So long, paradise. Longtimers and natives depart for homes outside Miami-Dade County

Miriam Merino’s life might cause anyone to think she enjoyed the best of Miami-Dade County.

On her $400,000 real estate salary, she said she could afford weekly dinners at The River Oyster Bar and the latest $6,500 Santa Cruz Tallboy Mountain bike to ride on her next adventure in Costa Rica’s Vuelta al Lago Arenal or Oleta River State Park in Miami. She traveled around the globe and owned two condos outright in Miami.

For the Cuban-born 59-year-old whose family escaped Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in 1968, Merino had made it big in Miami. But in recent years, her quality of life declined. The city’s allure had faded.

“Traffic became impossible. People that came in were disrespectful. The developers get whatever they want,” Merino said. “It became a pirate town. Whoever has more money, wins.”

With $1 million in her pocket from the sale of her condos, Merino left in April after 40 years in Miami for San José, the capital of Costa Rica. She bought a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom condominium for $150,000. She continues to work remotely doing real estate consulting for a firm in Miami.

Despite the wave of outsiders who relocated to Florida during the pandemic, Miami-Dade County actually saw a net decrease in population from 2020 to 2022, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau figures. The newcomers were outnumbered by those departing by a margin not seen since the throes of the Great Recession that began in late 2007.

While Florida grew by 3% during that period, Miami-Dade’s population actually dropped by 1%, or 28,000 people, and Monroe County’s fell by 1.41% percent, or 1,200 people. Broward and Palm Beach counties reported net population increases of 0.14% and 1.76%, respectively.

The trends aren’t glaring, with Dade’s decrease and the population increases in Broward and Palm Beach counties falling within the Census Bureau’s 2% margin of error. But given South Florida’s steady pandemic influx of newcomers, the drop in Miami-Dade is surprising.

“Broward and Palm Beach seem to be holding on. Miami-Dade right now is just viewed as this costly county and difficult place to get around,” said noted South Florida housing expert Ned Murray.

Murray, associate director of the Jorge M. Pérez Metropolitan Center at Florida International University, said he expects many more people to move out of Miami-Dade, especially those looking to buy a home in today’s fraught housing market.

More decadeslong residents, and some of them born-and-bred Miamians, want out like Merino. The Miami Herald spoke with people who have departed for near and far, others who are determined to move and two residents contemplating the decision, to understand why longtimers would leave. They painted a picture of Miami-Dade as a county, where homes and most goods are overpriced, and a place with lackluster urban planning and subpar public transportation.

Residents interviewed on the way out of Miami-Dade cited the historic home sale prices and soaring apartment rents as among the primary reasons. In June, the county reported a record median sales price of $622,500 for single-family homes and $418,000 for condos.

Furthermore, the pandemic proved to be grueling years for many county residents, a period when the cost of living, including housing, priced out many people and replaced them with a nomad crowd of remote workers and well-heeled professionals from across the country and globe. How long will this Miami stage last? Residents opting to leave don’t have the patience to find out.

Miami sheds, while Florida gains 700,000 residents

As of July 2022, Miami-Dade had 2.67 million residents, a drop of 27,925 people from 2.7 million people in April 2020. That population drop was the largest among Florida’s 67 counties.

By comparison during the same period, Broward gained 2,650 residents for a total of 1.95 million and Palm Beach County added 26,279 residents to reach 1.52 million.

Like Miami-Dade, the Florida Keys, in Monroe County, absorbed a 1% population loss to a total of 81,708 residents.

As a whole, Florida welcomed 706,597 newcomers from the start of pandemic in spring of 2020 to July 2022, increasing its population to 22.24 million or 3%. It was among the fastest-growing states over that time. Polk County, in the central area of the state, and Lee and Pasco counties on the southwest coast, saw the biggest population gains, ranging from 46,897 new residents to 62,363.

‘You feel like you’re getting robbed’

Victor Calonje, 44, and his 34-year-old wife Katherine Calonje, 34, grew up in Miami-Dade. Victor came during the 1980s from Nicaragua, and Katherine during the 1990s from New Jersey. The couple met 14 years ago and decided to buy a place when they expected their first baby. They landed a 1,200-square-foot condo with two bedrooms and two bathrooms in Kendall. In 2015, it cost them $245,000.

Years later, after welcoming their second child, the Calonje family wanted more. They thought they could afford a bigger lifestyle, with graduate degrees under their belts and a $160,000 household income. He worked in the compliance department at an engineering firm and she oversaw content management for a national healthcare firm.

The Calonjes started their home search in 2020 with a $450,000 budget, after selling one of two cars and saving by restricting family outings to park visits. They thought those sacrifices and that buying budget would be enough to purchase their dream house. So, they searched as near as Westchester, South Miami, Doral, Homestead and their own Kendall for a renovated three-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home. They expanded the search to Boca Raton, West Palm Beach, Orlando and Tampa. All they found affordable in those locales at their budget were fixer-uppers that required too much work and cost too much money.

“It’s like me selling you a car for a high price. You feel like you’re getting robbed,” Victor Calonjes said. “It’s not like a business deal, where I feel good and they [the sellers] feel good. I want to take that money and go elsewhere.”

That elsewhere is somewhere in Texas. After multiple trips, the Calonjes said they were set on moving sometime this summer to Houston or nearby Katy, where they can afford a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a large backyard in a master-planned community with a pool, park and recreational center. All of that for around $300,000.

The big move will come with big sacrifices. They leave behind their family, including Victor’s parents, who are both in their 80s, and friends.

“What can you do, man? The alternative is stay here, bust your butt and do nothing. We’re leaving the family, but you’re also making progress for the next generation. Our parents didn’t come here for us to stay stagnant,” he said. “I want to make progress so when it’s my time to go we can make progress, so I can leave something for my kids.”

Katherine Calonje said Texas will give her and Victor the chance to offer their four-year-old and seven-year-old daughters the life she’s been dreaming for them. ”We’ve done enough where we can say we’re proud of our salaries, we can do a lot with our salary but not here,” she said of Miami-Dade.

Murray said most of the county’s residents are renters aspiring to buy. They’d have to earn $150,000 a year to afford a $500,000 home. It’s tough luck, the housing expert said, since only 7% of Miami-Dade households can afford that home price tag.

And being priced out of the county’s housing market is just one thing. Murray said the cost of living — an evening out at a restaurant, gas, groceries — have all gone up sharply the past few years. The wealth migration coming in since 2020, he said, has greatly contributed to Miami having one of the highest cost-of-living increases in the country during the first half of 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And local wages just aren’t keeping up.

“When you get a $500 increase in rent last year, you try to make it work, but you realize over a period of time it just doesn’t work, especially if you have children. I think there’s a bit of a delayed effect. At some point people just get up and leave all together,” FIU’s Murray said.

Migration to paradise

It was during the severe U.S. economic downturn from late 2007 to 2009, when Miami-Dade last experienced a big net loss in population, University of Miami urban planning professor Robin Bachin said. At that time, Florida had the highest rate of foreclosures in the nation during the latter part of the recession, and even years later. A big chunk of the state’s foreclosure activity in that housing crunch during the downturn was in South Florida.

“Because of COVID-19, people in finance and tech recognize the ability to work remotely and have resettled here from higher-priced markets like San Francisco and New York. They are coming with higher wages,” said Bachin, who specializes her research in the intersection of urban and environmental history. “The fact that we have people coming from across the country and bringing with them high salaries has exacerbated the rising cost of living [in Miami-Dade].”

First, executives came right before and during the pandemic that began in March 2020, lured by loose pandemic restrictions, zero local and state income taxes and warm climate. Soon, corporations followed, relocating headquarters or opening new Miami offices, including Canada’s largest wealth-management company CI Financial, private equity giants Blackstone and Thoma Bravo, and hedge fund investment firm Citadel.

Many scooped up high-priced real estate in Miami-Dade. That ratcheted up competition for the depleted housing stock, while some professionals chose to drop millions in Fort Lauderdale, Southwest Ranches in Broward, or in Palm Beach County where their money could go farther.

Overwhelmed by noise

The same factors — remote work and an increasing number of Brightline train station stops — that made South Florida appealing to out-of-state homebuyers also influenced longtime Miami-Dade residents itching for a change. Husband and wife 79-year-old David and 62-year-old Rhonda Rosenberg are longtime Miamians looking for a different lifestyle.

After moving from Manhattan 30 years ago, they first lived in Pinecrest. An author, David has written 23 books about religion and five anthologies. Rhonda is a professor at FIU and an investigator for the National Institutes of Health on HIV prevention studies.

As true Manhattanites, they desired a walkable community filled with plenty to do on the weekends and so they moved to Miami’s Edgewater neighborhood. It had a wide array of restaurants, small businesses, the waterfront Margaret Pace Park, and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. They never were bothered by the congested traffic on Biscayne Boulevard and the daytime cacophony of construction work on yet another high-rise in the trendy area. Edgewater was their slice of urban paradise, so they decided six years ago to trade an apartment rental for their own two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo on the 37th floor at The Grand at 1717 N. Bayshore Drive.

The Rosenbergs were confident in their decision to buy in Edgewater long after their condo purchase. Their weekends were spent frequenting the Arsht Center for a concert or ballet and lounging on their balcony with a glass of wine. They spent as much time on that balcony as they did inside their apartment, looking at Biscayne Bay with the Julia Tuttle Causeway in the distance. They listen to the same soundtrack that always played over Margaret Pace Park, one of tennis matches, laughter and parrots squawking as they flew by. It was perfection, until it wasn’t one day.

In 2015, a developer brought an eatery into part of the Miami Women’s Club building at 1737 N. Bayshore Drive, next door to the Rosenbergs high-rise. After renovating the building and parking lot, developer Heafey Group subleased its space to the restaurant Klaw, a pricey seafood restaurant flying in its king crab from Norway. The restaurant brought a surprise, a noise — “like if you were grinding a knife,” David Rosenberg said — that lingers throughout the day. It’s due to the HVAC mechanical system located in a structure constructed to house the equipment on site. Two years since the restaurant’s opening, the noise continues daily, at a higher pitch at night.

The Rosenbergs say they’ve been imprisoned inside their condo by the constant grinding sound. No more sipping wine on the balcony. No more leaving the balcony doors open to welcome an ocean breeze. No more seamless access for their cat, a black-and-white shorthair, to stroll outside and perch on the cat tree. Nothing has changed, they say, despite raising concerns along with neighbors, blaming in part Miami-Dade’s zoning policies.

Carmine Zayoun, vice president of the Heafey Group, said by email, “In order for us to comply with various requirements to restore this landmark property, various systems were added, including the chiller system to which the Rosenbergs are attributing an increase in noise emanating from The Miami Women’s Club.”

The Rosenbergs are begrudgingly considering a move to Boca Raton in southern Palm Beach County, another walkable community with highlights like Mizner Park, stricter building codes and noise-pollution restrictions. When they miss Miami, he said, they can hop on a Brightline train for the hour ride to the city. A small price to pay for peaceful and quiet living, they said.

“It [Boca] doesn’t divorce us from Miami,” he said. “We can still go to all of the concerts and go home on the train and open the windows on our balcony and it will be quiet.”

The Rosenbergs view of Boca Raton also explains some other Miami-Dade residents’ opting for a move to Broward or Palm Beach counties. For years, Broward has been drawing homebuyers in search of a cheaper destination than Miami-Dade.

Housing expert Murray said, “In both those counties [Broward and Palm Beach], you have many more choices of where to live. ... It’s those choices, and more choices also to getting a job in closer proximity to where you can find an apartment or home.”

Population loss fallout

Christine Michaels, 44, an entrepreneur and small business consultant who moved to Brickell about 20 years ago, is ready to relocate. A native of Titusville, a 20-minute drive from the Kennedy Space Center, she said she’s found Miami’s development to be poorly planned and its public officials unprepared to handle the city’s exploding growth. Also, she sees transportation as another serious problem. Driving a car typically gets you stuck in traffic jams, but then again there’s not enough stops on the Metromover.

“They need to plan more Metromovers. They haven’t thought this through,” Michaels said. “Prior to Miami, I lived in Maryland, a community that planned for growth. That’s smart planning. We got to do that here. That’s where I learned a lot of governments are reactive instead of proactive. Planned communities like Weston [in Broward, 30 miles northwest of Miami] are great communities. You know your community is going to grow. How are you going to plan for transportation?”

Tampa is calling her name, Michaels said. There, she said, people are friendlier than Miami and communities are well planned.

‘Prior to Miami, I lived in Maryland, a community that planned for growth. That’s smart planning,’ says Christine Michaels. She intends to move somewhere on the southwest coast of Florida.
‘Prior to Miami, I lived in Maryland, a community that planned for growth. That’s smart planning,’ says Christine Michaels. She intends to move somewhere on the southwest coast of Florida.

“I want to stay in my home state. I love the arts and cultures, but it’ll come to the west coast,” Michaels said.

Greater investments in homebuilding, public transit

For now, Miami-Dade’s net population loss doesn’t concern Rod Miller, new CEO of the Beacon Council, the county’s economic development arm tasked with recruiting and retaining businesses. He says other cities nationwide face a similar issue.

And that is true. Big cities, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, are losing plenty of residents. The shrinking populations are primarily due to housing shortages and skyrocketing rental and home sales prices, said Christopher Ptomey, the former executive director of the Terwilliger Center for Housing at the Washington, D.C.-based, global nonprofit Urban Land Institute.

“Housing costs are having a spillover effect in people choosing to move,” Ptomey. “Businesses are deciding to leave [those cities] since their employees have trouble finding housing or need to pay them more.”

Miller said if Miami-Dade’s population decline persists for 10 to 15 years then that’ll be a cause for concern. That could cause trouble for Miami-Dade’s entire economy. For small and large businesses, he said, it could lead to owners and executives having to raise wages and labor shortages, an occurrence already happening in trendy areas like Edgewater and Miami Beach.

Those corporate expansions and Miami relocations that have drawn high-income earners and well-paying jobs in fields like tech, finance and law would dry up. Executives depend on steady population growth to help fill job openings.

“Most of the people we’re losing [now] are a byproduct of the affordability challenge and those who have been here for many years,” Miller, the Beacon Council leader, said. “For Miami-Dade County to continue on a path of [economic] growth, we’ve got to make sure it’s a community accessible for people of different incomes.”

In order to retain and attract residents, he said, Miami-Dade will have to invest more money in expanding its public transportation networks and adding to its depleted housing stock.

“When you look at this downturn you have to address the infrastructure and housing, but you also have to create an ecosystem where companies can scale up and remain here in Miami-Dade County,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, nearly three months after getting the keys to her new home in Costa Rica, Merino has no regrets about her relocation from Miami where she’d lived since 1982, lastly in Brickell. “I couldn’t believe I didn’t do this earlier,” she said one July afternoon from her condo overlooking a slice of the Río Torres Interurban Biological Corridor.