February 24, 2022

Fleeing to Florida? New arrivals explain why they moved to Tampa Bay

A group of palm trees next to a tree

New Tampa Bay residents share why they moved here. Others explain why they’re leaving Florida.

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.