The Key West Mystique

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Census 2023 data | Demographics may predict our Key West future

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

08/26/2023

There really is such a thing as the Key West state of mind. Whether you were born here, or first met Key West in 1970 or just a few weeks ago, those who love the island will never stray far.

The Key West mystique is captured in every Jimmy Buffett song, in every step along the “Duval Crawl,” in every child who giggles joyfully in the Truman Waterfront Park’s splash pad, in every sunset sail or afternoon at a sandbar. That island dream brings hundreds of thousands to our tiny four-mile-by-two-mile island surrounded by the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico.

We live in a place where when one says, “Come visit,” everyone does.

I’ve written some version of those three paragraphs a dozen times over the years and its underlying truth doesn’t shift by much. You love the island; it’ll love you back. That’s so true that in 2020 Ranger Ed and I bought our “forever home” in the Key West Cemetery. No matter where we and the Cat 5s roam, eventually we’ll find our ways back here.

We are not Disney World’s Key West. What folks often forget is that we are a real city with real people who work for a living, take their kids to school, argue politics, complain about taxes and too many cars and not enough parking spaces and healthcare that too frequently means an overnight trip to the mainland. We scramble to pay the every-increasing rent and many of us work two or three jobs to make ends meet.

The 2020 Census data and updated estimates from 2022 and 2023 are discouraging for those who are worried (and rightly so) about our over-dependence on our second-home-visitor-vacation-rental-tourist-destination economy.

Key west future

Key West future | Here’s what the trends could mean

Here’s what the recent demographic trends could mean for our future:

  • Residents are leaving. The population likely will continue to decrease over the next decade. The Key West population estimate in July 2022 was 25,597, down 3.2 percent since the April 1, 2020 Census. Whether it’s for healthcare or job and family opportunities, the backbone of Key West is fracturing.
  • We are older than the rest of Florida. Almost half of us are over 50, we don’t have kids and we aren’t forming new families. Old(er) people are aging out of the workforce, giving up their volunteer board positions and moving to the mainland for care. Our median age is 44.2 and we’re projected to get older overall even as the medical care exodus reduces our huge 65-plus population. We have significantly fewer children under 18 than the state average (14 percent compared to 20 percent). Forty-three percent of us are over age 50.
  • We aren’t families with kids. We are less likely to live in a family household. Fifty percent of us are married couples compared to the state at 57. Thirty-two percent of us live in non-family households, almost twice the rest of the state. There are 2.32 persons per household compared to the state at 2.62.
  • Owner-occupied homes are declining. Fewer than half of us live in owner-occupied housing. About 46 percent of us own and live in our homes. That compares to 66 percent owner-occupied nationally and in Florida. The remainder of our housing is rental, including vacation rentals.
  • Our housing is expensive. You already knew that, I’m sure. Regular people can’t buy a home in which to raise a family and long-term rentals are scarce and pricey. Our median value of owner-occupied housing units is $728,500, more than double that of the state at $248,700.
  • We tend to have more household income. That’s not because regular people make a lot of money. It’s because we’re supported by trust funds, pensions and successful retirement portfolios. The median household income is $75,638 and is 25 percent higher than the state at $61,777.
  • We tend to be more highly educated. In all categories from high school to some college through graduate school, we score higher than the state averages. Why? See above on income.
  • We are predominantly white-non-Hispanic. About 58.9 percent of Key West is White-non-Hispanic. (The Villages, by contrast, is about 97 percent White-non-Hispanic.) Hispanic/Latino makes up about 24.7 percent and many are of Cuban descent. Blacks make up about 13.5 percent and that includes primarily Blacks of Caribbean, and specifically Bahamian, descent.
  • We work. Sixty-six percent are employed in the civilian labor force compared to the state average of 57.9 percent. Almost 4 percent are military, compared to the state at 0.37 percent. And we work primarily in entertainment services, like tourist attractions, retail and food preparation and service. The rest of us are in office administration, managerial roles and professional specialties.
  • We are registered Democrats — but not by much. There are 6,485 registered Democrats in Key West; 4,257 registered Republicans; and 3,867 registered NFPs (No Party Affiliation.) In 7 of Key West’s 10 precincts Ron DeSantis won 40 percent or more of total votes cast in 2022.

Key West isn’t the town we remember. We aren’t the place where families thrived and the military brought hundreds of trailing spouses for the workforce and kids for the schools. We aren’t the town with shiny, energized new residents who joined boards, volunteered and wrote hefty checks.

We are, however, Key West. I keep returning to that inexplicable mystique that survives despite two centuries of often chaotic challenges. We’re not quite sure how to cope with our new reality. I think we’ll figure it out.

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