by Mike Vogel
Updated 3 months ago
In the 1990s, every county in Florida grew in population, continuing a historic pattern of nearly every county growing in most decades. Then came the 2020 Census, which revealed that 17 counties had lost population since 2010. “It actually is quite unusual for Florida counties to lose population from one Census to the next,” says Stefan Rayer, who directs population studies at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. The numbers fit a national trend, however — nationally, 42% of counties saw their populations fall after 2010.
In Florida, the losses came in small counties in Florida’s interior and northern tier. All but three of the 17 are landlocked. And all but Putnam have fewer than 50,000 people. Gadsden lost the most people, 2,563 — 5.5% of its population. Gulf County, one of the three on the water, lost the most people in percentage terms at 10.5% (1,617 people). Rayer says some of the losses came as people were displaced by Hurricane Michael in 2018. The aggregate loss for the 17 counties: 17,683 people, a number that barely dented the statewide growth of 2.74 million during the decade.
The dominant trend in growth continues: Florida is growing because of in-migration rather than naturally. Even before the pandemic, mortuaries were busier than maternity wards in 40 of Florida’s 67 counties. The pandemic pushed that number to 54, Rayer says.
A Housing Surge, But …
Supply struggles to keep up with demand.
Hutson Cos.’ SilverLeaf development in St. Johns County is just finishing its first year. From April 2020 to August 2021, SilverLeaf saw 1,145 contracts signed with home buyers and held 576 closings. Chalk it up to demand and the pandemic. The company has been surprised by the number of people buying via virtual tours without ever visiting a model home or eyeballing lots in person. “Demand is very strong,” says Travis Hutson, Hutson’s vice president. “We are in a great location and offer a unique community for this market.” He says it’s the only large master-planned community in the area without a community development district.
The state overall added 875,770 housing units from 2010 to 2020. In the heavyweight category is Orange County, home to Orlando, which grew its number of housing units by 15.2%, the 10th-fastest pace in the state. The unit number also is big: 74,012 new homes.
SilverLeaf’s home county of St. Johns, south of Jacksonville, saw a nearly 33% increase — 29,260 homes — since 2010, second in percentage terms only to Sumter, home to The Villages. SilverLeaf’s 8,500 acres are slated to hold 10,700 homes and 2.65 million square feet of mixed-use and commercial space, along with 3,500 conservation acres.
Hutson says 40% of buyers come from outside Florida — predominantly from the Northeast — 30% from within the market and 30% from South Florida. “St. Johns has always been a strong market. Our local leaders and staff pride themselves on smart growth decisions, and we trust them in their abilities to lead and manage this county for future growth,” Hutson says.
Pass a dwelling in Walton County and the odds are nearly 50-50 its owner isn’t there — though you might find a vacationing family. Walton, a county on the Gulf in Northwest Florida, leads the state with a 46.7% housing vacancy rate, a function of the number of second homes and vacation rentals there.
Walton is one of eight counties where the vacancy rate is north of 30%. The other counties with vacancy rates that high are a mix of small counties and counties associated with vacationeers, such as the Florida Keys’ Monroe County or Bay County in the Panhandle. Only one of the state’s 10 most populous counties, Lee County, made the list of top counties for vacancy rate.
By contrast, three of the most populous counties — Duval, Hillsborough and Orange — made the list of the 10 with vacancy rates under 10%. Seminole County, adjoining Orange, had the lowest vacancy rate by county in Florida at 5.9%.
In terms of numbers, no Florida county grew more than Orange since 2010. Its 283,952 net population gain was akin to dropping a new city with the population of Orlando within its boundaries.
From soaring traffic counts to the rooftops springing up in west Orange along SR 429 or in Lake Nona in the east, the growth load is evident. And another Orlando’s worth of people every decade is in the cards. UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research projects Orange will add another 248,489 people by 2030. The county predicts a net gain of 690,000 by 2050, bringing the county to 2.1 million people — bigger than Broward is now. Where to put them all, and supply them with water, is no small issue.
Orange County government is at work on a plan. It would designate some areas for land preservation and some, with limited capacity to add residents, as rural. Already developed areas, called “established” areas, would add “missing middle” houses such as granny flats and courtyard apartments consistent with existing neighborhoods. And areas such as International Drive would develop in an urban scale more like downtown Orlando. Between the “missing middle” accessory dwelling units, infill and greater densities in areas such as I-Drive, the areas could accommodate a couple hundred thousand newcomers.
The biggest cohort of newcomers will wind up living in new areas targeted for growth — 8,000 acres within a larger 31,000 acres within the county’s urban services area. The county will become a lot more urban and denser, and new development will integrate businesses and employers with residential areas so that monster commutes are less likely and overall growth will be less automobile-centric. “We’re growing at that incredible rate. Business as usual is simply unsustainable,” says County Planning Division Manager Alberto Vargas. “As we continue to grow, we should be doing so in a much more responsible, sustainable way.”
Hearings and more work are scheduled into 2022 with the board of commissioners having the final say in 2023.
Started by the late Gary Morse on the site of a trailer park, The Villages sprawls over parts of Sumter, Marion and Lake counties. It grew by 39% since 2010, from 93,000 people to 130,000, according to the Census, which says it is the nation’s fastest-growing metro.
Today, The Villages encompasses more than 60,000 homes, along with 54 golf courses, three town centers and 60 pickleball courts. A University of Florida hospital is coming. Home prices range from the $180,000s to more than $1 million. South of SR 44, The Villages has entitlements for 70,000 homes, says spokesman Gary Lester. Most have yet to be built.
The distinctions pile up for Osceola County: Fastest-growing county (up 44.7%) in Florida by percentage change. One of the fastest growing in total numbers. A top-10 county for most housing units added. “We have grown leaps and bounds,” says Brandon Arrington, chairman of the county’s board of commissioners and a county native whose family came in the 1950s to farm.
Osceola added 119,971 people since 2010 — or half again as much as its largest city, Kissimmee. Arrington thinks even that number is too low. He believes the Census undercounted by about 40,000 people.
Over the decade, Osceola became a Hispanic-majority county — one of three in Florida, along with Miami-Dade and Hendry — thanks to an influx of people from Puerto Rico. Osceola’s Hispanic population has grown so fast that the county actually is less diverse than it was in 2010, when neither any single race nor the Hispanic ethnicity made a majority. Now, Hispanics make up 54.3% of the county’s population, whites 29.2% (down from 40% a decade ago) and blacks 9% (down slightly from a decade ago.)
It’s the 16th most-populous county but 19th in housing units, though builders are adding houses to close the gap. The county is fifth in the state in adding dwellings, with a 20.7% gain since 2010.
All the growth presents challenges. Arrington says the county is working with landowners and developers to plan for sustainable, mixed-use growth and avoid the overwhelming residential-only growth such as occurred along Pleasant Hill Road. Osceola has the highest impact fee to raise money for infrastructure. And voters in 2016 approved a half-cent sales tax surcharge to fund school infrastructure.
UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research projects Osceola’s population will grow to 512,481 by 2030, up from 388,656 in 2020.
Nationally, the under-18 population dropped 1.4% in the last decade.
Florida bucked that trend but still grew older overall.
First, the youth: With a net gain of 196,864 in its under-18 population, the state trailed only Texas in absolute numbers. Florida and Texas were the only two states to gain more than 100,000 youth.
In percentage growth of youth, Florida ranked ninth nationally. Nationally, 22 states and the District of Columbia gained youth; the rest lost young people. The number of youth in California, the nation’s most populous state, dropped 6.3%.
According to an analysis by Brookings demographer William Frey, the net gain in Florida owed largely to a gain of 259,931 Hispanics — the largest such gain in the nation — and a gain of 129,800 youth whose families identified them as of two or more races. Those gains more than offset a 202,482 net drop in whites and a 35,054 drop in black youth.
Only Utah, North Dakota and D.C. had a net gain in the white under-18 population. Seven states, primarily in the Northeast, lost more youth identified as white than Florida. California’s net loss was a half a million.
The 2020 Census says 34 of the state’s 67 counties had a net loss of under-18 youth in the last decade. In percentage terms, the biggest decline was in one of the state’s smallest counties, Lafayette in North Florida, which saw a net loss of 378 young people for a 21% drop.
In absolute numbers, the biggest loser was Miami-Dade, which lost 22,000 youth. That’s as many young people as the enrollment in 38 of Florida’s school districts. Pinellas had a net loss of 13,902, or 8.5%. No other county reported a loss of more than 2,000.
Demographers say accurately counting children is difficult. Children can be under-counted for a variety of reasons: Parents misunderstand whether to include them on the Census form, have a language barrier or don’t want to tell the government about them. Accurately counting kids is important because federal funding to support children is apportioned by population.
The question then is whether the Census whiffed in places such as Miami-Dade. Children’s Trust of Miami, a local youth services organization, called the Census count “surprising” and out of line with other county, region and state statistics. “We do know that there were several difficulties in conducting the Census during 2020, including the pandemic, concerns by immigrant populations (perceived threats) and other delays, which may have added to the underreporting,” e-mailed Children’s Trust spokeswoman Ximena Nunez.
The youth count and overall count for Miami-Dade similarly “came as a surprise to us,” says Stefan Rayer, who directs population research at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. He says the Census count for Miami-Dade showed the greatest divergence from the UF bureau’s estimates. He says that in 2022, the Census will release more data, which could shed light on the differences.
“We don’t have any real evidence yet to determine to what extent — if any — (an undercount) was indeed the case,” says Rayer. He notes that overall, the county grew by 205,000 people, third only behind Orange and Hillsborough.
Florida and the nation both grew more diverse since 2010. Florida’s statewide diversity score, according to the Census, is 64.1, up from 59.1 in 2010. That diversity index measures the probability that two people chosen at random will be from different races or be Hispanic or not. In the U.S., there’s a 61.1% chance two people chosen at random will be from different groups.
Diversity increased in the state, but not uniformly, and some areas grew less diverse.
Broward, the Census reports, is Florida’s most diverse county, with the population self-identifying by roughly thirds as Hispanic, black and white. Broward is the 23rd most diverse county nationally. Pinellas, the least diverse of Florida’s major counties, grew more diverse in a decade, up to 46.7%, up from 39.1 in 2010.
Florida is 10th in diversity, behind Hawaii, California, Nevada, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Texas, New Jersey, New York and Georgia.
A Tale of Two Counties
Miami-Dade, says the local economic development organization, the Beacon Council, is “diverse and international like no other American city; more than half our population was born outside the United States.” Some call Miami-Dade the Gateway to Latin America or the capital of Latin America. Some 82.7% of the population is Hispanic or black. Students in its public schools speak 56 languages.
In contrast, Manatee County, on the south side of Tampa Bay, is 68.3% white. It’s home to the 50-square-mile Lakewood Ranch, the quintessential planned community with parks, town centers and lots of single-family suburban homes. It’s said to be the best-selling multigenerational community in the nation.
Of the two, however, Manatee is more diverse, according to the U.S. Census. And both counties, in terms of the rest of the Florida, are middle of the pack in diversity. Manatee’s diversity index is 49.4; Miami- Dade’s is 48.9. The Census’ diversity index measures the probability that two people chosen at random will be from different races or be Hispanic or not. By that measure, Manatee ranks 32nd among Florida’s 67 counties. Miami-Dade ranks 33rd.
A funny thing happened on the path to diversity in Miami- Dade that illustrates the complexity of discussing race and ethnicity. Miami-Dade has become so Hispanic that it’s less diverse than 20 years ago. From 2010 to 2020, it added 233,079 people who identified as Hispanic but lost 46,894 who identified as solely black and 22,044 who identified as solely white. The black population declined by 3 percentage points and the white by 2 percentage points, while the Hispanic grew by nearly 4. The county diversity index fell from 52.4 to 48.9.
“It all depends on how you mean diversity,” says Jorge Duany, a Florida International University professor and expert on Hispanic migration. And it relies on the supposition that Hispanics are the same since they speak Spanish and come from Latin America. In reality, the Hispanic population is “increasingly heterogeneous,” Duany says. Decades ago, Cubans were so prevalent in Southeast Florida that Cuban and Hispanic were nearly synonymous. But growing numbers of people from Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Honduras, Colombia and elsewhere have diminished Cubans’ relative share.
By the Census’ diversity index, the state’s other two majority Hispanic counties — Osceola south of Orlando and Hendry west of Lake Okeechobee — also grew less diverse in the last decade.
- The growth in both Florida’s Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations outpaced the nation’s. Hispanics now comprise 26.5% of the state, or 5.7 million people, up from 22.5% in 2010.
- The Hispanic population of Florida is unevenly distributed. One-third live in Miami-Dade alone. And 59% live in just four counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange and Hillsborough.
- Asians make up 6% of the U.S. population but just 3% of Florida’s. Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, has the highest share at 6.5%. Even when counting people who identify as Asian and another race, the share of the state population rises only to 3.9%, with Alachua again having the highest share in the state at 7.9%. Off its small base, the Asian-alone population grew 41.5% over the decade. Orange, Seminole and Duval are the only other counties with more than 5% Asians.
- Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee on the Georgia border, is Florida’s only majority black county. The 3.2 million people in Florida who identify as solely black make up 15.1% of the state population. Their numbers grew by 8.2% from 2010, or 246,519. Those who identify as black in combination with another race push the share to 17.2%.
About That Falling White Population ...
The 2020 Census showed that for the first time the U.S. white population declined. America as a nation of minorities seemed to be coming quicker than expected.
But it’s complicated, especially in Florida. Without a doubt, there’s been a shift in the races in Florida, but it’s unclear how much is a shift in population and how much is a shift in how people identify themselves.
Consider two sets of statements based on the 2020 Census.
- First set: The number of people in Florida who identify as solely white fell 12%, or by 1.7 million. Forty-seven of Florida’s 67 counties had a net loss of white people. The white share of Florida’s population is 57.7%, down from 75% in 2010.
- Second set: The number of people who identify as white but also part of another race increased by 8.8%, or by 1.3 million. Forty-nine of Florida’s 67 counties had a net increase. The white, in some fashion, share of Florida’s population is 73.2%, down from 77.1% in 2010.
Beginning with the 2000 Census, people could choose more than one race for themselves. The Census also changed the questionnaire wording for 2020, which some observers think led to a drop in the solely white numbers.
Census results can be sorted by people who identified by only one race — for example, who saw themselves as black “alone” — or by people who identified as from one race combined with another — “white in combination” — or by both — “white alone or in combination.” The first set of facts above — showing a white population that declined by 12% in Florida — is for “white alone.” The second set applies to people who identified as either white alone or white combined with another race. That number increased 8.8%.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the Census asked people to choose first whether they are Hispanic and secondly to pick one or more races — and instructs them that Hispanic is not a race.
The shifts in how people report themselves can be seen in the category for “two or more races.” Florida’s population since 2010 grew by 14.6%, but the category for “two or more races” grew 651.6%. The smallest percentage change, in Holmes County in North Florida, was still as high as 128%.
A change in how people self-identify is the only explanation for how Miami-Dade, which grew by 205,332 people overall in the last decade, saw the number of people counted as from “two or more races” increase by 1.07 million, or 1,821.9%. The county went from just 2.4% identifying as from two or more races in 2010 to 42% in 2020. Broward, Palm Beach and Pinellas, among the state’s most populous counties, also saw the number of people who identify as being from two or more races increase more than the county’s total population increase.
People change how they report themselves from Census to Census. The Pew Research Center found in a study that 14% of people who took DNA ancestry tests changed their minds about what race and ethnicity they are. Pew also reports that 23% of Hispanics said the Census choices didn’t or didn’t very well reflect their race and origin. Some authorities, prior to the Census, wanted Hispanic and race put in a single category so that Hispanics wouldn’t be forced to choose a race for themselves. (Many Hispanics consider Hispanic a race. The majority of Hispanics, when faced with choosing a race, historically chose white.) The Census declined to combine the categories.
The Big Numbers
- 21.5 Million — 2020 Florida headcount
- 2.74 Million — Population increase since 2010
- 750 People a Day — Florida’s growth rate from 2010- 20 (Births minus deaths plus net in-migration from the rest of the country and abroad)
- 14.6% — Growth rate 2010-20, vs. 17.6% from 2000-09. (Most of the decrease in the rate of growth is accounted for by the larger base in 2020.)
Read more in Florida Trend's November issue.
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