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Is Florida still an affordable place to retire?

Amid rising costs, some seniors are reconsidering their retirement plans in the Sunshine State.
Charlene Ortwein, 73, and her husband, Alfred Ortwein, 79, leave Winn-Dixie on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Spring Hill. The couple, who lives in the Hillsborough County community, shops at different grocery stores multiple times a week to take advantage of the best deals.
Charlene Ortwein, 73, and her husband, Alfred Ortwein, 79, leave Winn-Dixie on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Spring Hill. The couple, who lives in the Hillsborough County community, shops at different grocery stores multiple times a week to take advantage of the best deals. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Aug. 23|Updated Aug. 24

On Wednesdays, Alfred and Charlene Ortwein sit down to read the paper — but instead of news or the crosswords, the couple is looking for deals.

They’ll hit at least three grocery stores to complete their shopping. Other than commutes to church, it’s the only time they drive their car these days.

It’s a new retirement tradition. But it isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the last year.

First the cost of car insurance went up.

Then their electric bill went up.

The value of their Spring Hill home doubled — Whoop-de-do, Alfred Ortwein thought, I don’t want to move — and the price of property insurance followed.

Related: Are shoppers starting to pull back as Florida’s cost of living rises?

Cheaper than Miami or Naples, with destination beaches and a city once nicknamed “God’s Waiting Room,” Tampa Bay has long been hailed as an affordable place to retire in The Sunshine State.

But it’s becoming untenable for many seniors to survive in the area.

While costs are climbing everywhere, Tampa Bay’s prices have outpaced the national average. Area prices rose by roughly 11% in the last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to just 9% nationally.

Retirees, who depend largely on fixed incomes, are feeling it.

Some seniors are embracing a more vegetarian diet, rarely eating chicken or fish and forgoing beef entirely. Many have begun biking or carpooling to save on gas. Others have taken on jobs as housecleaners or rideshare drivers to make ends meet.

As the state’s historically more affordable cities become inaccessible for many, older adults have begun to wonder: Is Florida still an affordable place to retire?

“My friends back in Delaware are considering Alabama and Tennessee — they aren’t looking at Florida,” said Ortwein, 79. “If I were looking to retire now, I couldn’t move here. I’m sure there are places that are still more livable — but they’re not in the Tampa area.”

Alfred Ortwein, 79, and his wife, Charlene Ortwein, 73, load up their car with groceries from Winn-Dixie on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Spring Hill. The couple, who lives in Spring Hill, shops at different grocery stores multiple times a week to take advantage of the best deals.
Alfred Ortwein, 79, and his wife, Charlene Ortwein, 73, load up their car with groceries from Winn-Dixie on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Spring Hill. The couple, who lives in Spring Hill, shops at different grocery stores multiple times a week to take advantage of the best deals. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Rethinking retirement

For years, Alfred Ortwein, a longtime call center employee, and his wife Charlene Ortwein, 73, a former nurse, were comfortable in their retirement.

These days, Ortwein dreads opening his mail.

“Because I’m concerned, what’s the next increase I’m going to get?” he asked. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s just $10, $20, $30 more.’ But my retirement income is fixed — it is what it is.”

Florida’s governor has made putting “seniors first” a key part of his messaging since the early days of the coronavirus vaccine rollout.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has prioritized money for programs benefitting seniors in this year’s budget, increasing aid to help them receive home health care and approving record-high provisions for Alzheimer’s research.

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But it’s the rising daily costs of living facing all residents — from gasoline to housing — that have made some retirees feel like Florida’s doors have closed on them.

Related: Why is The Villages known as ‘the STD capital of America?’

LuAnn and her husband Anthony DiLernia, both 70, bought their home in Tampa in 2015. Her sister and brother-in-law planned to join them when they retired.

But today, profits from her sister’s Long Island home won’t cover the cost of a house in Tampa, LuAnn DiLernia said. They’ve switched their retirement plans to across the border in Georgia.

“People say to me, ‘Well, you should be happy because your house is going up so much in value,’” Anthony DiLernia said. “But my friends and relatives can’t afford to live close to me.”

“And that puts more pressure on me to travel,” his wife said.

Lifelong residents of Tampa Bay said they aren’t faring any better.

Each workday morning, Carol Ransom wakes up at 5 a.m. and leaves Centro Place Apartments, a low-income apartment for seniors in Ybor City, for a full-time job in construction at a nearby school.

At 3:30 p.m., she’ll head out and pick up her two grandchildren, whom she recently began babysitting for $100 a week. After they go to bed around 9 p.m., she’ll begin job number three — providing academic coaching to college students.

“I’m always sleepy,” Ransom said. “But when the bill collectors call, I can answer the phone.”

Carol Ransom plays a game of "rock, paper, scissors" with her two granddaughters, Adora Dior Williams, 1, and Aurora Isabella Johnson 5, on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022 in Ybor City.
Carol Ransom plays a game of "rock, paper, scissors" with her two granddaughters, Adora Dior Williams, 1, and Aurora Isabella Johnson 5, on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022 in Ybor City. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Ransom grew up in the area. At 64, she hasn’t retired yet. But when she does, it won’t be in Tampa.

“My family owns land in some rural area in Louisiana — I see myself going there,” she said. “Here, either you’re the Joneses or you don’t have any place.”

Will migration slow?

In the early days of the pandemic, people moved to Florida in numbers not paralleled since 2005. The state had 221,000 more residents arrive from other U.S. states than leave between July 2020 and July of last year, according to U.S. Census estimates, and net migration was slightly higher than the previous two years.

Age-specific data for this time is not available, according to Stefan Rayer, director of the population program at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Overall migration numbers for the past year, when costs of living began to skyrocket, have yet to be released.

Historically, times of economic downturn have predicted plummeting migration to the state, said Rayer, including among older adults, who tend to account for the largest number of new arrivals every year.

“I would imagine that if prices keep going up, and mortgages and interest rates keep going up, that likely is going to put a damper on migration,” Rayer said. “But are prices going to keep going up? If you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 different answers.”

Rising inflation could trigger an increase in Social Security payments in early 2023. Known as a cost-of-living adjustment, some groups estimate Social Security checks may receive around a 10% bump next year, which may help alleviate some of the burden seniors are experiencing nationwide.

Related: Is Tampa Bay’s hot housing market finally cooling off? What buyers should know.

That wouldn’t help Ortwein much, he said.

“If everything else has increased 13%, I’ll still be 3% behind what’s required,” Ortwein said. “I never had a big cushion. But I don’t have a cushion at all anymore.”

Ortwein and his wife eke by with the help of their daughter, a minimum wage employee in Delaware, who sends $100 for food when she can.

“It’s not what I thought my retirement would be,” he said. “I’m not able to help my daughter or grandkids if they need it — I’m getting help from them.”

The Tampa Bay Times has a team of reporters focusing on rising costs in our region. If you have an idea, question or story to tell, please email us at costofliving@tampabay.com.

Charlene Ortwein, 73, of Spring Hill fills up her car with groceries from Winn-Dixie on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Spring Hill. Charlene and her husband, Alfred, shop at different grocery stores multiple times a week to take advantage of the best deals.
Charlene Ortwein, 73, of Spring Hill fills up her car with groceries from Winn-Dixie on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022, in Spring Hill. Charlene and her husband, Alfred, shop at different grocery stores multiple times a week to take advantage of the best deals. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

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