distressed level over the next year, said Broc Rosser, Florida regional president for CredAbility.
A year ago, Tampa Bay ranked as the most stressed-out metro in the country based on measures like housing woes, unemployment, credit, household budget and net worth. In CredAbility's first-quarter update, the bay area now ranks as third most-stressed, trailing only Orlando and Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.
On the national level, Florida was the only state to eke out a gain during the quarter, thanks to drops in both the unemployment rate and mortgage delinquency rates.
By its nature, the index is backward-looking. But Rosser and Scredon point to one sign that the upswing will continue: demand is picking up strongly for their credit counseling classes geared to first-time home buyers.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8242.