Keys residents concerned with housing after Hurricane Irma leaves them homeless
The cost of paradise might finally be too much for Shelly Sides.
In her eight years in the Florida Keys, the restaurant cook has been priced out of most of her six different homes. She last settled in a comfortable, if tiny, room with a friend at the Ocean Breeze mobile-home park. They paid $850 a month.
But Hurricane Irma flooded the home with 11 inches of water. The trailer is now moldy and unlivable. Sides is staying at a nearby hotel, with U.S. government assistance, and with dim prospects of finding an affordable place in the Keys anytime soon.
“What’s going to happen when we can’t stay in the hotel room?” Sides said. “Where will we go?”
Her story is agonizingly familiar for the service and hospitality workers who make up the backbone of the tourism industry in the Florida Keys, as well as the teachers, cops and nurses who make up this community.
With little land to build on, tight restrictions on development and one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the country, affordable housing was already a long-standing challenge. Then, Hurricane Irma destroyed a sizable chunk of homes in a county where the typical rent for a one-bedroom apartment is 32 percent higher than in the rest of the state.
“It was the most critical problem facing Monroe County four weeks ago — and the effects of the hurricane will make it dramatically worse,” said Key West restaurateur and affordable-housing proponent Joseph Walsh, who said Irma has displaced about 40 of his employees, including some who are now living with him.
Hurricane Irma plowed into the Florida Keys on Sept. 10, wrecking mobile homes, flooding apartments and littering the islands with boats, power lines, trees and all manner of debris. How to rebuild Monroe County — to balance the natural splendor of the islands, the demands of the tourism industry and the needs of struggling workers — will vex community leaders for months to come, as it has for many years.
In the short term, some help is on the way. The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week delivered 10 travel-trailer homes to Key West. In all, Monroe County has requested 1,700 travel trailers and 7,500 mobile homes to accommodate the thousands displaced by storm damage.
Monroe has also floated the idea that FEMA increase the max $1,632 it gives to displaced people each month for rent. The reason: more than half of the Keys’ 52,000 housing units are vacation homes — pricey but often unoccupied options that could temporarily house storm victims.
“If FEMA can increase the rental rate, then they wouldn’t have to build as many trailers,” said Monroe County Assistant County Manager Christine Hurley.
Affordable housing has for years been among the most urgent issue in the Florida Keys, the 110-mile-long island chain that stretches south of Miami-Dade and draws tourists from around the world to fish in Key Largo, sail in Marathon and enjoy beers on Key West’s famed Duval Street.
But Monroe is short at least 6,800 units of workforce housing, according to a 2015 study commissioned by the county. The report declared: “This is a crisis.”
A typical two-bedroom rental in Keys costs $1,682 a month — statewide, the same unit usually rents for $1,075, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. And renters in the Keys — many of them low-wage service or hospitality workers — earn on average about $14.22 an hour, a dollar and change less than the state average, according to the coalition.
Debbie Smith, a clerk at a CVS pharmacy, was paying $400 monthly to split a tiny efficiency with a friend on Islamorada while also helping her son raise his two teenage sons. She loves her company, but at $15 per hour, it was tough to even afford car insurance before Irma — she had to pick up a second job cleaning vacation houses.
The storm, however, wrecked her home. She’s now staying in an Islamorada hotel, but has only been approved for FEMA funds for the room through Oct. 7.
“We may have to move out of state just to keep our heads above water,” said Smith, 59. “I’ve never been so devastated. I love living in Islamorada. The people are awesome. But I can’t afford to live in Homestead and drive down here.”
The housing crunch is so acute that some businesses own buildings to rent to their employees — the Westin on Key West has 75 units for more than 100 employees, from managers to cooks. Edwin Swift III, who owns Historic Tours of America, rents several hundred units.
Even smaller businesses such as Bobalu’s restaurant on Big Coppitt rents two units adjacent to the restaurant to employees — although others who lived elsewhere were left homeless after Irma. “Three of our most valuable employees,” lamented owner Tina DiGiovanni, as she cleaned up the property last week.
The high rental prices, along with the scarcity of one-bedroom apartments, means workers usually need roommates.
Jessica Lefer and Nick Valle, a couple who work primarily at the Square Grouper in Cudjoe Key, paid $1,475 for a small two bedroom unit in Ramrod Key — on the ground floor, which is technically prohibited by Monroe building codes. The price didn’t include utilities, so they often worked extra jobs to get by.
Hurricane Irma’s storm surge flooded the home and burst pipes. “Sewage water — 18 inches of it,” said Lefer, who is now crashing with Valle at the trailer home of a friend.
Building affordable housing in the Keys isn’t easy.
To guard against overdevelopment in an island chain that needs to be evacuated when hurricanes threaten, the state limits building permits in Monroe. Environmentally sensitive land, of course, is protected. Building heights are generally capped at three stories, which has rankled some like Swift.
He recalled fighting unsuccessfully to add two feet of height to a proposed apartment building, which would have meant an additional story. “That two feet would have given 50 families a place to live,” said Swift, a former county commissioner.
Some affordable housing projects are approved and in the pipeline, including a 208-unit complex on Rockland and Big Coppitt Keys that could house workers for a future Walmart. But residents often chafe at the thought of buildings that might take away the rural charm of some of the Keys.
Last year, dozens of residents complained to county commissioners about a proposed 160-unit apartment complex planned for Summerland Key at the old Shrimp Farm aquaculture facility. Their concerns focused on traffic and the effect on protected animals such as Keys deer. The commission rejected the proposal by Walsh and partner Claude Gardner, who are now working to scale back the project.
“Often, people who come to us with the affordable-housing projects run up against the NIMBYism [not in my backyard] factor,” acknowledged Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.
Faced with Irma driving out displaced workers, the county may now have a chance to move quicker to spur development, even buying properties that could be turned into housing for workers, Carruthers said.
“There is some small silver lining in all this pain and suffering,” Carruthers said. “I don’t want to let this potential opportunity slip by.”
Future buildings might come too late for residents like Francis Landry, Side’s roommate at the Ocean Breeze trailer park in Marathon. The trailer park management says it will demolish the wrecked trailer at no charge — if Landry agrees to buy a new trailer of their offering.
But he can’t afford that. Nor can Landry pony up the rent for an uninhabitable home once the park starts demanding it in a few weeks.
He might just move back his native Mississippi.
“There’s nowhere for nobody to live. There wasn’t before. Where you gonna live now?” Landry said. “You’re running everybody out of the Keys, literally. Then, you ain’t got a workforce.”