Tampa Bay’s 9.6 percent inflation still tops other cities. These 5 charts show how.

Since November, local prices have shot up faster than in any other market in the country.
Empty shelves emptied of cat food at a Tampa grocery store.
Empty shelves emptied of cat food at a Tampa grocery store. [ SUE CARLTON/Times ]
Published Feb. 10, 2022|Updated Feb. 10, 2022

It’s no secret costs are still soaring in Tampa Bay.

Prices across the region rose an average of 9.6 percent last month compared to January 2021, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — the highest hike of any major market in the study.

That rate is even higher than the 8 percent annual inflation Tampa Bay saw in November, when it also topped all other cities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks inflation in 23 major markets on an every-other-month schedule. Tampa Bay’s 9.6 percent January inflation rate was the highest of the 12 markets studied in January, far outpacing Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Calif. (8.6 percent), San Diego (8.2 percent) and Denver (7.9 percent). It was just behind two markets studied in December, Atlanta (9.8 percent) and Phoenix (9.7 percent).

But Tampa Bay’s inflation surge since November — 2.4 percent — was the highest two-month leap of any major market in the country.

Nationwide, prices in January rose 7.5 percent over January 2021, the highest annual hike since 1982. Among the goods with the highest year-over-year inflation: Fuel oil (46.5 percent) and used cars and trucks (40.5 percent). Food prices rose 7 percent; shelter prices rose 4.4 percent.

Tampa Bay’s prices weren’t broken down by category in the January study. But in November, fuel was up 67.5 percent, used cars were up 30 percent, food was up 4.3 percent and shelter was up 8 percent.

Where are locals feeling the biggest pinch? And why are costs still rising?

Here’s a look at how regional prices have risen for food, housing and transportation — plus a look at how wages in the area haven’t kept up.

There’s no longer customer limits at Publix just for toilet paper and sanitizers: Bacon, cream cheese, heavy cream and cat food also are in short supply. The average grocery trip costs about 4 percent more than it did a year ago.

The biggest spikes in grocery are in meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Costs for those items have gone up 22.5 percent since November, according to federal data. Dairy products increased 2.4 percent. Alcoholic beverages are up 1.9 percent. Before the pandemic began, a gallon of milk at a Publix in Lutz cost $4.29. Now it’s more than $4.75.

Related: Coffee hacks to survive the Tampa Bay half-and-half shortage

Eating out has also gotten more expensive. A trip to a restaurant could cost 3.6 percent more than it did a year ago.

But not all foods are jumping in price. Cereal, baking products, fruits, vegetables and nonalcoholic beverages are cheaper now than last year.

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One of the major drivers of inflation in Tampa Bay is housing costs.

Most single-family homes in Pinellas County sold for more than $395,000 in December, according to data from Florida Realtors. In Hillsborough County, home prices were up nearly 25 percent from a year ago, with the average home price jumping from $298,000 to $373,100. Pasco County, where homes now sell for more than $350,000, saw the highest gains at about 30 percent last year.

Economists say the skyrocketing prices are due to more people moving to Florida, low interest rates, record investor buyers and a shortage of available houses.

Related: Is Tampa Bay's housing market reaching its peak?

Rising home prices are also pushing up rent costs at record rates, said Lei Wedge, an associate professor at University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business. Investors typically pay all cash, with no need for additional financing, driving up competition and leaving many potential first-time homebuyers out of luck. Most people ages 18 to 34 believe now is a bad time to buy a house, according to a January Fannie Mae survey. They’re more likely to stay renting, Wedge said.

“Investors are mostly concentrating on the cheaper home prices. So they make it very difficult for young families,” Wedge said.

High prices and steeper competition in Tampa Bay’s urban neighborhoods are pushing more people to buy in the suburbs. ZIP codes in Gibsonton, Riverview, Ruskin, Spring Hill, Brooksville and Port Richey saw housing prices shoot up nearly 35 percent.

Homebuyers could see prices begin to level out this year, after the Federal Reserve raises interest rates. That could happen as soon as next month.

As the cost of living in Tampa Bay has increased, wages haven’t kept pace with the rest of the nation.

From December 2017 to December 2021, the average weekly earnings for a private-sector worker in Tampa Bay rose from $917.59 — very close to the national average — to $1,010.89, an increase of 10.2 percent. Across Florida, however, weekly earnings rose 16.1 percent. And nationally, weekly salaries rose 18.2 percent to $1,086.46.

At the hourly level, Tampa Bay private-sector workers saw their wages rise from $26.64 per hour in 2017 — again, almost exactly the national average — to $29.65. That’s an increase of 12.1 percent. But the national hourly wage went even higher, rising 17.5 percent to $31.31.

Minimum-wage employees, too, have fallen further behind. Thirty states and territories, including Florida, have raised their minimum wage since 2018. Florida went from $8.25 per hour in 2018 to $10 this year, an increase of 21.2 percent. In the other 29 states and territories, minimum wage went from an average of $9.40 per hour to $11.67, an increase of 24.3 percent.

Every year, the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of local business leaders, produces a report on how Tampa Bay stacks up against peer markets like Nashville and Austin in a variety of economic and quality-of-life indicators. Out of the 20 markets in this year’s report, Tampa Bay finished 19th in wages. Orlando, Jacksonville and South Florida also made the bottom five.

Related: Tampa Bay lags in wages, housing, talent compared to peer markets: report

If wages aren’t keeping up with high housing costs, that’s a bad sign for the region’s long-term prospects, said Tampa Bay Partnership CEO and president Bemetra Simmons.

“Five years ago, people were like, ‘Yay, we have rising housing prices, that’s great!’ ” Simmons said. “But if it outpaces your wages, that’s not a good thing. As we continue to be a big-city region, we’re starting to have big-city region issues. And housing affordability is definitely one of those challenges.”

The average price of gas in Tampa Bay on Wednesday was $3.48 per gallon, according to AAA, the Auto Club Group. That’s just above the national and Florida averages, which both sat at $3.47 per gallon. But it tells only part of the story.

Gas prices in Tampa Bay have jumped more than $1.25 per gallon since Feb. 9, 2019. Not only is that higher than the statewide ($1.22) and national ($1.19) price-per-gallon increases during that span, it’s higher than drivers saw in Orlando ($1.23), Charlotte ($1.21), Nashville ($1.19), Miami ($1.18), Austin ($1.15) and Atlanta ($1.14).

The closer gas prices tick up to $3.50 per gallon, the more likely it is Floridians will change their driving habits, according to a January AAA survey. At that price, 13 percent of Florida drivers say they might travel less. At $3.75 per gallon, another 11 percent would drive less; at $4, another 17 percent would do so.

“We’re seeing the highest prices in about eight years, and people are having to respond to that,” said Mark Jenkins, a spokesperson for AAA in Florida. “Some people are likely going to try to stretch their dollars as best they can when they’re buying gas — maybe combine trips, maybe cut back on some of those unnecessary trips, and just find other discretionary expenses that they can cut back on.”

Related: It's a bad time to buy used cars in Tampa Bay. Blame the supply chain.

Florida drivers are feeling a pinch beyond the pump, too. In 2011, Florida was the seventh most expensive state in which to own a car, according to a recent study by driver’s education company Zutobi, which factored in fuel costs, insurance increases and annual depreciation. In 2021, Florida rose to fourth, thanks largely to skyrocketing insurance rates.