Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet rejected appeals from planners and environmentalists Wednesday to halt a state plan to bypass the rigid growth limits of the Florida Keys and allow the construction of 1,300 new affordable housing units that planners say will make evacuation from a hurricane worse.
The Keys Affordable Workforce Housing Initiative is a program of the Department of Economic Opportunity that allows Monroe County and its growth-limited cities to build up to 300 additional housing units each to replace the thousands of mobile homes and single-family homes destroyed by Hurricane Irma.
Instead of updating the administrative code, a lengthy process that would have required public input, DEO proposed leapfrogging that process by requiring anyone who lives in the new housing to leave the island chain 48 hours before a storm — current law requires permanent residents to leave 24 hours before a storm. The agency said enforcement of that provision will be up to local governments.
But planners and environmentalists urged the governor and Cabinet to find an alternative to the idea or wait until they can be assured that the new housing units don't strain the already difficult evacuation efforts along U.S. 1.
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"The initiative is premised on dubious assumptions, and the initiative adds a 1,300 new residential unit allocation to the Keys without even modeling how those new units will affect public safety,'' said Thomas Hawkins, planning and policy director at 1000 Friends of Florida, a growth management advocacy organization.
Hurricane Irma destroyed an estimated 4,000 homes in the Keys, many of them mobile homes and single-family units used by people who work on the islands. But because many of those homeowners cannot afford to rebuild their homes up to code, they are selling their property to investors building vacation homes.
Hawkins said that the failure of the state to curb the vacation home development while adding workforce housing on top of it "will risk the lives of Keys residents and yet does not propose an effective solution to the high cost of Keys housing."
Julie Dennis, director of DEO's division of community development, said the hurricane destroyed hundreds of affordable homes and they are being replaced by market-rate houses. That puts the housing problem at a crisis, and many businesses can't find workers.
By allowing up to 300 additional housing units per community, local governments can impose their own requirements on the new housing by amending their comprehensive plans, and "the state is ensuring that communities are in the driver's seat,'' she said.
Officials from the cities of Marathon and Key West said they were "100 percent" behind the DEO plan and vowed to add the housing units without complicating disaster planning.
Marathon Mayor Michelle Coldiron said many people working in the Keys share rental housing because it is so scarce, and they had to close the local jail because the sheriff's staff couldn't find affordable places to live.
"You have 100 percent support from our city, our staff and our council,'' she said.
Jim Scholl, city manager for Key West, called it "a great arrow in that quiver of solutions to maintain that workforce. We're not adding bodies. We are maintaining people so they have a place to live."
Although a vote was not needed for DEO to move forward with the initiative, Scott asked for a vote approval for it, anyway, and the Cabinet gave it unanimously. Scott, a candidate for U.S. Senate, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a candidate for governor, were in the Keys last week touting the state's efforts to respond to the affordable housing crisis.
"It's a conflict between affordability and resiliency,'' Putnam said. "It takes a lot of money to have it up to code to withstand what they endured during the storm."
In a letter to Scott and the Cabinet, Hawkins urged the panel to "address the cost of housing without endangering Keys residents" by encouraging local government to issue permits for the replacement of the 4,000 homes destroyed by Hurricane Irma as affordable housing units and to require that their new construction permits go to affordable housing, not market-rate housing.
He also suggested the state "halt conversion of permanent residences to vacation rentals and convert some existing vacation rentals to affordable workforce housing."
"The comprehensive plans of the several local governments in the Keys and the Florida Administrative Code maintain the required evacuation time from the Keys by carefully limiting new dwelling unit permits in the Keys,'' Hawkins wrote. "For example, Monroe County uses a rate of growth ordinance that limits the number of new units to an annual cap of 197."
He said the cities of Marathon and Islamorada have caps of 30 and 28, respectively. Instead of modifying the administrative code to adjust those numbers, DEO is "bending the rules" in a way that "will risk the lives of Keys residents and yet does not propose an effective solution to the high cost of Keys housing."
The next step will be up to local governments to work with DEO to amend their comprehensive plans and decide how many permits for affordable housing units they want to allow. Because of the uncertainty about the impact of layering additional housing on top of increasing numbers of vacation homes that are replacing the destroyed workforce housing, some cities have indicated they may not permit all 300 units.