Florida’s population is booming — but not always in the ways and in the places where you might expect. Those surprises give us new ways to think about how to shape the Sunshine State’s growth. Through recessions and housing crises, pandemics and destructive hurricane seasons, the state’s appeal hasn’t let up. People keep coming.
Florida was the fastest growing state last year for the first time since 1957. The population surpassed 22 million, fueled by the 3.1 million people added in the previous decade. To put 3.1 million in perspective: If Florida’s growth were its own state, it would be the 33rd most populated — slightly bigger than Arkansas and slightly smaller than Nevada.
Like it or not, a lot of people love Florida. They love it in differing ways and for different reasons, but they love it nonetheless. Sure, some merely tolerate it, but even most of those people stick around. If they didn’t they could move to Georgia or North Carolina — and some will. But more are coming here every year, for sunshine and low taxes, and their own piece of paradise.
All those little pieces add up. We are taking up more space, using more resources. The influx of people boosts the economy, but it also poses a challenge: How to accommodate so many new people while ensuring paradise remains … well … paradise?
First a dive into some of the numbers.
One of the things that stands out is how the 3.1 million new residents didn’t spread out evenly across the state’s 67 counties. They congregated in just a handful of counties. In fact, a third of them wound up in just five counties — Orange, Hillsborough, Lee, Polk and Palm Beach, according to a Times Editorial Board analysis of county-level U.S. Census data released a few weeks ago.
The geographic concentration reflects another trend: Big counties got even bigger. All of the state’s 10 most populated counties added at least 95,000 residents over the last decade, except for Pinellas which was up 40,097. Orange led the way with 250,228 new residents, followed by Hillsborough with 233,662. Hillsborough alone gained more new residents than the bottom 37 counties combined.
It’s easy to assume that most of the newbies flocked to the coasts for the sand and surf, but it wasn’t that simple. Of the 10 counties that attracted the most new residents, Orange, Polk, Osceola and Lake are in the state’s interior, with no coastal borders. Same for three of the five counties with the fastest growth rate — Osceola, Sumter and Lake, which all grew by at least 35% during the last decade. (At 47%, St. Johns County, south of Jacksonville, grew the fastest.)
In many parts of the United States, rural areas have emptied out, as farms need fewer people to operate and small towns offer fewer prospects for young people. The rural to urban (or suburban) migration isn’t as pronounced within Florida as it is in some smaller states. But Florida’s small counties generally stayed that way — small. A handful grew only slightly. Twelve lost population, despite the 3.1 million new arrivals. Many of the 12 are in the Panhandle, and all of them have fewer than 50,000 residents.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
But for the state overall, the spigot has not slowed in recent years. From 2020 to 2022, the Sunshine State added more than 655,000 residents, trailing only Texas. Florida was not only the fastest growing state last year, it was in the top three over the last two years. States like Florida with large populations don’t usually grow at such a fast clip. That’s typically the domain of much smaller states like Nevada, Idaho and Montana. Among Florida counties, Polk tallied the biggest two-year increase (62,363), followed by Lee (61,633), Hillsborough (52,528), Pasco (46,897) and Osceola (33,881). Pinellas added 2,636 new residents over that period.
Not surprisingly, the engine behind Florida’s growth is migration. More than 600,000 new residents came from other parts of the country over the last two years, and 175,000 from other countries. In fact without migration, Florida wouldn’t have grown. Its 567,881 deaths exceeded its 478,834 births.
Only 13 counties recorded more births than deaths. Orange once again led the way with a net gain of 12,000, followed by Hillsborough, the only local county among the 13. At the other end of the ledger, Pinellas’ deaths exceeded its births by 14,414, by far the biggest net loss in natural population in the state over the two years. Sarasota was second, down 9,630.
As for the future, Florida is projected to hit 25 million residents by 2030.
A growing population has many upsides. The influx can bolster the economy by attracting and nourishing businesses. That in turn supports jobs, which puts money in people’s pockets, which they can then spend at some of those same businesses. It can be a virtuous circle. But so much growth also comes with challenges, like trying not to undermine what makes Florida such a great place to live for so many people. The state, after all, isn’t creating any more land on which to put all the new residents.
In many ways, the state could be better prepared. Our barrier islands and coastal communities are still packed with people, putting them and everything they own in harm’s way. Last September, Hurricane Ian blasted Lee County, home to 178,000 more residents than 10 years ago. That’s 178,000 more people that got in the way of one of the most powerful storms to strike Florida in modern history. No wonder it was also one of the most destructive. It had 178,000 more people in just one county to terrorize, destroying their homes, their cars, their boats, and in some cases, taking their lives.
Lee County is also home to part of Babcock Ranch, a housing development that proved remarkably resilient during Hurricane Ian. The homes on the 17,000-acre site that crosses into Charlotte County, survived the storm largely intact. The power stayed on due to a massive solar array and intentional hardening of power lines. Unlike other nearby communities, it did not flood thanks to a stormwater management design that mimics natural systems. Sid Kitson, the visionary behind Babcock Ranch, launched the project after selling an adjacent 73,000 acres to the state to create the Babcock Ranch Preserve. The community is an example of how to build a sustainable community in a state that needs more housing but also must preserve its wild places.
As we said above, more people are moving into Florida’s interior, which is safer from hurricanes, but just ask the people who lived in Arcadia during Hurricane Ian or Orlando during Hurricane Charley about how safe they felt. Flooding doesn’t occur just along the coast. The interior counties are also often hotter and our changing climate promises to turn up that heat for longer every summer. Lots of older people — including in The Villages, one of the fastest growing parts of the state — coping more often with triple digit temperatures doesn’t bode well. Hotter temps will also pose challenges for anyone who works outside, including the people who have to build all the new homes for all the new people.
Our waterways and springs are already too polluted, walking in many of our cities is too dangerous, too many people live on the streets, and we have too many people in prison. Some of our neighborhoods are flooding more often, even on sunny days. Our electricity rates keep rising, many of our sewer systems are aging, and our interstates are often either a logjam or something out of a “Mad Max” movie. Will adding three million more residents this decade make those challenges easier to address? They actually might, if they force Florida to come up with solutions rather than just muddle along.
The continuing rush of new Floridians makes it all the more important to come up with innovative solutions to our property insurance woes. Rates have skyrocketed into “Oh my god!” territory in recent years, with nary a hope that they will drop to something closer to “That’s not so bad.” Many property owners already receive highly subsidized flood insurance, a benefit that seems unlikely to go on forever, especially as so many new residents tap into the already financially troubled, federally-backed program. Words that should frighten many Florida property owners, whether they have lived here for decades or arrived last week: “actuarially sound insurance rates.”
The state has generally done a good job of updating building codes to make homes and other buildings more resilient to storms and sea-level rise. But we can’t keep building the wrong kind of homes in the wrong places and expect them to survive hurricanes and flooding. In some cases, that will also mean strategically retreating from the most vulnerable areas, or deciding not to rebuild — at least not in the same way. These will not be easy decisions, but with so many more people living in harm’s way, they will have to be made.
What would help Florida absorb so many more residents while maintaining what makes it such a great place to live? One idea: update zoning laws. Too many communities rely on antiquated zoning that requires single-family homes on relatively large lots. What we need to get our heads around is housing density — more of it, in appropriate areas. That doesn’t mean building condos in rural communities or putting up skyscrapers in the suburbs. But it does mean packing our cities with more duplexes, more quadplexes, more six-story apartment buildings. It means allowing single-family homes on smaller lots. It means going all in on garage apartments and other accessory dwelling units. And, yes, in the downtown cores of our busiest cities, it means more residential towers. Some of this is happening already, but not enough given the increasing population. We can’t keep lamenting sprawl and then not having the backbone to prevent it. Zoning and density can be the antidote.
The Census numbers show that some of the areas adding the most residents are the unincorporated parts of the state. Not cities or towns, but the often less populated, less developed (at least for now) parts of large counties, including Orange, Polk, Pasco and Manatee. Just look at Hillsborough County. Its unincorporated area added more than 197,000 people in 10 years. Hillsborough has a lot of unincorporated land, so it makes sense. But with more people comes more housing, and in the case of unincorporated Hillsborough, much of it over the last decade took the form of large developments, mostly made up of single-family homes. In the eastern part of the county, development now creeps up State Road 674 and Balm Road. Further north, home builders have broken ground east of the upscale FishHawk Ranch community, which basically didn’t exist 25 years ago. Soon it will be at the doorstep of Alafia River State Park.
How many more housing developments do we want to carve out of Florida’s limited wilderness or ranch land? At its most basic, that’s the choice: With so many more people coming to Florida, we either build smarter by promoting more density in already developed areas or we tear up what’s left of Florida’s pristine lands to build more single-family homes on oversized lots. The decision should be clear, but we don’t act like it is.
More people are coming to the Sunshine State, millions more. The tap cannot be easily turned off, nor is that this editorial board’s desire. But the numbers highlight why we can’t keep making the same decisions and thinking we will somehow get better results. The goal should be to ensure that Florida is as at least as livable for the next 22 million people as it is for those who live here now.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.