In a fascinating turn of events, Tampa Bay has suddenly become, gulp, cool and desirable.
Now, I want to make one thing clear. We may have more $22 food in bowls these days but we have always been worthwhile. The punchlines were never completely fair, but we got used to them, the way someone with an ulcer becomes accustomed to amoxicillin.
Things are definitely different, though. I’ve been here since 1994, living and working from Clearwater to Tampa to Dunedin to St. Petersburg. I went to the University of South Florida when the coolest thing around was the campus Subway, and I don’t mean public transportation. You haven’t lived until you’ve smelled that meatball footlong on the way to a literature credit.
Today, St. Pete is virtually unrecognizable, miles from its old reputation as a waiting room for death. It’s really hard to park in downtown Tampa! And let’s not forget smaller communities. I must inform you that downtown New Port Richey is becoming très chic, and I recently had a great time at a Spring Hill brewery.
Who decides we have clout? Our latest kingmaker is Zillow, a website that feasts on souls by displaying estimated values of homes you can never leave. Zillow named Tampa Bay the top housing market in the nation, beating noted bachelorette destinations Nashville and Austin.
We have reality shows, too, and not just Cops. There’s Amazon Prime’s Tampa Baes, following cool local lesbians, and Netflix’s Selling Tampa, about the cool agents of Black-owned Allure Realty. Furthermore, cool Tom Brady still plays for our cool football organization. That guy is going to have a big career, I can feel it. This is the most sports analysis I can offer.
What does it all mean? Combined with serotonin from the sun and the fact that our only COVID-19 rule is to “have fun,” people want to live here. It also means good luck buying a house unless you are 1) independently wealthy, 2) hand-picked by Larry P. Zillow or 3) the keeper of a magical amulet discovered in a sea chest.
Rent is no better, with record increases and wages not necessarily keeping pace (unless you are, um, an actuary). The people who made Tampa Bay cool are being driven out by investors. Many working folks can’t afford to live here — teachers, first responders, medical staff on pandemic front lines. They’re booted from homes with next to no notice or options.
Maybe we are ostensibly cool. But it would be cool if people could, you know, afford to stay here and experience that coolness. The worst outcome, the equivalent of the Taylor Swift/Kanye West audio recording scandal, would be rows of empty luxury condos where investors park money, while the fabric of the community is forced to abandon their homes.
Florida’s legislative session convened this week, and though Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing allocating the most money the state has given to existing housing programs in a decade, new laws that benefit Florida tenants are not remotely the focus. Housing did not even come up in the governor’s State of the State Address on Tuesday. The complex, creative ideas needed to keep people both in business and in homes will be lost to circuitous culture war debates. If one more politician says “woke,” a butterfly loses its wings and dies!!!
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But, tragically, I am a dreadful optimist. Oh, it’s terrible. I don’t suggest it. I think there’s hope. If Taylor Swift could go into hiding after the Kanye thing and emerge more popular than Larry P. Zillow, we can figure this out. Legislators have a glorious two months to listen to struggling voters. They can put aside scare tactic meme life and talk about local flexibility, zoning, affordable housing, property insurance, rent relief and the romantic history of Selling Tampa’s Sharelle and Chad.
That would be really cool.
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