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More and more people are finding themselves living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region. In some places, rent has doubled. The cost of everyday goods — like gas and groceries — keeps creeping up. All the while, wages lag behind and the affordable housing crisis looms. Amid cost-of-living increases, WUSF is focused on documenting how people are making ends meet.

Affordability is strained by record growth in the Tampa Bay region, benchmark reports show

The fountains at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park with downtown in the background
Carl Lisciandrello
Shivendu Shivendu (left), with the USF Muma College of Business, and Lucia Farriss (right), with the Tampa Bay Partnership, speak with WUSF's Gabriella Paul about economic trends in the Tampa Bay region.

The reports define the Tampa Bay region as an eight-county area: Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.

A pair of economic reports shed new light on affordability and workforce trends in the Tampa Bay region.

Three people sit around a table in a studio to discuss the Tampa Bay region's economic trends.
Jackson Harpe
Shivendu Shivendu, with the USF Muma College of Business and Lucia Farriss, with the Tampa Bay Partnership, speak with WUSF's Gabriella Paul about economic trends in the Tampa Bay region.

While the region is attracting new residents and businesses, the reports find that housing affordability, public transportation and wage growth are lagging.

The reports were released in tandem with the 2024 State of the Region event in February, when nearly 500 community members and local leaders gathered on the USF Tampa campus to discuss how Tampa Bay compares.

WUSF's Gabriella Paul spoke with the lead researchers, Lucia Farriss and Shivendu Shivendu, about their respective reports:

Lucia, you worked on the 2024 Regional Competitiveness Summary Report, which compares Tampa on a number of metrics to other places across the country. What stood out to you in this year's report, especially thinking about people's household budgets and affordability?

There's some good news in that we are a magnet for talent, for families, for businesses wanting to move to our area, a thriving economic hub with low crime rates and strong business-start rates. However, the attractiveness does come with its own set of challenges. So there's great pressure on housing, transportation and overall affordability concerns.

Shivendu, you led the research published in the 2024 Tampa Bay E-Insights Report. What did you find?

We have done very well in terms of graduate education affordability. In terms of racial equity, again, we have done very well. But there are some concerns ... in terms of housing affordability obviously we are losing our competitive advantage ... And also more concerning is that we are lagging in terms of relative earnings of private sector jobs at newly established firms. That means that our wage growth is (not) likely to be very high going forward.

So looking first at housing, Lucia, how does this report inform those trends?

Yes, so we've been seeing record increases in existing home sales prices exceeding 20% year-over-year over the last few years. And while the data this year shows a small correction of about 3%, overall, residents are still spending more than ever on housing in the Tampa Bay area. Housing expenditures are now over 42% of the average household budget, and housing and transportation combined are about 57% of the average household budget.

Home sales growth is typically perceived as a positive indicator for a region. Could you expand on that?

Certainly. Home price appreciation has always been seen as a good thing — you want to make sure that the investment that you made grows, and that continues to rise with cost of living. The problem that we're seeing in the last few years is that those increases have not kept pace with increases in wages and median household income.

So in this scenario, when we're looking at those greater than 20% year-over-year housing price increases, we'd like to see a small correction of those prices downward, so it can be more in line with what families are earning.

Shivendu, is there a similar situation with renters?

Yes, in fact, we find that renter affordability in the Tampa Bay region has worsened over the years. In 2015, when we look at our competitive position, we were seventh rank. And when we look at 2023, we are 17 out of 20 regions that we compare ourselves. So, certainly, we have lost a lot of ground ... both in terms of pricing and affordability of buying a house and also renting a house.

Wages is a big part of that picture. Turning back to you, Lucia, while median household income has increased, can you shed light on what that ends up looking like for workers in Tampa?

Our average wage currently is about $61,000, which is about a $3,000 increase from last year. However, Tampa Bay is still the third from the bottom in our comparison set. So nearly $10,000 below the U.S. average in terms of wages.

And the concern here is that we're also seeing increases in ALICE households (Asset-limited, Income-constrained, Employed) ... which means they don't meet their basic needs to be able to afford the cost of living in our area. So while overall poverty rates are getting better, we're seeing that full-time worker poverty rates are actually getting worse.

Shivendu, could you weigh in on how racial equality fits into the picture of wage equality?

Yes, and I think the good news is that Tampa Bay region has really done well in terms of bridging the gap between white and Black wage rates. And our poverty rate gap between white and Black has also become narrower, which is a good sign. But when we look at the other part of this equity equation, which is the income equity, there, unfortunately, we are doing worse.

Another big aspect of household budgets is not only work -but how do you get to work? Shivendu, which transportation metrics did you track and how does the Tampa Bay region compare?

The important metric that we look at is not only commute times in terms of public transport but also the cost of commute. Our data suggests that Tampa Bay is kind of in the middle of the pack.

And this cost of commute includes cost of gas, the cost of car ownership, cost of a taxi ride or through Uber and Lyft and other such platforms.

Thinking about transportation, Lucia, what long-term economic concerns do you have?

We need to begin to think regionally in terms of our transit and transportation options. So we are actively advocating for a tri-county metropolitan planning organization ... meaning Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties to help ... our residents be able to come back to the urban core for their employment, even if they're finding more accessible housing further out. So, that is one area of opportunity that I think we should definitely look at particularly because a larger metropolitan planning organization would mean greater opportunities for state and federal funding.

And finally, Shivendu, I want to close with you. What do you think that the Tampa Bay region is doing really well? And what are the main focuses that the Tampa Bay region needs to work on?

I think we are doing very well in terms of new business establishments, new businesses are coming here. There are a lot of technology related companies which are coming. There's a lot of energy in terms of entrepreneurial activities ... And I think this higher education affordability is bringing a lot of talent in the area. So, that's a big thing that that is happening, and that is ... pushing the positive story around the Tampa Bay region.

Where the concerns are, some of the policy-related issues that I talked about, (are) opening up more supply of housing ... in the areas where people can live and have less of commute time to go to work. I think I totally agree with Dr. Farriss (that) our housing affordability is one thing that needs to be addressed together with the transportation affordability.

Gabriella Paul covers the stories of people living paycheck to paycheck in the greater Tampa Bay region for WUSF. She's also a Report for America corps member. Here’s how you can share your story with her.

I tell stories about living paycheck to paycheck for public radio at WUSF News. I’m also a corps member of Report For America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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