By Nathan Sparks, CEcD
Executive Director of One Okaloosa EDC
Have you heard? Northwest Florida has been discovered and the buzz is literally everywhere. The 2020 US Census found that, as a whole, Okaloosa County grew from 180,822 to 211,688 between 2010 and 2020 – a 17% growth rate. While nearly 20% growth is impressive in its own right, some Okaloosa County Census tracts experienced growth well beyond that – with one Crestview Census tract reporting an eye-popping 116% growth rate.
To put it in perspective, Florida as a whole grew by 14% during the same timeframe, ranking our state as the 8th fastest growing state in the country over the past decade. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated population growth as people and businesses alike fled states and cities with high taxes, punitive business regulations and repressive social policies. Move.org confirmed that Florida was the “most moved to” state in the country last year. In total, 220,890 new residents moved to Florida between July 1, 2020, and July 1, 2021 from elsewhere in the U.S.
Locally, our realtor friends regularly share anecdotes about all the people moving to our area from places like Atlanta, Birmingham, Louisiana, Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and yes, even California. It seems that the pandemic caused countless individuals to reevaluate their current situation, and for many, the answer was to relocate to a state and region that offered the things they were lacking. As a result, real estate has quickly become scarce and, in keeping with basic economic principles, prices have increased as supply has diminished. According to the Emerald Coast Association of Realtors, Okaloosa County now has less than two month’s worth of inventory available, while the median home price has climbed nearly 25% year-over-year – from $336,011 in Dec 2020 to $419,000 in Dec 2021.
While Okaloosa’s average private sector wage has grown by 11% over the past year – and at $49,622 now ranks as the highest in Northwest Florida – the stark reality is that real estate is becoming less and less attainable for many local wage earners. The military recently addressed this disparity through a temporary increase of the BAH (Base Allowance for Housing) for military members, but with another 2,100 military personnel and their families due to arrive at Eglin in the next three years, the situation is going to be further amplified.
To be clear, the growth in Okaloosa’s civilian and military population is exciting. It absolutely translates to good things for our local economy. However, we must ensure that we can sustain this growth without leaving behind those who either protect and serve our nation or fill the tens of thousands of private sector jobs that are the backbone of our economy. Bottom line, the time is now for a comprehensive, community-wide workforce housing strategy.