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Who’s Moving Here? What Driver’s License Data Says

More than half a million people (583K) got a first Fla. driver’s license in 2022. Most arrived from outside the U.S. (115,465) with N.Y. the top feeder state (61K).

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A second notable swell of newcomers traded out-of-state driver’s licenses last year for ones with a Sunshine State address following temptations of tropical succor, an income tax desert or a particular political ethos.

More than 583,200 people were freshly entered into the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles database in 2022 after surrendering non-Florida licenses. That’s 28% higher than the average of the previous six years and 36,200 more than the pandemic-triggered migration of 2021.

Their fast-pass was to a peninsula ripe with natural paradise, man-made tumult, a manic-turned-murky housing market and a knockout punch from devastating Hurricane Ian.

And whether their stay is enduring or a dalliance, demographers said getting a driver’s license signifies at least some resolve for a permanent Florida sojourn. U.S. Census Bureau data released in December echoes the driver’s license information, showing a weighty population increase last year in Florida, which led the nation for the first time since 1957 with growth of 1.9%.

“It’s still really coming from the Northeast and then some of the other larger states like Illinois and California, where the numbers are up a lot from pre-pandemic,” said Stefan Rayer, population program director at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, about who is moving to Florida. “It’s a little bit of a different dynamic.”

People from foreign countries getting Florida licenses made up the largest category statewide last year with 115,465, a 42% increase from the six-year average. That jump, however, followed a steep decline during the height of the pandemic when countries worldwide were at a standstill, Rayer said.

The data does not list the nations from where those individuals moved. But it does list the U.S. states people were moving from.

Among the states, people from New York led the way for the most people surrendering licenses at 61,205 – a 35% increase from the six-year average of 2016 through 2021. New Jersey was runner-up with 30,837, which was 28% higher than the average of the previous six years. California ranked third. While the Golden State’s number was lower comparatively at 28,957, it was a steep 57% higher than the average.

Palm Beach County had similar numbers, with New Yorkers topping the driver’s license tradeoff list at 8,059, which was a 38% increase from the six-year average. For the rest of the states, New Jersey came in second at 3,960, a 27% increase from average and California third with 1,943, which was a 58% increase from average.

Native New Yorker Sandford Burian moved with his wife to Palm Beach County post-pandemic. They rented for months before settling into a new house in Palm Beach Gardens’ Avenir community in October.

Burian, who can work remotely, doesn’t miss his 90-minute commute into the city from Long Island, and has been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of his new neighborhood.

“I thought it would be a lot more vanilla, homogenous,” he said. “I expected people from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, but there are a ton of people from California, mostly for the same reasons. They say, ‘You know what our taxes are like.’ And that’s a long haul from California to Florida.”

Newcomers citing Florida’s low-tax environment gives credence to speculation that 2017 congressional tax reform might also be a factor in the migration. That legislation, which ended the ability of people to deduct state income taxes from their federal returns, was passed by the GOP majority on Capitol Hill and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump.

Burian said groceries are more expensive in Florida and he has a harder time finding good cuts of meat at reasonable prices. But he doesn’t regret the move south, and he knows he’s fortunate to be able to work remotely when there are renewed pressures to go back into the office.

In September, the nonprofit Partnership for New York City conducted a survey that found 49% of Manhattan office workers were at their office on an average weekday. That was up from 38% in April. Still, only 9% of employees said they were in the office five days a week.

Elsewhere, Elon Musk wants Twitter and Tesla employees to work in person full time, and Disney CEO Bob Iger said in early January that corporate employees need to return to the office four days a week beginning March 1.

Peter Haslag, an assistant professor of finance at Vanderbilt University who studies population trends, said he’s dubious about whether major cities will return 100% to their pre-pandemic selves even with more strict return-to-work mandates.

“I’m a bigger believer in that what we’ve seen happening is a major population shift,” Haslag said about pandemic-boosted migration.

Workers are willing to take lower-paying jobs to stay in their preferred cities instead of returning to wherever they left, he said. And he’s seeing the anticipated prolonged population changes reflected in the bond market with bonds issued in areas where people moved away becoming riskier 10, 20 and 30 years out.

Instead, he thinks urban areas that lost people will have to rethink their downtowns and how office buildings are used to fill the void left by workers. That could mean filling them with more amenities such as stores, restaurants and art houses to draw people into cities.

At the same time, the pandemic migration is unlikely to make a big dent in history compared to other large movements of people that were more concentrated to specific areas. It’s not the 1850s Gold Rush, or Black people fleeing north in the early 1900s to escape a racist South, or a desperate move in the 1930s to California from the Dust Bowl.

“During the pandemic, it wasn’t people going to just one area,” Haslag said. “There was widespread dispersion across the country.”

The top six Florida counties that gained the most people last year based on the driver’s license data were Miami-Dade (59,113), Broward (40,212), Hillsborough (38,330), Palm Beach (37,637), Orange (37,146) and Lee (30,713).

While New York and New Jersey topped the list for people moving to Florida’s southeast counties, Illinois was the top migration state in Lee County on the southwest coast. In the Panhandle county of Leon, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee, Georgia was the state with the highest number of relocators.

As some cities nationwide think about how to repurpose their idle urban office space, West Palm Beach is in a spasm of construction to put up Class A buildings for Wall Street firms putting down roots in the city.

Corporate relocations fluctuate with available office space, said Blair Brandt, a real estate investor and developer with nearly a dozen new home projects in the popular South of Southern Boulevard community, called SoSo, in West Palm Beach.

The new 360 Rosemary office building by Related Cos. opened in November 2021 and is already full of firms such as Goldman Sachs and hedge fund Elliot Management. Related has broken ground on the new One Flagler office tower downtown and has several more in the planning stages.

Businesses and their employees will trickle down as the new offices open, bolstering the housing market, Realtors said. “There’s no science to exactly when the companies will come but I think it’s a two- to three-year process,” Brandt said.

But a bump in West Palm Beach’s population was already evident in UF’s most recent study, which showed the city gained 2,566 new residents in the two years before April 1, 2022 – the most of any city in Palm Beach County.

Countywide, 25,961 people were added during the same two-year period, including Boca Raton with 2,120 people, Westlake (2,075), Palm Beach Gardens (1,493) and Boynton Beach (1,368).

Realtors said the above-average surge of newcomers in the past two years has slowed in recent months because of a stalled housing market. Higher interest rates, a growing but still low inventory of homes for sale, and fears of a recession are contributing to fewer people making moves.

Echo Fine Properties President Jeff Lichtenstein calls it a “pause.” He said a few new homeowners who moved to Palm Beach County from out of state are looking for a change, but that doesn’t mean leaving South Florida.

“Some people bought in a rush and are looking to move around locally from the place they bought,” Lichtenstein said. “Even some people who don’t love it here, they have a tough time making a move away because they get used to the weather, and the taxes are just a big deal.”

A report issued this month by the non-profit Tax Foundation based on data from the Census Bureau, U-Haul and United Van Lines found states with no individual income tax gained the most people between July 2021 and July 2022. Those include Florida, Texas, South Dakota, Tennessee and Nevada.

States that lost the most people, including California, Hawaii, New York and Oregon, have double-digit income tax rates.

Brandt said he can only think of three families out of hundreds of friends and business acquaintances who moved back to northern states after coming to Florida during the pandemic. Two were die-hard New York-or-bust types and one missed family.

“People were pleasantly surprised when they came during COVID,” Brandt said. “They liked it here and couldn’t believe it wasn’t on the table before.”

The top 10 states people moved from in 2022 based on reciprocal driver’s license data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

  • Foreign country, 115,465
  • New York, 61,205
  • New Jersey, 30,837
  • California, 28,957
  • Pennsylvania, 24,438
  • Illinois, 24,311
  • Georgia, 23,232
  • Texas, 20,502
  • Ohio, 18,667
  • Massachusetts, 17,623

Copyright © 2023 The Palm Beach Post. Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Chris Persaud contributed to this story.