Florida Keys

‘You’ve got to start somewhere.’ Nonprofit unveils a new home in the wake of Irma

The Florida Community Land Trust unveiled the first of nine planned “Keys Cottages” on Big Pine Key.
The Florida Community Land Trust unveiled the first of nine planned “Keys Cottages” on Big Pine Key. FLKeysNews.com

A priest Thursday blessed this vacant newly built house, a modest two-bedroom that stands high on stilts in a neighborhood badly beaten down by Hurricane Irma nearly a year ago.

Father Jets Medina, of St. Peter Catholic Church on Big Pine Key, knows what it means to start from scratch after a disaster.

“I lost my church and my house,” Medina said, after officials helped cut the red ribbon draped in front of the home on Avenue E. “We’re rebuilding.”

Medina, along with politicians, nonprofit and community leaders, gathered Thursday for the unveiling of the first of nine planned “Keys Cottages,” the product of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust, which formed after Irma struck Sept. 10, 2017.

Father Jets Medina blesses the Keys Cottage on Aug. 16, 2018, in Big Pine Key. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

The nonprofit, started with $1 million, was founded by Big Pine’s Lower Keys Bait & Tackle owners, Maggie and Rich Whitcomb, who split time between Big Torch Key and Decatur, Georgia.

“We haven’t pulled it off yet,” Maggie Whitcomb told the crowd. “But we’re darn close. The biggest stars in this effort are the locals. That’s why I did this.”

After Irma, the Whitcombs teamed with local leaders to find a way to build housing for working families on land deeded to remain workforce housing.

On Thursday, they celebrated the building of one house after Irma, whose 140-mph winds and five feet of storm surge destroyed more than 1,800 homes and caused major damage to nearly 3,000 more.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” said Leah Stockton, executive director of the United Way of the Florida Keys, one of several partners with the land trust. “We all know affordable housing is the big issue. This is a start in the right direction.”

As for who will live in the home, that hasn’t been decided.

“They have applicants,” Stockton said.

One veteran Keys official summed up the ribbon-cutting as a symbol of hope.

“It’s been a hell of a year, hasn’t it?” Monroe County Mayor David Rice asked the crowd. “But it feels really good to be standing here today.”

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.

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

The main bedroom inside the Keys Cottage, the first of nine planned “Keys Cottages, ” in Big PIne Key. The homes are designed as affordable housing to be built after Hurricane Irma. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

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

The homes are on stilts and built to withstand 200-mph winds.

“We’re going up high; we’re building a building that will withstand what’s coming,” said architect Marianne Cusato, who designed the cottages.

As for the residents of the new home, Cusato said she wants them to have a sense of belonging as they settle in.

“I want them to just feel like they’re home.”