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More people are moving to Tampa Bay from South Florida. Why?

As the region’s population booms, Hillsborough County is poised to surpass Palm Beach County in population growth.
Kiana Jamies, 23, left, Kenner Rodriguez, 29, right, and Natalia Melo, 25, who is not pictured, enjoy refreshments at Sal y Mar Rooftop Bar while the Tampa skyline is seen at a distance, on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.
Kiana Jamies, 23, left, Kenner Rodriguez, 29, right, and Natalia Melo, 25, who is not pictured, enjoy refreshments at Sal y Mar Rooftop Bar while the Tampa skyline is seen at a distance, on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO ]
Published Dec. 9, 2021|Updated Apr. 9

Sufyan Harb never thought he’d leave Miami, a city he’d lived in for nearly three decades.

He visited Tampa earlier this year after hearing “many good things” about the Gulf Coast side of the state and fell in love. He bought a home in Tampa in October, something he couldn’t afford to do in South Florida.

“It’s impossible,” Harb said. “If I want to buy a house in a good location, it would not even be in Miami, but outside the city.”

He said he feels more financially secure in Tampa, and is enjoying the “quieter life” he has here in comparison.

It’s no secret that the population in Florida, and Tampa Bay, is growing. But it’s not only northerners fleeing the cold who are flocking to Tampa Bay. A new feeder market is emerging from within the state — residents from South Florida are moving to Tampa Bay at a fast clip.

South Florida — from Palm Beach to Miami — has had the three most populous counties in the state for decades. But the most recent surge of people into Tampa Bay may push Hillsborough into one of the top counties in the coming years, according to researchers from the University of Florida.

And new data from the 2020 U.S. Census shows that much of the local growth is from residents already living in Florida who are moving to Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay is growing faster than South Florida, and that pattern isn’t showing signs of slowing down, said Stefan Rayer, director of the UF Bureau of Economic and Business Research population program.

“If the trends continue, then you would expect Hillsborough County to move up pretty soon,” Rayer said. He and a group of academic researchers, in partnership with the state government, are updating growth forecasts within Florida.

Related: How Tampa and Orlando could become the next ‘megaregion’

The Tampa Bay metro region — which includes St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa — grew more by than 14 percent in a decade, according to the Census Bureau. The Miami region — which includes Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — grew by 10 percent.

Hillsborough County had 1.45 million residents, according to the 2020 Census, and Palm Beach County had 1.49 million.

Both counties have grown quickly in the past decade, Rayer said, and it’s just a matter of time before Hillsborough surpasses Palm Beach.

Tampa Bay was ranked as one of the top five emerging real estate markets in the country for 2022 by the Urban Land Institute, a real estate industry group. The white-hot market here was also recognized as the sixth largest in the country and the top in Florida, according to the real estate firm CommercialCafe.

New construction at Water Street Tampa, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 in Tampa.
New construction at Water Street Tampa, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

But the one market driving most new residents into Tampa Bay may surprise you: It’s Miami.

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For Tom Pilla, who left Pembroke Pines to move to Carrollwood in April 2020, it came down to affordability.

The 36-year-old sales manager for Kraft Heinz said he sold his two-bedroom townhome about 20 miles north of Miami for a four-bedroom single-family home in the Tampa Bay area for about the same price.

The median listing price for homes for sale in Hillsborough County is $359,000, according to Realtor.com. In Miami-Dade County, it’s $450,000.

Pilla works from home and doesn’t have to worry about the morning commute, one that took nearly an hour and a half to get to his office in downtown Miami.

“It’s a substantial difference,” he said.

Historically, new residents in Tampa Bay have come from New York or the Midwest, or from nearby Orlando. But Miami took the top spot, according to 2015 to 2019 Census data released in September.

The most recent Census data on metro-to-metro migrations is from before the pandemic, but CommercialCafe’s analysis found that migration trends for Sun Belt regions such as Tampa Bay have accelerated in the past two years.

Luxury real estate agent Jennifer Zales said she’d never seen such high interest in Tampa Bay from Floridians on the East Coast until the pandemic.

”I get calls from Miami for people who are looking to relocate because they’re priced out of their own market,” Zales said, who works for Coldwell Banker.

South Florida residents are looking to get a better value for similar properties, Zales said. Waterfront homes can range from $5 million to $10 million, she said, while those around Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach typically go for $15 million to $20 million.

More recent data analyzed by RedFin in the third quarter of 2021 showed that most people browsing their site for homes in the Tampa Bay area were from Orlando, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Miami.

One problem with recent narratives about northerners flocking south during the pandemic, Rayer said, is that there’s not enough data to know whether the people buying the homes are living in them. They could be part-time residents, such as snowbirds, or investors.

“It’s very difficult figuring out whether or not the move is permanent,” he said. Rayer’s team of researchers is recalibrating the state’s data as they do every decade, using the Census results and other metrics, such as building permits, electricity use and postal address changes to predict how much cities and counties will grow in the next five years.

Even without the calculations, Kristine Smale can see that demand is high for suburban regions. People are moving out of expensive cities for more affordable places that offer more space, said Smale, who leads the Florida advisory team for the real estate research firm Zonda. More flexibility to work remotely has also accelerated interest.

Tampa also was rated by Forbes as the top emerging technology city in the country this year, which Smale said is boosting the area’s profile.

“All the national recognition for job growth and higher income levels ... That’s a huge deal,” she said. “Tampa is certainly outpacing South Florida in terms of future growth potential. There’s just a lack of developable land in South Florida.”

Developers are noticing the demand, too. The latest example may be Mast Capital, a South Florida firm that acquired 16 acres in Wesley Chapel and plans to begin construction of 248 luxury apartment units early next year. Several more projects are planned in the area.

“With Tampa being one of the fastest growing MSAs (metropolitan statistical areas) in Florida, it was difficult to ignore,” said Camilo Miguel Jr., Mast Capital’s chief executive.

But Tampa Bay isn’t the only metro area in the state growing faster than South Florida.

Even if Hillsborough becomes the third most populous county, it might not take long before Orange County — home to Orlando — could knock it down a ranking.

Orange County — with a population of 1.42 million — grew by nearly 25 percent over the past 10 years, according to Census data. Hillsborough grew by 18.75 percent.

“You can only grow three ways in Tampa,” Smale said, because it borders the Gulf of Mexico, “as opposed to Orlando, which can grow in any direction.”

Pinellas County saw the slowest population growth in the region at 4.6 percent, according to the Census. Duval County jumped ahead of Pinellas as the fifth-largest county after growing more than 15 percent between 2010 and 2020.

Related: In Tampa Bay, it takes three minimum wage jobs to make rent, report says

Tampa Bay is more affordable than Miami, Smale said, but that likely won’t last long. The median resale price in Tampa Bay surpassed a historic $300,000 last year, and Zonda forecasts that price will continue to climb.

For people moving from expensive cities, that’s a bargain.

“They’re not gonna bat an eye to that price,” Smale said. “But that’s going to affect the locals a lot more.”

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