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We’re Number Three (And Four)

people on a beach near Cape Canaveral, Florida, with developments on the horizon
photo courtesy Ricymar Photography

Florida has overtaken New York to become the nation’s third most populous state, the U.S. Census Bureau reported last week. Though this news is no surprise, it leaves me bemused at the spectacle of one place that is clearly on the way up, and another that barely recognizes that it is on the way down.

Most of my life has been divided between these two states. I was born in New York, spent my childhood there, and turned 3 years old in 1960 - a notable year because that was the last decennial census in which New York held the nation’s top spot. There were just fewer than 180 million U.S. residents in 1960. More than 9 percent of them, an estimated 16,827,000, lived in New York. California was second that year, Texas sixth and Florida at number 10.

According to the latest figures, which are estimates that update the population survey taken in 2010, the United States now has more than 318 million residents, and 38.8 million of them, or more than 12 percent, live in California. Texas solidly occupies the number two spot at 27 million. Florida, which has been gaining more than 800 residents per day during the past year, according to the government, has 19.9 million. New York is at 19.7 million, or just over 6 percent of the total.

New York has thus increased its population by about 17 percent during my lifetime. Florida’s population has increased more than 300 percent. Retirees migrating to Florida’s gentler climes account for part of the difference, of course; Bloomberg noted that the latest figures put Florida’s median age at 41 (nearly four years older than the nation as a whole), with nearly 19 percent of the state’s residents aged 65 or older, the highest proportion in America.

But the age demographics miss the bigger, and more important, parts of the story. Consider: If 19 percent of Floridians are over 65, then 81 percent, or more than 16 million Floridians, are younger. That’s about as many people as the entire state of New York held when I was a child. These school- and working-age Floridians are not spending most of their time on the golf courses; they are, literally, building their state and its future. New Yorkers cannot say the same.

My firm has offices in the comfortable New York City suburb of Scarsdale, and in downtown Fort Lauderdale. I have homes in both locales and I divide my time between them, so I have a pretty good feel for each.

From my Florida condo balcony, I can literally see a half-dozen high-rise projects being built today. Just beyond the high rises, Fort Lauderdale’s airport is completing a major runway expansion that involved a major highway tunneling beneath the newly extended landing strip. Norwegian Airlines started flying to Fort Lauderdale this year and, just this month, so did Brazilian carrier Azul. I can drive to the airport from my apartment in 10 minutes, hop on a JetBlue-like Azul Airbus A320, and be in the Sao Paulo satellite city of Campinas (where I have clients and friends) eight hours later.

In Scarsdale and surrounding Westchester County, any development, no matter how economically beneficial or environmentally sensitive, must survive a gauntlet of NIMBY objections and extortionate demands for community benefits. In Florida the attitude is that growth, along with the opportunities it provides for working-age Floridians, is itself the major community benefit. Growth brings problems and challenges, of course, and if not managed well, the costs can outweigh the benefits. But in Florida the underlying philosophy is that change and progress is welcome. I remember when that philosophy existed in New York, too, but it died soon after the thoughtless destruction in the 1960s of the old Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, which gave rise to New York’s preservation movement. Preservation, or more accurately obstruction in the name of preservation, has now all but consumed the development beast it was supposed to tame.

New York City has rent controls. It also has a perpetual housing shortage and some of the highest costs in the country. Florida housing (especially in sought-after parts of Miami) is not cheap either, by some standards, but it is considerably cheaper than housing in New York. There is a shortage of affordable rentals in Fort Lauderdale, but the city is addressing the shortage not by limiting rents, and thus curtailing investment in housing, but by allowing thousands of new units to be constructed. Most of those new units are within walking distance of my downtown home and office, as part of the city’s plan to control traffic and sprawl.

New York’s story is certainly more nuanced than I have presented thus far. New York City has done quite well, especially in the past quarter-century; its population is the highest ever. Much of that growth has been driven by immigration (not unlike south Florida), and it has been paid for by the explosive growth of the financial sector and the industries, like law and accounting, that service it. The city’s suburbs have mostly stagnated, benefitting from excellent schools but burdened by exorbitant taxes and red tape. North and west of the mid-Hudson Valley, New York is an utterly different place, much more like Michigan than Manhattan. More than 50 counties feed off the output generated by fewer than a dozen, facilitated by a state government that milks the city and skims the cream for itself.

Florida’s evolution is has been more balanced. Growth has occurred in nearly every corner of the state, which is especially noteworthy because the state is such a diverse place. Miami, Key West, Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville and Pensacola could scarcely be more different from one another, except in their lack of snow, but they have all shared in the state’s growth.

I will just mention New York’s income and estate taxes, and Florida’s lack of same. If you wanted to build a business or pass it along to your family, and you could start it in either place, which location would you be more likely to choose?

Florida is on the way up. New York, whether it knows it or not, is on the way down, in much more than the national population rankings. I see it all the time; the Census Bureau merely outlines the story with its numbers.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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