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opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

Carey O’Donnell calls it a “youthquake,” a newly minted term she uses to describe the transformation sweeping through Palm Beach and other Florida destinations that are popular with Canadian snowbirds.

Driven by a favourable tax environment, tropical climate and remote work born of pandemic lockdowns, many areas of Florida have seen an influx of young families from high-tax, low-temperature locales in the U.S., notably New York, Boston and Chicago.

These people are staying longer than the usual “season,” which runs roughly from late October through April, and demanding more amenities and services than typical short-term vacationers and retirees have in the past. Schools are full, grocery stores and restaurants are crowded, traffic is challenging, the inventory of houses for sale is low, and the prices are high.

Canadians who head to Florida this winter for the first time since COVID-19 restricted cross-border travel will see and feel the difference: This is not your grandparents’ Florida.

So transformational is this shift that Ms. O’Donnell, a Palm Beach native who owned her own communications and marketing business for 26 years, is embarking on a new venture she describes as a comprehensive executive relocation and concierge services business.

“I call it native intelligence,” she said. “People moving here don’t know where to find good doctors, dentists, realtors, vets, child care and other essential services families need. I have curated lists of the best of the best.”

As the immediate former chair of the Economic Development Council of Palm Beach County, Ms. O’Donnell is particularly excited about the inflow of financial services firms that has earned the area the nickname “Wall Street South.”

“This has been a steady march over the last five years, but COVID accelerated it,” she said.

To be sure, there has been a rash of announcements from businesses in the Northeast about opening operations in Florida, bringing with them executive-level jobs paying executive-level salaries.

Goldman Sachs, the big New York investment firm, has leased 50,000 square feet in a new office tower in West Palm Beach built by New York developer Related Companies. Other northern financial services companies such as Elliott Management Corporation, Cirrus Capital, Point 72 Asset Management and mortgage lender NewDay USA have also announced plans for new offices in the city.

Academic institutions have followed. The University of Florida recently unveiled plans to build a graduate school campus downtown, specializing in the types of business and finance studies aligned with the new businesses coming to town.

The changing makeup of the newcomers has changed the way people live. They are looking for bigger houses with more amenities, not vacation homes.

Tim Givens, a high-end Palm Beach home builder for a quarter-century, says this shift is reflected in the features people want in their houses: larger laundry rooms, kitchen-family rooms, home offices and gyms.

“More people are moving here full time, so they need bigger houses with the kind of features most vacation houses don’t have,” Mr. Givens said. “They aren’t retirees. They have kids and grandkids.”

As a result, many schools are crowded to overflowing. There is talk that two leading independent schools in West Palm Beach are looking to expand and that a number of well-known Northeastern preparatory schools are considering opening satellite campuses there.

Golf, tennis, boating and social clubs are full and have waiting lists. Many have hiked membership fees sky high to stem demand, but applicants are not deterred.

Samantha Curry, the executive director of luxury sales for Douglas Elliman Real Estate and the firm’s third-highest producing broker in Florida, said the housing market is seeing its own share of changes.

Three-bedroom condominiums, once harder to sell, are now popular because buyers want the extra room for an office or gym. Neighbourhoods that have not typically been seen as desirable are undergoing a resurgence as people look for places to land. And more buyers, including people from outside the U.S., whose travel has been restricted, are buying properties sight unseen.

Not surprisingly, the rise in demand has pushed up both prices and rents. Recent sales on the north end of Palm Beach island show a per-square-foot rate as high as $2,000 for non-waterfront properties. A new listing this week for a 3,277-square-foot north end house is asking US$7.75-million. A two-bedroom, two-bath house in the area is renting for $35,000 a month during the season.

Ms. Curry said that while it is common for houses in desirable areas to get caught up in a competitive bidding process, there are still ways to get in: buy in the off-season and keep the contingencies to a minimum. Many buyers, she said, are waiving home inspections to streamline the process.

The question on many people’s minds is this: Is what is happening in Florida really transformational or is it a one-time pandemic bump? With offices and businesses reopening in the Northeast and elsewhere, some believe the newcomers will drift out of the state eventually.

Projections suggest otherwise. Florida’s population has grown almost 15 per cent in the past decade to 21.6 million, making it the third-most populous state, behind California and Texas. State analysts say the growth will continue, hitting 23.1 million residents by 2025, the equivalent of adding a city slightly larger than Orlando every year.

“I just don’t see things slowing down any time soon,” Ms. Curry said, adding that, at a recent meeting, a senior colleague braced the sales team for more action: “If you thought last season was crazy, get ready.”

Ms. O’Donnell agrees. “I don’t see a drift back,” she said. “It’s a steady influx. The business pipeline is real. And the young people are saying, ‘All my friends are here.’ When you hear that, there’s something to it.”

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