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José Silva works at a Florida hospital in Winter Garden. ( Carla Martínez/ Especial para El Nuevo Dïa)

ORLANDO / KISSIMMEE – Florida - as a migratory destination- has bewitched Puerto Ricans to the extent that the so-called Sunshine State competes with New York for the place where most Puerto Ricans live outside the island.

But what does Florida have that attracts Puerto Ricans so much?

According to Puerto Ricans – who arrived before and after Hurricane Maria - living in the area, the reasons include a quieter lifestyle, efficient government services, free and good quality education, lower electricity rates and lower food prices than in Puerto Rico, among others. The interviewees defined their perspective on the quality of life, as well as the reasons why they made this place their home, where there are no mountains, the beach is far away and Christmas parties are not allowed.

But not everything is magical here: you need to have a car, tolls are expensive, you need to drive long distances; renting is expensive, as are medical plans and health services, and property taxes and insurance must be paid on everything.

This, week, for example, residents in some Orange County housing developments were notified that, starting in November, they will have to pay three new annual property taxes: one is $ 230 for garbage collection and recycling expenses, another $ 115 per year for streets lighting and another for $ 78 per year for a retention lake maintenance.

Regarding the cost of food, El Nuevo Día compared a basic food basket purchased in Puerto Rico with one purchased in central Florida. Although the brands varied, the products were similar.

Half a gallon of milk, bread, a dozen eggs, rice, coffee, sugar, a can of pink beans, cheese, butter and ham, were bought. The basket purchased on the island was $ 32.51 including 11.5 percent SUT (combination of municipal and state taxes).

The food basket purchased in Florida totaled $ 28.97. Its cost could have been lower, since a four-pound sugar pack was purchased, as there was no two-pound package like the one bought on the island. In addition, a recognized brand of pink beans, which on the island cost 50 cents, had a price of $ 1.28 in Florida, because the so-called "Hispanic products" are more expensive here. If the same product had been purchased, but from a local brand, the price would have been less than half.

Another detail is that the supermarket did not charge sales tax. In Florida, that tax is 6.5 percent, but it does not apply to food.

Stability

Beyond the inconveniences caused by Hurricane Maria in his private practice in San Juan, it was the arrival of his second son – a month after the hurricane – that led urologist José E. Silva to move to Florida last summer.

The 39-year-old doctor and native of Guaynabo arrived at Horizon West, an area being developed in the west of Orlando, where urban areas are demarcated by green corridors. Now he works for the Winter Garden Florida Hospital, where he and another specialist are the only Puerto Rican urologists in the area.

"I have economic stability here that I did not have on the island. Every two weeks I get the same salary and that allows me to make plans. In Puerto Rico, if the medical plan did not send the check, or sent one for three cents, then the income fluctuated," said the doctor.

As traffic jams are not usual, Silva said that now, every morning, he can sit and have breakfast with his family, and since he is a hospital employee, he does not have to see dozens of patients, or deal with employees or the administrative matters of a private practice.

"I miss that accelerated rhythm a bit. I also miss my neighbors in the community, friends and meeting people in the supermarket or on the streets," he said. "Everything is very quiet here, too ... almost boring, but it's good, and here I also have the potential to serve a Puerto Rican population that has been settling here and that prefers a Puerto Rican doctor," he said.

"Electricity is cheaper and I have the air conditioning always on ... it's 25 percent cheaper than what I used to pay. As for the services, the first time I went to get my license there was a lot of people waiting and they explained to me that if I got an appointment it was better. I did it. I came the day I had the appointment and it took me 15 minutes to get it," he said.

Ángeles Ríos, a special education teacher in Orlando, who worked in a private school on the island, stressed that the price of food is much lower. "A gallon of milk, which in Puerto Rico costs more than $ 6, you can find it here here at $ 3. Not to mention electricity costs: I pay $ 57 per month and I have the air conditioner on 24 hours a day. On the island I paid $ 200 and turned it on only at night," she noted.

According to Lilliam Albaladejo, also a teacher, a better salary was what pushed her to stay in Orlando since she arrived just over a year ago, before María destroyed the island. This teacher, a Corozal native, said she earns an additional $ 9,000 a year. "What I made each month as a Puerto Rico Department of Education teacher is what  I receive here every fortnight," she said.

"And we have materials, equipment and budget," said Harry Collazo, a mathematics teacher who moved to central Florida from Caguas nine months ago. "Here I have a book for each student, something that did not happen on the island. There is equipment, resources and the truth is that they make your life more pleasant," he said.

Not everything is magical in Florida. "There are not many marginal benefits for employees. Vacations are not paid unless your contract stipulates that you get a twelve-month salary," said Collazo. He explained that employers allow the annual salary to be paid in 10 months terms (and there is no salary in summer) or in 12 months.

"Medical plans and visits to the doctor are very expensive," said Albaladejo. "You need to have a car, you spend a lot on tolls and gasoline and everything is far away. But as there are no holes in the roads, nor the streets are flooded when it rains, then there is less damage for the car," added Rios.

Magnet for Doctors

Arcilio Alvarado is a physician and president of Advantage Medical Group, a company that recruited nearly 30 doctors from Puerto Rico for its offices in Orlando, Kissimmee and Lakeland so far this year.

He explained that doctors are attracted to Florida because of the number of Puerto Ricans who have settled here and who are already a market to serve. But also because they find stability on wages.

"A doctor here earns between 30 to 45 percent more than on the island and may be higher, depending on the incentives negotiated in the contract, and if you add that the food is cheaper and you do not have to pay for school, because public schools are very good, then what you have left in your pocket is much more," he said.

On the island, it is usual for doctors to have their own practice, something that turns them into business doctors, and forces them to assume administrative aspects. But Florida imposes another work model in which doctors become employees of a company and receive similar salaries to those of Puerto Rico, but do not have to deal with payments to employees and operational expenses, explained Wilson Quiroga, medical services consultant.

"That gives them peace of mind, allows them to focus on their medical work, while working their eight hours, having their days off and vacation," he said.

Housing cost

Family doctor Vivian Angulo explained that, in Puerto Rico, she had to pay $ 1,800 monthly to cover school expenses of her three children. She moved to Florida three years ago, after being hired at Advantage Medical Group, and her children are studying at a charter school in Orlando.

But she acknowledged that housing costs in Florida are high. The average price of a home in Orange County (where the city of Orlando is located) is $ 238,600, according to the Zillow portal, specialized in real estate. Meanwhile, the average rental cost is between $ 1,600 and $ 1,690 per month, according to Zillow.

But that high cost is balanced with the savings achieved in other areas, said Vionette Petri, a Puerto Rican real estate broker who works in central Florida. "Yes, we work a lot here, but with all the entertainment, arts and culture alternatives, I feel like I'm on vacation all year," she said.

Orlando: favorite place to retire

This week, the personal finance website WalletHub published a study with a list of the best places in the United States to retire and the city of Orlando is the leader.

In fact, among the first 20 cities, six are from Florida. Along with Orlando, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Cape Coral and Pembroke Pines are in the list.

46 metrics were analyzed for the study considering taxes, quality of life, health care, housing cost, basic services cost, among others things.


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