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Priced out of paradise

Everyone’s always looking for the next great thing. I’m no different, I suppose, and in late 2004, for me, the next great thing was Sarasota. A native Floridian with Cracker in my bones, I’d spent a lifetime living everywhere but here.

That is, until I found myself recently divorced and living in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. – Boston. Tired of the rough and tumble of big city life, I figured a slower pace and a dose of Southern gentility could only be a good thing.

I was unprepared for the “new” Sarasota, however. Real estate is “topic du jour,” as our fancy president would say. And, while not exactly big league, Sarasota has certainly become big bucks. Familiar landmarks – like the Simple Sam’s market that used to be a standard stop on the way to and from Siesta Key – are nearly all gone. The easygoing, knock-the-sand-off-your-feet-style Florida homes have been leveled in a buy and bulldoze frenzy. And everywhere you go, the art of conversation has been lost to loud talk of deals in the making, dollars for the taking, and which side of the Trail do you live on.

Real estate has become the new religion in this town, usurping even the ubiquitous obsession with benefits and galas. People who should know better – particularly those in the real estate industry – are flipping condos, building monster-sized homes on miniscule lots, and jacking up housing costs to an obscene level in a town that already has big problems in getting and keeping qualified workers.

Sarasota has always been a playground for the rich, but never at such a high cost to its working folks or to its natural and simple beauty.

With no affordable, decent housing and a pay scale that barely covers the cost of parking, the café baristas, bartenders, waitstaff, and store clerks that keep the downtown a vibrant destination for shopping, dining, meeting for coffee, or grabbing a beer after work, can’t afford to live anywhere near, much less in, the city they are making so desirable. The construction and maintenance workers building and cleaning all those new condos, the managers, the secretaries, the dental hygienists – all the people who make a regular living – no longer have even a marginal part of town to live in.

The Sarasota City Commission recently indicated support for allowing increased density in downtown residential projects that promise to make 10% of the units “affordable” to middle-income households. The median household income in the city is about $56,000 or roughly $27 per hour — tell me, how many downtown worker bees are bringing home that kind of cake? This is a token response to a serious problem. Higher density projects will stress an already overcrowded downtown. City services, parking, traffic — all will be heavily impacted for what? A lousy 10% of the units would be “affordable” and the remaining 90% would be, I’m just guessing here — high end.

The downsides of higher density might be worth it if it meant we could keep and attract qualified workers, but really, with this proposal, cui bono?

An increasingly finer bead is being drawn in Sarasota when it comes to money. The chasms between the real rich, the so-so rich, and the not-even-remotely rich have widened exponentially over the past decade.

This leaves a rapidly diminishing middle class clinging to their second place status by cashing out and buying down, or with increasing frequency, just moving away. An even worse off working poor is left humping long days of lawn care and split shifts in the service industry just to afford the rent on the few remaining apartments that haven’t gone condo.

There’s still a golden basket of sunshine keeping everybody warm and relatively happy.

But, these days, with so many regular folks being priced out of paradise, you’ve got to ask yourself — how much longer can Sarasota claim its rep as the next great thing?

Posted on April 30th, 2006Comments RSS Feed
One Response to Priced out of paradise
  1. Isn’t crazy to see how fast things changed when the bubble burst.
    I wonder how long it will take Sarasota to get back to being “the next great thing”?

    How long were u married and were u a writer for a paper in Boston/Paris?


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