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Florida No. 1 In New Resident Gain

From 2000 to 2004, the number of people moving to Florida from within the United States made the Sunshine State the national leader in population gain from domestic migration.

By Lisa Arthur, Tim Henderson and Darran Simon

It will be a year on Saturday since Abena Osei, a Houston native, moved to South Florida. It was the 27-year-old's first major move.

She came here for a job as a program director at a Fort Lauderdale prep school. The weather was a big draw, too.

''I was at a point in my life where I didn't have any ties,'' she said. ''It was easy for me to pick up and move to a new city to try something different.''

For Osei and tens of thousands of others across the country, Florida remains a magnet for those relocating within the United States, according to the Census Bureau. A study released Thursday found that the Sunshine State led the nation in average yearly net gain of new residents from other states between 2000 and 2004.

During the five-year period, the number of people moving to Florida outnumbered those who left the state by a yearly average of 190,894.

In a distant second: Arizona, with an average yearly net gain of 66,344.

But people aren't flocking from elsewhere in the country to Miami-Dade or Broward counties. In a trend that began more than a decade ago, tens of thousands more people leave Miami-Dade for other states than move here each year.

Broward has historically had more people coming in than leaving, but the net gain has dwindled from 14,898 in 2000 to 2,384 in 2004.

The figures do not include those who move here from abroad, which continues to fuel South Florida's population growth.

Those who do come to the state from other states come for the weather and for jobs, according to Florida demographers.

HOUSING COSTS

Some demographers also believe the desire to escape spiraling housing costs -- yes, higher than the recent skyrocketing real estate prices here -- has begun to drive people's decisions on where they will relocate.

''It's all relative,'' said Marc Perry, who wrote the Census study. ''Housing costs might be high is some small pockets in Florida, like South Florida, but many of these people might be coming from places with even higher costs.''

Look at the trends in Florida, and you have a microcosm of the affordable housing link to migration patterns happening throughout the entire country, said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy think tank.

''On the one hand you have Miami, which is comparable to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles as far as housing costs,'' he said. ''Then you have the counties in Central and Northern Florida that are more affordable and growing rapidly like the smaller, more affordable metro areas in the interior of the country.''

High housing costs in the Northeast continue to be a population windfall for Florida's more affordable counties and even metro areas like Orlando and Tampa, he said.

Stan Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, said he doesn't believe housing costs are a big factor when people decide whether or not to move to Florida.

''Housing might be a contributing factor at a local level -- like the situation in South Florida -- but at the state level I can't see it being an issue in the near future or even the foreseeable future,'' Smith said.

''When we survey new residents, they say jobs and climate.''

But Tony Villamil, a consultant with the Coral Gables-based Washington Economic Group and chairman of the Beacon Council's Economic Roundtable, worries about housing costs.

The region has to act quickly before it starts losing more of its population to other Florida counties or to other states and before it becomes harder to lure people from other states because of housing costs, he said.

RETHINK STRATEGY

Both Miami-Dade and Broward need to shift their strategies when looking for businesses to entice to relocate.

''We need to focus on places with higher housing costs than ours, so the employees moving here will be getting a break, making us more attractive,'' he said. ''So less Cincinnati and more New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego.''

South Florida also has to try to attract higher-paying jobs and start changing zoning laws to give builders an incentive to go vertical, developing affordable projects with more living units on smaller parcels of land.

'We can't sit still and say 'Business as usual and they'll keep coming,' '' he said. ''Because they won't keep coming.''

They might start leaving, too.

Abena Osei, the Houston native who rents a room in an Oakland Park house, recently embarked on a search to buy her own place.

She was too late in applying for a program in the city of Plantation offering $40,000 in down payment assistance for middle-income earners. She made an offer of $161,900 for a one-bedroom, one and a half bath condo.

But before she could close, the program ran out of money and her deal fell through because she couldn't afford the condo without the assistance.

She has toyed with the idea of just going back to Houston, with its kinder housing market. Not yet, though. She's grown to appreciate South Florida's diversity, being in striking distance of a vibrant city like Miami. And there's the weather.

''I am a little disheartened but I haven't fully given up.''


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