Photo: The Villages
Dimensions of Growth: The 2020 Census shows the new face of Florida
From 2010-20, Florida's population grew by 14.6% to more than 21.5 million. The boom didn't include all of Florida's counties, however.
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.