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Middle-class residents being squeezed out of Palm Beach Co.

Published: May. 12, 2022 at 6:21 AM EDT
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Financial firms are flocking to the new “Wall Street of the South.”

South Florida attracted dozens of these companies during the pandemic, bringing with them high-paying jobs and workers with deep pockets paying for homes with cash.

It brings up the question: is there room for the middle class anymore in Palm Beach County?

There’s an economic shift happening in Palm Beach County, and it’s very clear when you look at the real estate market.

"I do feel like the people that are moving into our neighborhood is definitely ... it is a higher price bracket ," Audrey Leo, a Palm Beach County homeowner, said.

In the Winston Trails community, where Leo lives, homes sold for under $400,000 just a few years ago. Those houses are now being sold for 50% to 100% more.

"I actually thought this was going to be my forever home," Leo said.

Four years ago, she found her dream home, but now a new job opportunity is taking her family out of state during a hot seller's market.

"We decided that we were going to list our home on Wednesday, had photography done on Thursday, listed it on Friday and by Monday it was sold," Leo said. "So, it was a very fast process."

Cash deals and going above the asking price make up the majority of accepted offers . The downside, real estate agent Karen Moody said, is that it is pushing out lower-budget buyers.

“What is happening to the middle-class buyers here?” WFLX Senior Reporter Michelle Quesada asked.

"I think they are always coming in a second or third. ... It doesn't get you the house; just like it doesn't win you the race," Moody answered.

Donald Burgess, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, said years ago that West Palm Beach started marketing to out-of-state employers to create a financial district.

"A lot of the businesses are finance and investment entities," Burgess said about the businesses moving offices and headquarters to Palm Beach County. "Eventually, we got the label 'Wall Street South.'"

Big businesses are relocating from states like New York and California, pushing the median family income up. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported a 6% increase from 2019.

The median family income in the West Palm Beach-Boca Raton metro area is up to $80,200 as of 2021.

"It puts a strain because a lot of high-income people moving into any area increases demand for goods and services," Burgess added.

It's pricing many families who hoped to stay in Florida out of paradise.

"It's disheartening. We were second-time home buyers," Cheli Rosa, a former homeowner in Palm Beach County, said.

After 10 years in Palm Beach County, Rosa and her husband wanted to upgrade to a bigger home last year.

"We wanted to sell while the prices were good, but of course, like everybody else in this market, we didn't have anywhere to go," Rosa said. "We couldn't find anywhere that was even conceivably close to our price range, much less get an offer accepted. Even new builds in Palm Beach County are in bidding wars."

The Rosas could no longer afford to live in South Florida. They sold their townhome in southern Palm Beach County in one day and bought a new build in Georgia within their budget.

"I think we are seeing a huge shift in that, people that are just like, 'You know what? Maybe Palm Beach County isn't for us anymore,'" Moody said.

It leads us to the question, is the middle class vanishing in Palm Beach County?

"We'll see. I think a lot of them are staying put," Moody said.

Home improvements like new roofs, hurricane impact windows and adding swimming pools are part of the silver lining for homeowners who can't afford to buy right now but can re-invest and add value to their current home.

"People that are just saying, 'You know what?  We are middle class, and we are going to pour into our own houses, paint and do well within our communities with what we have,'" Moody said.

The days of affordable South Florida may very well be in the past. Behind all this growth, behind all the new skyscrapers and condo complexes, there is real pain. Shelter, a necessity, is now out of reach for so many.

"I know it must be very disconcerting that we see progress, but progress is making some people really suffer," Burgess said. "There are many of us looking into how can we ensure that it's a fair deal for everyone ."

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