Brink: Tampa Bay isn’t all that affordable anymore. Here’s why.

No state income tax helps, but here in the bay area our region is still losing ground to our peer cities.
The Tampa Bay area isn't as affordable as you might think or have been led to believe.
The Tampa Bay area isn't as affordable as you might think or have been led to believe.
Published January 11
Updated January 11

The Tampa Bay area is often touted for its low cost of living, especially compared to places like New York City or Washington, D.C. The lack of a state income tax makes it particularly attractive for retirees who sell expensive houses up north and bring fat 401(k)s.

But what about the rest of us? The ones who work here. How affordable is it?

More often, we aren’t scoring that well.

In a recent look at housing affordability, our metro area placed in the bottom quarter. In the Tampa Bay Partnership’s competitiveness report released in December, we ranked 17th out of 20 peer cities when it came to the cost of transportation.

And just a few days ago, WalletHub released a report that looked at the best states to raise a family. Florida ranked 39th overall, tucked between North Carolina and Arizona.

Dig into the report and the reason for the poor ranking becomes clear.

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WalletHub’s number crunchers analyzed 49 indicators that they bundled into five groups — family fun, health and safety, education and child care, socioeconomics, and affordability, which included everything from credit scores to house prices to debt levels.

Florida had a high fun quotient, helped by our abundance of theme parks and outdoor recreation. We didn’t do well on the socioeconomics or the health and safety scores. We had a high divorce rate, a middling infant mortality rate and too many families living in poverty.

But what really stood out: We ranked second to last in affordability. Only Nevada scored lower for what it costs to raise a family.

We don’t score well in part because we don’t pay well. The Tampa Bay metro area’s typical household earns a little more than $52,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Denver, it’s $76,633. Dallas, $67,382. Houston, $63,802. St. Louis, $61,571. Unfortunately, of the 25 biggest metro areas, we earn the least.

Affordability is a two-step equation: How much does something cost, and what’s the capacity to pay for it? Those stubbornly low wages make it harder to afford things like child care, doctors visits and saving for retirement, even if they cost the same as they do in those other cities.

Sure, some things are more expensive in those places. But the reverse is true, too. We generally pay more for car and homeowner’s insurance. Our property taxes can be higher.

Besides, look at the wide gap between us and them in those income figures. Is it really that much more expensive to live in St. Louis? No, it costs less, according to most cost-of-living calculators.

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As for income taxes, six other states don’t have one. They all have higher median incomes than Florida. So much for that being an excuse for not paying as well.

Home prices help illustrate the affordability challenge. Our houses cost a bit less than in Minneapolis, but that doesn’t make our market more affordable. Minneapolis residents make significantly more money, so it’s easier for them to pay for slightly pricier homes.

In fact, Minnesota had the highest median family income when adjusted for cost of living. It helps explain why that state is the best place to raise a family, according to WalletHub.

And why we aren’t.

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.