For a long time, researchers at the University of Florida included a question in their ongoing, decades-long survey of Floridians: If you weren’t born in this state, why are you here?
The answers remained a constant for so many years that in 2019 they stopped asking.
“‘The weather’ or ‘I moved here for my job’ were the two primary reasons. Considerably lower down, in third place, was ‘family,’” said Scott Richards, associate director at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “It was remarkably stable, even through severe economic disruptions.”
Experts say no one knows if those reasons have changed, like so many other facets of American life have, during the coronavirus pandemic. But Florida’s elected leaders contend that something different is luring residents. Gov. Ron DeSantis touts the state as a destination for those fleeing COVID-19 restrictions. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis has suggested northeasterners are escaping “tax hell” for the income-tax-free Sunshine State.
What we do know is the state had 221,000 more residents arrive from other U.S. states than leave from July 2020 to July of last year, according to the latest population estimates from the Census Bureau. That’s Florida’s largest gain in residents from within the U.S. since 2005.
The state’s net gain of approximately 260,000 residents, which includes 39,000 international migrants, is up a little over the previous two years, “but it’s not exceedingly high,” said Stefan Rayer, director of the population program at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
Two recently released reports, one using data compiled by Zillow and Allied Van Lines, and the other analyzing new Florida driver’s licenses, show New York is the No. 1 supplier of new residents to Florida and Tampa Bay, as per usual. Other metro areas sending a lot of people to Tampa Bay specifically, according to that data, are Atlanta and Chicago.
“It’s New York pretty much every year, but if you look at No. 2 for people coming to Florida overall, it’s always Georgia,” Rayer said, referring to historic Census data. “And No. 1 for people who leave Florida is Georgia. So distance matters.”
The demographics of residents flowing in and out can affect the state’s economy and politics. For instance, the number of active voters registered as Republicans in Florida surpassed Democrats for the first time in modern history last year. Susan MacManus, a professor emerita at the University of South Florida and expert on Florida politics, believes that’s mostly due to Democrats suspending in-person voter registration efforts during COVID. But she said migration could also be a factor.
“It’s hard data to get,” MacManus said. “My big question is, ‘Were (new Florida arrivals) typical northeasterners who just want better weather and bring Democratic voting patterns with them, or more affluent people who were upset with lockdowns and who may vote Republican?’”
“If anyone tells you they know definitively,” MacManus said, “they’re lying.”
While experts say big-picture data is lacking, new arrivals and recent departures from Tampa Bay were happy to discuss personal reasons for moving. The Tampa Bay Times received more than 250 responses to recent social media posts seeking their stories.
Those responding to the survey, which wasn’t scientific, often cited lower taxes and more affordable homes, along with the sunny weather, as reasons for moving to Florida. A few mentioned COVID-19 restrictions. Many said they chose Tampa Bay because of fond vacation memories. After the weather, the most common reason for moving was job-related. Some had been offered a better salary to relocate, yet more cited the ability to work remotely. For those leaving Florida — hundreds of thousands move out of the state every year — many mentioned politics, but more mentioned a feeling that they could find better schools and more robust services somewhere else for the same cost.
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Here’s what some respondents had to say.
Moved to Florida
Harshneel More, 30, Tampa (via San Francisco)
When his San Francisco-based employer announced in 2020 that employees could permanently work remote from anywhere, the newly married More started thinking it might be time to branch out.”
He booked a trip to check out Tampa and Miami last summer. He ended up skipping South Florida after he and his wife, the founder of an architecture jobs marketplace startup, fell in love with Sparkman Wharf and Armature Works. They moved in July, trading a small one-bedroom for a two-bedroom apartment with a workout area in a new luxury tower in Tampa’s Water Street district.
“We were able to get a bigger space, with a dedicated home office,” while keeping his San Francisco salary, More said. “I really liked the amenities, like swimming pools, gyms, things you couldn’t get back home.”
He said the area was on his radar because of Tampa’s growing reputation as a hub for tech work. A senior application security engineer for Fast, an online payment services startup, More said he was especially impressed when he realized the publicly traded cybersecurity firm KnowBe4 is based in Clearwater. “I knew them,” he said. “Silicon Valley is always seen as the place to be, but I’ve been encouraging people I know to consider Tampa.” He said he feels even more rooted in Tampa since, a month after he moved, Fast announced it was opening a second headquarters where their CEO would be based, in Tampa.
He’s enjoying less expensive groceries and meeting a lot of other young professionals who’ve recently moved from places like Denver, New York City and southern California. His one peeve: “I did notice San Francisco had less traffic. It was small streets, so everyone drove small sedans. Here you see bigger cars, big pickup trucks, and they’re all moving at high speed — I had to get used to that.”
Rayellen Griffin, 48, St. Petersburg (via Independence, Ky.)
Griffin had been vacationing in Tampa Bay for years from her home state of Kentucky. She had a series of life-changing events. She lost her parents and older sister within a couple of years. She watched the last of her three grown children leave home in rural Independence, about 15 miles south of Cincinnati. She separated from her husband after realizing their plans for the future were “very different.” So she wanted a fresh start.
Tampa Bay “felt less touristy than other places in Florida, and even the touristy areas didn’t seem so bad,” she said. She considered Bradenton first, but a coworker who’d moved to St. Petersburg suggested she visit. Describing herself as “actually very liberal, even though I’m from Kentucky,” Griffin liked the city’s political makeup and LGBTQ inclusiveness. “And there’s no freezing rain.”
She moved into an apartment in the Gateway neighborhood with her dog and cat “just before prices really started going up.” The only downside, she said, has been the cost of living. She’s watched her neighbors’ rent go up 30 percent and anticipates a big increase when her lease expires. “I’m having a hard time finding a job that pays me enough to stay in St. Petersburg,” she said. She does not have a degree but has experience doing administrative work and working in call centers. For now, she’s working temp jobs and living off savings. “I hope I can stay. ... Kentucky was depressing. There’s plenty to do here, like the beach or the Pier, even if I’m broke.”
Julianne Recine, 49, Westchase (via New York City)
A lifelong resident of New York City, Recine relocated to Florida in July 2021 with her young son and husband, who works remotely for a defense contractor. “I didn’t come down here for the weather. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but I miss the winter and snow,” she said. “Quite frankly, it was freedom.”
Recine’s family began mulling a move as New York schools remained closed last spring due to COVID-19. “I didn’t want my son going to school on Zoom ... and there was a high level of fear that made it hard to get together with people,” said Recine, who kept her remote job as a financial consultant.
Tampa had long been on her husband’s radar, but more as a retirement destination, until “the pandemic accelerated everything.” Recine said they were able to compete in the challenging housing market because they bought a home from owners who didn’t plan to move out for five months. The Recines did not sell their house in the Bronx.
An appreciation for DeSantis also factored in. “Do I agree with everything he says? No. But mostly.” Recine had once prided herself as being a “gritty, liberal New Yorker,” she said, “but the term ‘liberal New Yorker’ has been so distorted by where the left has taken it that I can no longer be associated with it.” Recine said she was specifically referring to New York being soft on criminals.
As for Tampa life, “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. ... You hear there’s no good Chinese outside of New York, but (Tampa’s) Yummy House is excellent.”
Katherine La Rochelle, 48, Tampa (via Denver)
Last year, La Rochelle, a vice president at a San Francisco-based startup, and her husband, a software engineer, realized their 110-year-old Craftsman home in Denver was worth about 50 percent more than they’d paid a few years earlier and wondered: “What if this all blows up?” They’d limped through the 2008 housing crash as homeowners in Phoenix. They did not want to get stuck in Denver where, La Rochelle said, they were disillusioned by rising costs, homeless people in their neighborhood and what they characterize as an unchecked increase in violent crime.
“We wondered where can we do better on taxes,” La Rochelle said, “after being bled dry and seeing no improvements.” Florida made sense. They’d loved living near the water when they had lived in France years ago, and “we lean Libertarian, so we liked the personal freedom aspects.” Tampa became the top candidate when La Rochelle found a gifted private school for her daughter — one of only a handful in the state — and discovered a burgeoning girls’ youth hockey scene. “She and my husband play hockey, so that was very important to them.”
Their home on the western edge of Hillsborough County cost about what they paid in Denver five years ago, and La Rochelle kept her job. “I haven’t really looked at what jobs pay here,” she said. One thing she misses: public transportation in the form of light rail and frequently running buses.
Getting out of Florida
Adam Kuhn, 41, Asheville, N.C. (via St. Petersburg)
After 16 years in St. Petersburg, Kuhn and his wife headed to the mountains in late 2020 in what he called a recent “mass exodus” of his family to Asheville. That included a sister who had spent 20 years in St. Pete and his parents in Pinellas Park. They visited the area often after some Florida friends moved first. They decided to make the move while their two children were doing school remotely, thinking it would be less of a “social impact” on them.
Kuhn, a web engineer for a Silicon Valley startup, said the other big factors included the desire to experience a new climate and environment and a desire to get away from Florida’s “shifting political landscape.” He said he appreciates living in a politically diverse state, as it gives him an opportunity to teach his children to accept other viewpoints and coexist with people they disagree with. He felt that was no longer the case in Florida. “I think there’s a lot of hay made about Florida being a purple state,” he said, “but my feeling was that it was deeply red when we left.”
The family chose to keep their home in St. Petersburg and rent it out, while also buying in Asheville. The somewhat higher cost of living was a bit of a shock, Kuhn said, but so far they’re happy with the move. Kuhn does worry about some of the same changes that he saw in St. Petersburg happening there. “I was a big fan of the 600 block, the Local 662, Fubar,” he said referring to St. Petersburg’s shuttered live music venues. “The same gentrification that happened there could happen here.”
Harrison Aquino, 29, Buffalo via Pensacola
Aquino, an accountant, and his wife, a law student, decided it was time to look outside of Florida after having their first son.
“The poor school systems in Florida were, for us, a huge thing,” he said. “If you track the schools in New York, even in Buffalo, they’re ranked near the top every year.” Another big factor, which may come as a surprise, is the weather. “Yes, it’s freezing, but we don’t have hurricanes or really any natural disasters here. ... We had a hurricane, with a newborn baby, and lost power for like a week.”
After getting priced out of their preferred neighborhoods in West Palm Beach, Tampa Bay and Pensacola, Aquino started considering Buffalo, where he had lived for a while in high school.
“Even in the best neighborhoods (in Buffalo), you can afford a house almost anywhere if you’re a married couple with a decent middle-class income,” he said. “I was making like $65,000 when we moved here and was able to buy a two-unit house for $250,000.” The second unit now has tenants and generates rental income. Aquino also found a new, higher-paying job, in software consulting.
“I like Florida,” Aquino said, “but it just didn’t make sense to stay. Maybe someday we’ll be back as snowbirds.”