Florida Keys

'Keys cottages' are arriving in a working-class neighborhood hit hard by Irma

One of the "Keys cottages" during early construction on May 28, 2018.
One of the "Keys cottages" during early construction on May 28, 2018. WLRN

A Big Pine Key neighborhood badly battered by Hurricane Irma is about to get some relief.

The Avenues community housed some of the working class of the Florida Keys — those who before the storm were barely scraping by to call the Keys home.

"This is the teacher, the fireman, the cashier at the grocery store," said Leah Stockton, president and CEO of the United Way of the Florida Keys. "These are people that our community would not survive or function if we don't find a way to keep them in the Keys."

Now, 10 months after Irma, a nonprofit that formed after the hurricane says it's breaking new ground by putting up four affordable workforce housing units — two-bedroom homes that measure 760 square feet and are raised 12 feet. They're scheduled for completion by the end of August.

The Florida Keys Community Land Trust is building them with funding from the county and several nonprofits.

“We’re just underway on the next five, which are slightly larger at under 1,100 square feet. Three bedroom, two bath," said architect Marianne Cusato.

Architect Marianne Cusato stands inside one of the four Keys cottages being built on Big Pine Key. Nancy Klingener WLRN

The Keys cottages, as they're called, are inspired by the homes that went up across the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and dubbed the Katrina cottages.

“It was geared to be the alternative to the FEMA trailer,” Cusato said. “Instead of throwing it away at the end of the need cycle, it would become a long-term asset.”

Throughout Louisiana, 450 cottages were built.

“We don’t believe we should throw anything away,” Cusato said. “We want to get people into safe homes as quickly as possible. It made sense to go straight to permanent housing. In the Keys, that’s what we’re doing.”

Public and nonprofit funding provided $199,000 each for the homes' construction.

In April, Monroe County commissioners unanimously approved the trust's request for nearly $400,000 to buy four lots at $99,999 each. They are deed-restricted for affordable workforce rental homes on Big Pine.

Resiliency is the key to rebuilding after a disaster and the Keys cottages are built to withstand 200-plus mph winds, Cusato said.

“These are long-term, durable 100-year homes,” she said. “We see these are really part of the future and that’s a key piece of any rebuilding effort is to look deep into the future.”

The county will lease back the parcels to the trust over a 99-year period. The lease restricts the units to be sublet only to households that derive 70 percent of their income from employment in Monroe.

Monthly rents, not including utilities, cannot exceed 30 percent of the amount that makes up to 80 percent of Monroe's area median income, as set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The highest rent for the 760-square-foot cottages would be roughly $1,600, which is deemed "affordable" in the pricey Keys. The median income in 2018 for a family of four is $88,200 a year.

United Way of the Florida Keys and Community Foundation of the Florida Keys each donated $22,500 and a matching gift of $45,000 came from The Ocean Reef Community Foundation.

"Half of our population before the storm could not afford to live here," said Stockton, the United Way chief. "They did not make enough to make ends meet. I imagine that number has gone up. These have never been needed as much as they are needed now and that's really why we supported it."

The local United Way's portion came from a donation from the United Way of Indian River County in Vero Beach, after their financial director came to Marathon to race in the Seven Mile Bridge Run and saw firsthand the damage that remained in the Keys.

"These homes are going to be built on lots where the houses were destroyed," Stockton said. "They will be affordable rentals to those who lost their homes during the storm."

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