By Mary Hladky
Boca Raton was the fastest-growing city in Palm Beach County last year, adding 2,570 residents.
Boynton Beach and Delray Beach also showed strong population increases from 2015 to 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released in May. Boynton Beach gained 1,676 residents, or a 2.3 percent increase, while Delray Beach grew by 1,178, or 1.8 percent.
Taken together, South Palm Beach County’s growth rate outpaced that in other parts of the county. But all cities and towns countywide have posted gains since the 2010 census, and the county’s total population increased 9.4 percent.
“Boca is obviously a place a lot of people want to live in,” said Deputy Mayor Jeremy Rodgers, whose city grew 2.75 percent last year.
New residential construction, including The Mark at CityScape, Palmetto Promenade and Via Mizner, have bolstered the downtown population, while expansion of major employers such as Florida Atlantic University, LexisNexis and Cancer Treatment Centers of America have created jobs, he said.
“We are the affordable Palm Beach,” said Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant in explaining his city’s 10.8 percent population growth since 2010.
Boynton Beach’s three-bedroom, two-bath housing prices are considerably less than those in Delray Beach or Boca Raton, attracting people to his city even if they work elsewhere, he said.
“Developers are building in Boynton,” he said, citing residential projects such as 500 Ocean at Ocean Avenue and Federal Highway and Cortina on Congress Avenue at Old Boynton Road. Others include the huge planned Town Square redevelopment in “downtown” that includes apartments and condos, a hotel, retail and a new city hall and police and fire station. “We do not feel they are building buildings to be vacant. Residential units will be filled.”
And that means his city will continue to grow, Grant said.
Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said the blossoming of Atlantic Avenue and a trend of people moving out of suburbs and into coastal urban areas have benefited his city.
“Atlantic Avenue has become an amenity for northern Broward County and essentially all of Palm Beach County,” he said. “We aren’t the seasonal town we used to be.”
Census does not account for seasonal changes
The city does not rely on census data to plan for the future because seasonal residents are not counted, Glickstein said. While the census shows the city growing by 11.3 percent since 2010 to 67,371 residents, Glickstein believes it is closer to 100,000 during the winter season. The city, he said, must be able to provide services to that many.
By adding 263 residents since 2010, tiny South Palm Beach’s population has grown to 1,434 for a 22.4 percent gain that is the second highest in Palm Beach County.
While no new residential units have been built in the town since 2010, Town Manager Bob Vitas said the number of full-time residents has grown as more people decide to live in South Palm Beach permanently.
“You are seeing a transition between former units used exclusively by snowbirds acquired by people establishing permanent residences,” he said.
The same dynamic has boosted Manalapan’s population to 457 residents, up 12.5 percent since 2010.
About 15 new homes have been built in the town in recent years, most occupied by younger couples, said Manalapan Mayor Keith Waters.
“We are seeing a lot more families with children in school,” using their homes as a primary residence rather than a second or third home, he said. “It has been an enormous growth over the past few years.”
The growth won’t continue since the town is nearly built out, Waters said.
The quirkiest fact in the census data is that Briny Breezes grew by just one resident last year and by three since 2010 to a total of 604.
Elsewhere in South County, Gulf Stream’s population rose 1.7 percent last year and 8 percent since 2010, Highland Beach’s was up 0.9 percent last year and 6.2 percent since 2010, Lantana’s increased 0.8 percent last year and 5.7 percent since 2010, and Ocean Ridge’s jumped 1.1 percent since last year and 7.7 percent since 2010.
Growth adds to tax base
Growth is a good thing for cities and towns, since it translates into a growing tax base.
“It is the economic lifeblood of any city. You can’t survive without net growth,” Glickstein said.
But it also creates a need for more municipal services, including police, fire rescue and trash pickup.
In one example of what that means for Delray Beach, Glickstein noted the city launched a three-year plan last year to boost the number of first responders.
In Boca Raton, growth has strained trash and recycling services, and officials are considering whether they should raise fees or contract out those services if that would reduce the cost to the city and ultimately to its residents.
Rodgers said the City Council will weigh the options over the next two months.
“We have already exceeded capacity,” Rodgers said. “If we do privatize, it is calculated to save money for all residences.”
Because their growth is relatively small compared with big cities, Manalapan and South Palm Beach officials said they have not felt budget pressure.
“The demand on town services remains constant,” Vitas said. “There is no spike in that demand.”
The census data shed light on the nature of population growth in South Florida.
While Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties continue to grow, the year-over-year population changes show that growth is slowing down, especially in Miami-Dade, said Maria Ilcheva, senior researcher at the Florida International University Metropolitan Center.
Population growth in Miami-Dade and Broward is fueled mainly by international migrants rather than people moving in from other parts of the United States.
Domestic migration is the bigger contributor to growth in Palm Beach County. Last year, 12,473 people migrated here from elsewhere in the U.S., while 8,443 were international migrants.
That may be changing, Ilcheva said, but it is too soon to tell for sure. Both types of migration peaked in Palm Beach County in 2015, and not enough time has elapsed since then to see a clear trend.
The Miami-Dade numbers are especially stark. International migrants totaled 41,830 last year, but 30,560 local residents left. Those leaving are white non-Hispanics, Ilcheva said.
She points to two primary reasons for the local outflow: the high cost of housing and traffic gridlock.
“They are not necessarily changing their jobs, but changing their place of residence to Broward or even Palm Beach County,” she said.
Of the three counties, Miami-Dade’s median household income of about $43,000 a year is the lowest. For those earning that amount, housing “is not only not affordable, there is just no housing produced for families,” she said.
The Hispanic population is growing faster in Palm Beach and Broward than in Miami-Dade, she said. In Palm Beach, the Hispanic population increased by 19 percent between 2010 and 2015 to a total of 300,776. Broward saw a 20.3 percent increase while Miami-Dade’s was up only 10.2 percent.
While Palm Beach County’s traffic congestion may seem less severe to a Miami-Dade driver, it is a big issue locally. The same holds true for housing prices.
Price of housing a crisis
Hundreds of people attending a Palm Beach County Housing Summit in West Palm Beach in May heard experts say that the county’s median home price of $327,000 is unaffordable to 75 percent of households.
The county’s median gross rent of $1,900 is out of reach for 80 percent of renters, said Edward “Ned” Murray, associate director of the FIU Metropolitan Center. About 30 percent of renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent.
Attendees were told that more affordable housing must be built if the county wants to keep existing businesses and jobs and attract new ones.
Glickstein described housing costs as “one of the most intractable public policy issues we face as a city, state and country.”
“Affordable housing is a national crisis,” he said. “The market is driving these prices. There is very little local government can do unless it wants to get into the business of rent control and other price suppression measures. Those things have never really proven effective.”
While Delray Beach, like other South Florida cities, requires developers to build affordable housing, the amount produced is insufficient to meet demand, Glickstein said.
“I would like to see the development industry reinvent the housing model,” he said, although the way to do so is not obvious.
Developers “can make the economics work, except for the fact land is so scarce in the tri-county area. Lack of supply is driving land prices so that the affordable model doesn’t work anymore.”