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Broward losing residents to other regions due to high cost of living, hurricanes

Sun-Sentinel - 3/22/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Ruth Morris and Alva James-Johnson

Bella Zaritsky came for the warm weather and the soft sand beaches. But after watching a rising tide of property taxes and insurance rates, she's ready to bail out.

"It's been a big disappointment," said Zaritsky, 27, an office manager who moved to Plantation four years ago from the Northeast. "The housing market is becoming ridiculous. Property taxes are out of control. Insurance is out of control. It's not a fair system."

Now Zaritsky and her husband are selling their townhouse and moving to Georgia, where a dollar goes further and the job market is friendlier, she said.

A new battery of Census Bureau figures shows Zaritsky is not alone. For the first time in decades, there are more people leaving Broward County for other parts of Florida or the country than people moving into Broward from the rest of the country. A similar trend emerged in Palm Beach Country.

From 2005 to 2006, Broward lost 18,459 people to other counties and states, the data showed. But because 15,227 people came to Broward from outside the United States, and because of gains from births, the county still grew by 5,620 people.

The result is a sea change in Broward's makeup. A new neighbor is much more likely to be a newly arrived immigrant than a U.S. retiree from New York, or a young couple from the Midwest. Between 2000 and 2006, the census data show, five new immigrants came to Broward for every person arriving from inside the United States. That's a complete reversal from the 1990s, when one immigrant arrived for about every two newcomers from within the country.

Experts say various factors contributed to the change. Stunning increases in home insurance and property taxes are near the top of the list. They also cite a crush of new buildings and roads, and the stress and havoc of hurricane season. Movers and real estate agents say those moving tend to relocate to Tennessee, the Carolinas and Georgia.

"It's so crowded. You pull into restaurant after restaurant and there's an hour wait. And the traffic ... I guess I've had enough," said Diane Prete, 48, who is leaving Lake Worth after 26 years and moving with her husband to an acre lot in a mountainside community in Georgia. When she bought her Lake Worth home it was surrounded by vacant lots, she said.

Now it sits amid a tangle of development. Another tipping point was homeowner insurance. Her payments tripled over the past five years.

At her new home in Georgia, Prete said she expected to find work fairly quickly, managing a hair salon.

"The pay seems to be pretty equal and the price of living is less," she said.

Sociology professor Arthur Evans at Florida Atlantic University said the new data reflect a gradual exodus of elderly residents -- people 75 or older who might be returning to an earlier stomping ground after a spouse dies, or moving in with their children.

"We still have people coming here," he said. "They are people with disposable income."

Evans said South Florida continues to attract blacks, but many of those coming were "black professionals, educated blacks from the Caribbean, who are members of the middle class and upper class."

By far the largest group of new arrivals are immigrants -- a relatively steady inflow that has rippled through businesses, entertainment venues and real estate offices.

Linda Mortensen, a real estate agent in Miramar and Pembroke Pines, said six of the eight properties she sold in recent weeks were to investors who planned to sell the homes to buyers in Venezuela and other countries. People planning to move here from within the United States are thinking twice after they review exorbitant property prices, and the taxes that come with them.

"It's quite apparent that South Florida has become a place where the average person cannot afford to live anymore," she said. "People who live here have to have a lot of money."

But for many newly arrived immigrants, South Florida still has a bright appeal. For those from Latin America, it offers ethnic supermarkets and restaurants that cook up their favorite comfort foods from home: a Colombian three-potato soup, a Brazilian feijao. For others, the tropical climate continues to be a magnet.

Errol and Cynthia Thompson moved to Davie from Jamaica a year ago, opting for the area's summery breezes over the bitter cold of their daughter's home in New York.

"One of the reasons we came here is because the weather is similar to Jamaica," said Errol Thompson. The cost of living is high, he added, but he's not complaining. "If you have a reasonably good paying job, you can live," he said. "Taxes are high and growing, but I've experienced the same thing back home."

There is some evidence, though, that even for the immigrants holding up population figures, South Florida is becoming a kind of way station. Doug Ogburn of the South Florida Regional Planning Council said the census calculations of immigrants leaving Florida include many foreign nationals who landed in Broward, got their bearings, found it too expensive and moved on.

"A lot of people flow through South Florida," Ogburn said. "They don't come here because the job market is so wonderful. They come because they have an uncle with a place where they can stop a while. Then maybe they end up in Omaha."

With the slip in domestic migration numbers, Broward's population increase of 5,620 people between 2005 and 2006 puts it in 21st place among Florida's 67 counties. While Broward remains a top-tier destination in the state, it has fallen dramatically from the first-place growth ranking it had held for the 2000-2005 period.

The Census Bureau tracks domestic migration based on where people file their tax returns from one year to the next.