Palm Beach Florida Weekly


The pandemic has added fuel to Florida’s population growth, and many new residents are coming from California, Texas and other Western states



FLORIDA HAS ALWAYS BEEN A HOT destination for those seeking the warm weather, affordability, favorable tax climate and quality of life.

But has the COVID-19 pandemic made this destination even hotter?

The consensus is yes. Florida Weekly looked at migration to the state of Florida and Lee, Collier, Charlotte and Palm Beach counties since the pandemic took hold.

Detailed statistics are difficult to come by, at least until the breakdown of 2020 census demographic data comes out in the fall. But according to area government and economic officials, various studies and anecdotal evidence by real estate experts, the COVID bump is significant.

Florida population overall continues to surge. A report by the Demographic Estimating Conference held in March 2021 by the Office of Economic and Demographic Research forecasts that Florida’s population will grow to about 23.1 million by April 2025. The office is a research arm of the Legislature, principally concerned with forecasting economic and social trends that affect policy making.

The Webster family will soon be making a permanent move to Naples from California. From left, Mary Webster, Savannah Webster, Stella Sampras Webster, Sophia Webster and Steve Webster. COURTESY PHOTO

The Webster family will soon be making a permanent move to Naples from California. From left, Mary Webster, Savannah Webster, Stella Sampras Webster, Sophia Webster and Steve Webster. COURTESY PHOTO

The estimated average growth would be 308,497 people per year, or 845 per day. This would be analogous to adding a city slightly larger than Orlando every year.

Florida saw the biggest change in net move-ins of any state in the U.S. in 2020, said Eric Willett, who prepared a study called “COVID-19 Impact on Residential Migration Patterns” for CBRE, a global commercial real estate services firm. The study analyzed 29 million U.S. Postal Service address change requests for 2020, a fraction of the population.

The study shows that in 2019, Florida had just under 52,000 net move-ins (number of people moving in minus people moving out). In 2020, that number accelerated to 70,500, an increase of 18,600 net move-ins, said Willett, who is director of research and thought leadership at CBRE.

The study was able to segment out temporary moves, or moves of less than six months.

Is the increase due to COVID-19?

Chris Donovan and Catharine Donovan moved from Massachusetts to Fort Myers Beach. COURTESY PHOTO

Chris Donovan and Catharine Donovan moved from Massachusetts to Fort Myers Beach. COURTESY PHOTO

“I think we can say with a high level of confidence that the overwhelming majority of that change is because of the pandemic,” Willett said. The pandemic is the main factor that changed in 2020, he said.

Season disrupted

In Southwest Florida, “COVID has been both a disruptor and accelerator,” said Budge Huskey, president and CEO of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty. “It served to completely disrupt the concept of seasonality,” in terms of when people were coming down here to look, go on vacation or buy, he said. COVID served as an accelerator because “it caused people to advance their life desires. They would have arrived here at some point. Their decision was accelerated.”

“I definitely think that COVID has had a big influence on the market,” said Phil Wood, president and CEO of John R. Wood Properties. People who were deciding to move here full time in four to five years were influenced to do it right away. The sense is “life is too short,” he said.



He would guess that about 50% of the increase above the normal rate of people moving here is due to COVID, directly or indirectly.

Mike Polly, broker for Royal Shell Real Estate, sees Southwest Florida as kind of a launch pad for people who are finally making a move after enduring the pandemic in urban areas that may have come with lockdowns, civil unrest and higher taxes.

The influx from the pandemic may push the growth in the area’s real estate industry ahead by five or 10 years, he said.

Huskey and Wood also note that the high-end market — properties of $1 million and above — is definitely seeing a strong surge. Huskey said that sales in that segment are approximately 100% higher than the same period last year.

Shelton Weeks, real estate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and chair of the department of economics and finance, also believes the pandemic may have been “the tipping point” for people already thinking of moving to the state and Southwest Florida specifically.

Palm Beach County ‘so hot’

Palm Beach County seems to be in a category by itself. The county saw an influx of 11,000 new residents, the highest population growth in eight Southeast Florida counties, according to a 2021 study on “Emerging Areas in Southeast Florida” by Unacast.

The influx brought with it new income flow, about $3.4 billion in gains over 2019, or about $2,165 per person, the study said.

New York City has always been a major source of new residents for the county. The study showed 59,000 visits from New York City of eight weeks or longer throughout the eight counties, with Palm Beach receiving 41% of those visitors.

Kelly Smallridge, president and CEO of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, continues to get inundated with inquiries from New York and the Northeast seeking to relocate or expand in the county.

Where else is she getting calls from?

“California,” Smallridge said. That includes one company with 500 employees and another with 300 employees, she said. Now she is lobbying the airport for more direct flights to California.

“It’s crazy,” she said. But Smallridge isn’t complaining. There have been several ups and downs over the years, she said. “You take it while it’s hot. Right now it’s hot. It’s so hot.”

Karen Donnelly, Realtor and president of Palm Beach Board of Realtors, agrees.

“I didn’t sleep practically for three months,” trying to find something for clients in the housing market, she said. “Now we’re out of inventory.” The newest place they’re coming from? “California,” she said. “I never had any California clients before.”

Donnelly also has a tennis business — for 35 years — that has been “through the roof” busy and rental property that was booked every day of every week through the pandemic, she said. “Truthfully, I think people who had to stay home locked in realized you don’t have to stay locked down in Florida,” she said.

Moving up the move

Chris Donovan of Massachusetts fits all the criteria of the new migration. He reached a tipping point, realized that life is too short, decided to advance his life desires and accelerated his move to Southwest Florida.

He figured that down the road, he would be coming here to live, said Donovan, a commercial pilot who is based in Norwood, Mass., and owns Boston Executive Helicopters, a charter business.

“Florida is historically God’s waiting room,” he said. The idea is you get to be 80, then move down here to enjoy the rest of your days, he said.

That has changed. “I want to come down here when I’m younger and enjoy myself more,” he said. “COVID has not forced us down here, but it has caused people to kind of re-evaluate their lives.”

Donovan, 58, and his wife, Catharine, have been coming to Southwest Florida for about 30 years. Now they bought a home in Fort Myers Beach. They planned to go back and forth over the next 2½ years, but find they have been coming here every weekend. He wants to retire here permanently at 60.

Donovan said there has been a lot of tension in the air in New England since the pandemic began and people are uptight. “Florida is less restrictive,” he said. “I feel a lot freer down here than I do in Massachusetts.” It’s not about the politics of wearing a mask and it’s not about a political party, he said. “I don’t think about politics, I think about quality of life.

“Florida’s got the right attitude,” Donovan said. “That’s what is bringing people down here and it’s going to accelerate.”

‘Why wait?’

Everyone has a different reason for coming here, said Della Booth, a broker for Time Realty Services Inc. “The core of it all is quality of life in our area.” What makes the move more possible for many since the start of the COVID pandemic is the ability to work remotely, she said.

Her clients, Ryan Hauenstein and Leah Hauenstein of Cincinnati, Ohio, are one such couple. They are in their 20s and expecting their first child in June.

The couple plan to build their new home in the area. They’re looking at Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties.

“It’s been exciting and crazy,” Ryan said. They are not moving so much because of COVID, but because the pandemic made him realize that he can work remotely from anywhere and do so successfully, he said.

“The flexibility that my company has allowed me has been a benefit of COVID- 19,” Ryan Hauenstein said. “A pandemic is not a good thing. But it shows larger companies that employees do not have to be in an office to do our jobs.” At the start of the pandemic, 5,000 employees from his company went to work-from-home. Productivity went up 25%. “I don’t think prior to 2020 we thought we were that capable of sustaining that for a long period,” he said.

Ryan Hauenstein works for a company that handles revenue cycle management for hospitals. Leah Hauenstein is an orthopedic nurse. His parents moved to Punta Gorda six or seven years ago. “We were always talking about moving down here at some point,” but that was five or 10 years down the road, he said. Then they started talking about it again five or six months ago.

“Why not? Why wait?” he asked, “So right now we’re in the middle of pushing the restart button.”

Cape Coral a top spot

A number of other reports have shown that Southwest Florida is a hot spot for people migrating here due to the pandemic. An April 19 story in The New York Times was based on its own analysis of U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data to look at how the pandemic did or didn’t change where people move. The story reported that among larger metros, migration increased most in the Cape Coral and Sarasota metro areas on Florida’s West Coast and in Boise, Idaho. Among the top 10 metros with the biggest in-net migration change out of a total of 926 metro areas, No. 10 is Naples-Marco Island.

A study called “Moving in the Year of the Pandemic: The 2020-2021 HireAHelper American Migration Report” analyzed 75,000 moves booked through Four cities on Florida’s West Coast were among the top 10 destinations: Venice, Sarasota, Cape Coral and Punta Gorda. The study also found that 25% of Americans who moved in 2020 did so because of the pandemic.

U-Haul did a study looking at 2020 migration trends that named North Port, just north of Charlotte County, as No. 1 in its 25 top U.S. growth cities for 2020. Growth cities are calculated by one-way U-Haul trucks entering a city versus leaving that city in a calendar year. Five of the top 25 cities were in Florida.

If all these new residents are coming to Southwest Florida, where are they coming from?

There is an increase in the usual “feeder markets” from the Midwest and Northeast, but area real estate and economic officials are saying much of the influx is coming from western states, particularly California, Texas, Colorado and Arizona.

In Palm Beach County, it’s New York, New York, New York — and California.

Charlotte drawing from West

Dave Gammon, Charlotte County Economic Development director, sees most of the influx to Charlotte County coming from California and the Pacific Coast. “We didn’t ever used to advertise in California. Now we are,” he said. People are also coming from Texas and Colorado. Local realtors say Texans are coming here because too many people are moving there from California, he said. “People from Colorado used to go to Arizona. Now they’re coming here.”

Gammon understands the allure. Southwest Florida is safe and affordable — a house that would cost $1 million in California can be had for $250,000 here, he said. And the state government has proclaimed the state open for business. You can participate in life the way you can’t in lockdown cities, he said.

Della Booth has started seeing a lot of people coming from nontraditional areas. Of people calling into the chamber of commerce asking for information about moving to Punta Gorda, California is No. 1, followed by Kentucky, Texas, Wisconsin, Georgia and Colorado, she said.

Huskey is seeing more people coming from western states, like Texas, Arizona and California.

Mike Polly is seeing an uptick in people from California and Texas.

Where they are not coming from is internationally. “COVID shut down a lot of international buyers,” including those from Canada and Europe, due to lockdowns and restrictions, Wood said.

Restrictions like quarantines, sometimes more than one if someone had to travel through more than one country to get here, and then quarantine again when you travel back, made international travel more difficult, Weeks said. He thinks international buyers will return as soon as the pandemic subsides. “I think there is some pent-up demand there,” he said.

Beckoning Californians

The “COVID-19 Impact on Residential Migration Patterns” report by CBRE also breaks down migration by Metropolitan Statistical Areas or MSAs, geographical areas that include at least one urbanized area with a minimum population of 50,000. They are used by the Census and other government agencies for statistical analysis.

In Southwest Florida, the MSAs are Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Naples-Marco Island and Punta Gorda. The report can be filtered to show which states the migration to each MSA are coming from.

These are five states that show the biggest increase in migration from 2019 to 2020 for:

¦ Cape Coral-Fort Myers: Virginia, Illinois, Texas, California, New York ¦ Naples-Marco Island: California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New York, Georgia ¦ Punta Gorda: Maryland, Virginia, California, Colorado and Rhode Island.

California appears in the top five in all three MSAs, with Colorado also appearing in two and Texas in one.

Palm Beach County is not included because it is part of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale

Pompano MSA, an area too broad for stats to be meaningful specific to Palm Beach County.

As an example to put the numbers in perspective, the Naples-Marco Island area has the biggest change from 2019 to 2021 in people coming from California. The increase is 422 to 606, an increase of 184 people or 43.6%.

The increase of 184 people may seem small, but it has a real impact on the housing market and the economy, Willett said. An extra 184 people means 184 extra homes, and other services needed to meet the needs of that influx. “It’s a very meaningful shift.”

Migration patterns tend to be very steady, Willett said. “You are much more likely to move down the street than you are to move cross-country. That didn’t change during the pandemic.” Moves within a state comprised 89% of all moves in America in 2020. The remaining 11% moved across state lines, he said.

Tennis was the draw

California resident Steve Webster will soon be making a permanent move to Naples with his family. The family spent 90% of the last year in Naples so his twin 15-year-old daughters could train at the Gomez Tennis Academy inside Naples’ Imperial Golf Course community.

Tennis is serious business for the Webster family. His wife, Stella, is tennis coach for UCLA. Their daughters want to play on the team of a major divisional college.

“When California shut down, they shut down the tennis training and tournaments,” said Steve, who owns a sports entertainment business in Los Angeles. There were padlocks on the tennis courts and you were threatened with arrest if you tried to play, he said.

But the girls were at a crucial time in their training. “So we came to Florida,” he said. Things were open. The girls were able to train at the academy and go to tournaments all over Florida. “They excelled over the last year.” In the meantime, their friends back in California missed out, he said.

They can’t leave LA completely behind. They plan to have a home in Naples that will be their primary residence and they will go back and forth to LA.

They love it in Naples, Steve said. “This all sort of resulted from COVID.” But he felt they didn’t have a choice. “We had to do what’s best for the kids.” ¦

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