When it comes to the 1,300 affordable workforce housing building permits offered to the Florida Keys by Gov. Rick Scott, county leaders haven't made a decision whether to grab their share or pass on the offer.
“We’re not saying, ‘Hell no,’ yet,” said County Attorney Bob Shillinger.
In the Keys, new housing construction is restricted by the rate-of-growth ordinance, and the special building permits — called "rogos" — are controlled by the state. City and county officials in the Keys have to weigh construction of new homes against the ability to evacuate about 70,000 residents in the event of a mandatory order.
Scott has authorized 1,300 building permits for affordable workforce housing in the Keys, but he stamped them with this condition: Those who live in the units would have to evacuate 48 hours before tropical storm winds are predicted to hit.
The county already has 555 affordable housing permits and more than 800 market-rate permits available, more than the demand for building permits.
“We do not have developers beating down our doors requesting them,” said county Mayor David Rice.
With the other permits available, some local officials don't want to accept the permits Scott is offering because of the conditions tied to them.
Questions arose for the Monroe County Commission: How would they enforce the 48-hour rule? Are they setting a precedent for future developers? Do they even need the permits?
“If the municipalities go ahead, we’re dragged along whether we want it or not?” Commissioner Heather Carruthers asked.
The Keys housing crisis needs solutions, but commissioners aren't sure if the governor's offer is an answer.
In other municipalities across the island chain, opinions are far different: The city of Marathon’s leaders originally requested 300 permits, which led to Scott’s initiative.
Key West leaders this week showed great enthusiasm for the permits, which City Manager Jim Scholl said the island “desperately needs.”
Scott's cabinet meets June 13 to address the proposed program.
“It’s up to us if we want to participate and what parameters would be placed on the units,” said Shillinger.
At its Wednesday meeting in Key West, the commission heard from residents on both sides of the issue.
The Keys have retained its special character because of controls on development, one said.
“We do not want to lose the protection [from redevelopment] that the rogo system has provided,” said Jan Edelstein, on behalf of the Cudjoe Gardens Property Owners.
She urged the commission to decline the offer.
But businesses are suffering. They can’t keep workers in the Keys because of the high cost of housing, said Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s getting harder and harder to do business in this county,” Panico said. “There’s no housing, from a top level executive to just having bartenders and servers. People are getting so frustrated now, they’re just getting up and leaving.”
Panico said it will only get worse as monthly rents have grown.
“You’re talking $2,500 to $3,000 [rent] for a halfway decent place for a two-bedroom,” she said. “They’re renting rooms for $1,800 a month.”
Another employer said he can't fill open jobs because applicants check the rents in the Lower Keys and get sticker shock.
“I would ask you to embrace these units,” said Owen Trepanier, a private planner in Key West. “When they get issues, how they get issues, how they’re regulated is up to you.”