“Season” is one of the defining features of Southwest Florida. And since the pandemic, Season with a capital S is even bigger. Consider how passenger travel through the Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) rebounded during the pandemic. After falling to an all-time monthly low of 53,379 passengers in April 2020, RSW set new monthly records in the last eight months of 2021—May-December—leading to an all-time yearly high of a whopping 10,322,434. And that was during a pandemic.
As you might expect from those non-Season travel numbers, our Season this year was strong. Despite abbreviated, last-minute spring training schedules due to the lockout in Major League Baseball, we had a Season! The traffic was terrible, Costco and Walmart were packed and restaurants were full on weeknights. These minor annoyances are reassuring signs all is right with Season in SWFL, pandemic or not … for now.
At the same time, the return of Season put additional pressure on some preexisting weaknesses that threaten the event as we know it. And if we don’t begin working today to ensure its long-term vitality, we do so at our peril.
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in economics to know where the pressure points are. And those pressure points are the ones that affect most directly the parts of our labor force that make Season a delight: our waitstaffs, our cooks, our kayak and paddleboard guides, our massage therapists and our hotel desk and housekeeping staffs. And scores of others. Without them, Season isn’t Season as we’ve known it. Instead, it’s just a fancy camping trip near the beach, even if you own your own condo.
What are some challenges faced by these workers who make Season great? We know what they are because the pandemic has exacerbated them.
For starters, we have little housing for sale. And what is on the market is expensive. For example, according to FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute, active listings for Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties fell 60% from January 2021 to January 2022. And in the same period, housing prices continued to soar. That same year, single-family home prices rose by 27%.
Now, high home prices aren’t necessarily bad if families in the area can afford them. Some economists use the ratio of median home prices to median household income, or PTI, as an indicator of affordability. And according to Freddie Mac, economists use 3.5 as a baseline for a “normal” PTI. That would mean the median home price is 3.5 times the median household income. But putting together PTI values for Lee and Collier counties using U.S. Census estimates of median incomes and January home prices paints a dark portrait of housing “affordability”: Lee County’s PTI is 6.8, and Collier’s is 10.3.
This is not sustainable—not if what we mean by sustainable is a Season that works well for all. Or, to think of it another way, if what Season means to a typical snowbird is good service, tolerable traffic and good values, we’re sunk.
You also don’t need an economics degree to know that when home prices soar, so do rents, because high prices drive would-be buyers into the rental market.
Adding insult to injury, our housing regulations and requirements make it difficult for workers to afford to live where they work. So they have long commutes, buy more gas, add to traffic and pollute more. They live where they can pay the rent, not where it’s convenient.
To make Season sustainable will require comprehensive reforms of local zoning ordinances and other restrictions such as minimum lot sizes and setback requirements. A market-based solution to our sustainable future is our best path forward.
But if we don’t begin making changes right now, the market will also sort things out. And I fear how that story will end.
Victor V. Claar is an associate professor of economics in the Lutgert College of Business at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he holds the Truist Distinguished Professorship in Free Enterprise. He also serves on the Research Advisory Council of the James Madison Institute, and the board of the Freedom & Virtue Institute.