SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — Florida’s Gulf Coast has been a top retirement destination for the middle class for decades, providing affordable living options in “over 55” mobile home communities.
But Hurricane Ian has made some retirees question whether the risks and the rising costs of a Florida lifestyle are worth it.
For decades Florida was marketed as an affordable paradise
“The clean, clear air. The miles of blue water. The look of sparkling brightness everywhere you go,” said a booming narrator’s voice in a 1960s video posted on the State Archives of Florida website.
“We really have a ball down here, with our boating and our fishing and our clam bakes,” said a senior citizen interviewed for the promotional film, which was aimed at attracting retirees to the Sunshine State.
“We saw PT Barnum level hucksterism, of just trying to lure people down,” said AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson.
Johnson said generations of seniors flocked to Florida, seeking good weather and affordable housing often found in “over 55” mobile home communities.
“Good, solid middle-class folks from the Midwest and the Northeast would move down, and mobile homes were actually the affordable housing option,” Johnson said.
But today’s reality in Englewood is far from sparkling brightness.
According to the U.S. Census, Englewood is a community where 58% of residents are 65 and older.
The median household income is 30% below the national average.
Complete devastation in mobile home communities
“There’s complete devastation here. I think there’s probably 80, 85% of the homes have major damage,” said Steve West, who has lived in an Englewood mobile home community since 1998 after moving to Florida from Massachusetts.
Hurricane Ian crumpled carport covers.
Roofs are missing, and water-logged cabinets, furniture, and carpet have been hauled to the curb.
“It’s no longer the Florida it was 10 years ago when I moved down,” said Kim Lopez, a transplant from Indiana who said her finances were stretched by rising costs before Hurricane Ian arrived.
Lopez believes Ian’s destruction will make it even worse for seniors in Florida.
“They’ve already said that insurance will be canceled. They will not insure,” she said. “No insurance for my mobile home.”
License plates in mobile home parks come from lots of states.
We saw plates from Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maine and New York within a few hours.
“They all come down here for one reason… to enjoy the rest of their life,” West said.
But the price of paradise has skyrocketed, even for decades-old mobile homes in flood zones.
“A month ago, these places were selling for $280,000 to $300,000,” West said.
Linda Gibson, from northern Indiana, said mobile homes in her community were worth more than a four-bedroom house in her hometown.
She said buyers from high-cost-of-living places like New York have been driving up prices.
“It’s less expensive than where they live,” Gibson said.
Alan Kruthas, who did snow removal for an Illinois public works department for forty years, moved to Englewood in 2017.
“We were lucky to find this place, but a lot of people aren’t so lucky,” Kruthas said.
Hurricane Ian’s destruction likely to drive up prices
With thousands of homes destroyed, lower inventory could push prices and rents even higher.
“A lot of folks down here aren’t living on a huge nest egg of retirement savings. They’re living on a fixed income of pension and Social Security,” Johnson said.
Some over 55 parks will likely be sold to developers.
Some owners are already considering walking away, believing the risk is no longer worth the reward.
“Some people already made that decision,” West said.
All about the weather and water
Johnson of the AARP believes the damage from Hurricane Ian will slow down the rate of people moving to Florida, but he doesn’t expect the slow-down to last long.
“I think Florida remains irresistible to a lot of people and that a few years down the road, you’ll start to see Florida’s numbers of new retirees start to tick back up,” he said.
“I’m gonna rebuild and stay. I’m not going anywhere,” Lopez said.
“It’s all about weather and water,” Kruthas said.
The very things that lure people to Florida and can also drive them away.
This article was written by Adam Walser for WFTS.