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Sun Sentinel - November 20 2001

Cost of living soars past average pay hikes in Palm Beach

By Jennifer Peltz
And Stella M. Chávez

Over the 1990s, incomes rose 30 percent for the average Palm Beach County household. But rent, mortgage payments and other housing costs rose an even faster 35 percent.

Meanwhile, the county's residents could boast of becoming among the best educated in the state. Almost a third of adults had finished college, compared with 23 percent statewide.

And more and more local residents appear to be making a conscious effort to speak or retain foreign languages. A growing share speak Spanish at home, even though a rising percentage of them say they also speak English very well.

These are among the findings of a new Census Bureau survey being released today, providing another set of sociological snapshots for the album the agency is piecing together to depict Palm Beach County at the millennium.

The new survey, conducted last year separately from the once-a-decade census, tapped about 700,000 households nationwide in cities and counties of more than 250,000 people. It asked questions about subjects ranging from European ancestries to plumbing facilities -- many of the same topics covered by the actual census' "long form," which goes to one-sixth of American households, or about 17.5 million in 2000.

The new survey is part of an experiment that could replace the long form with annual updates. For now, the Census Bureau is somewhat wary of comparing the new survey with past findings, mostly because the sample was smaller and excluded people in prisons and other group quarters.

Still, the new snapshots include some eye-catching findings about Palm Beach County's increasingly bilingual households, educated population and costly lifestyle.

Housing costs

While Palm Beach County residents tend to be bringing in more money than they were a decade ago, housing costs are outrunning income growth, the survey suggests. And more and more households are pinching to pay for shelter.

More than half of renters devote more than 30 percent of their income to housing, compared with 43 percent of renters in the 1990 census. The proportion of homeowners paying that much for mortgages rose from about 31.5 percent to 35.5 percent.

The average renter spends about $800 a month on housing; the average homeowner with a mortgage pays $1,200, according to the survey. Both figures include other monthly costs such as utilities.

Meanwhile, the median income is about $3,500 a month, or $42,000 a year -- compared to a national median of $41,000 a year, the survey said.

But federal housing authorities consider local costs so high that a family of four living on $48,000 can qualify for rent or mortgage subsidies, said county Housing and Community Development Director Remar Harvin.

Despite government and philanthropic efforts, many families have a hard time finding homes they can afford, he said.

"Find me a house that costs $110,000 or less," Harvin said. "You can find a $70,000 condo, but if you're a family of four and you're looking for three bedrooms and a good, spacious back yard, next to schools and things, those are in very, very short supply."

Education levels

Palm Beach County now has more residents who finished graduate school than didn't finish high school, according to the new survey.

About 30 percent of county residents have at least a college education, compared with 22 percent in 1990. They now outnumber their neighbors with only high-school diplomas.

That's no surprise to Florida Atlantic University. The student body at its Palm Beach County campuses grew about 25 percent in the past 10 years.

"We live in a knowledge economy," explains Bruce Mallen, dean of FAU's College of Business, which grew 25 percent in just the past five years. "The MBA has become the degree for getting higher management or even middle management positions, just as the bachelor's degree once played that role."


The survey found that more than 1 in every 5 county residents speaks a foreign language at home -- but not, in most cases, because they have to. Two-thirds of them say they can speak English "very well."

The bulk of foreign-language growth is in Spanish. The survey found about 12 percent of county residents speak Spanish at home, compared with 7 percent in the 1990 census. At the same time, a growing share of Spanish speakers, from 55 percent to 64 percent, said they handle English "very well."

Celia DiGiacinto of West Palm Beach certainly does -- she works for a Sunrise marketing firm and represents the third generation of her family born in the United States.

Still, she has made an effort to teach her three children the Spanish of their ancestral Cuba, even choosing a Spanish-speaking church. She thinks the language preserves a cultural connection and opens professional opportunities.

"It's better to speak two languages than one," she says.

Jennifer Peltz can be reached at or 561-243-6636.