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State legislation may open a path for affordable housing development in the Keys

Construction of new homes in the Florida Keys
Nancy Klingener
State Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez and state Representative Jim Mooney, who both represent Monroe County, have bills moving through the state legislature right now that could significantly incentivize affordable housing development in the Keys.

Here’s an unsurprising fact: Most of the jobs in the Florida Keys are in the tourism industry. But, South Florida tourism is for the most part a low-wage sector.

So, you’d think affordable workforce housing would be a priority that the Keys took care of a while ago. Think again. An estimated third of the workforce there can’t meet its basic housing cost needs. Especially since homebuying in the Keys is increasingly out of reach for most working families today.

But legislation in Tallahassee could help right that situation. There are currently companion bills moving through the Legislature that could significantly incentivize affordable housing development in the Keys.

READ MORE: Marathon is about to run out of building permits. Their solution? Borrow some

On The South Florida Roundup, WLRN’s Americas Editor Tim Padgett spoke to WLRN’s new Keys reporter, Julia Cooper, about what this legislation — if passed — could mean for the Keys.

Senate Bill 1456, championed by Republican Senator Ana Maria Rodriguez, incentivizes developers to build workforce housing units. Republican Representative Jim Mooney from Islamorada is sponsoring a companion House bill.

If passed, the legislation would provide up to a 100% exemption on ad valorem taxes for affordable housing projects. Cooper recently spoke to Representative Mooney about the bill.

“Representative Mooney said he didn't have a hard and fast number of how many units this would open up the door for. It's more just to incentivize developers and opens the door for more funding,” she said. “Right now, both companion bills have passed at least one committee stop and they've received praise from their colleagues in those committee meetings.”

The nonprofit United Way recently issued a report that rather starkly lays out just how difficult the economics are for households in the Keys. What they found was that 33% of residents couldn’t meet their basic needs for funding essentials. That’s slightly higher than the state average, according to Cooper.

This legislation would also allow for the Florida Keys Tourist Development Council (TDC), which handles tourism-related taxes and funding that comes through the area, to dedicate its surplus funds to create workforce housing for tourism industry workers. The Council is an arm of the county government that's operated primarily through a non-profit called Visit Florida Keys.

According to Cooper, that surplus is approximately $29 million. But, there are concerns about the Tourism Council’s involvement and reputation.

“Back in October, there was an initial audit released from the Monroe County Comptroller's office. What that found was it alleged financial mismanagement within TDC managers,” she said. “It went so far as to say that the council may have misrepresented its revenues and expenditures to the public.”

Apart from that, there were moral dilemmas within leadership called into question as well as repeated non-compliance with Monroe County’s purchasing policy and a possible lack of oversight on expenditures and revenue coming through the council.

“Monroe County is attempting to address the issue. They've been quietly passing policy changes for the council and they put their director on administrative leave. So they're interested in the issue, taking into account a lot of the recommendations in that audit, but it's something that they’re working on,” said Cooper adding that a final report is expected in the Spring.

You can listen to the full conversation above.

You can listen to the full conversation on our website, WLRN.org, or wherever you get your podcasts by searching: The South Florida Roundup.

Helen Acevedo, a freelance producer, is a grad student at Florida International University studying Spanish-language journalism, a bilingual program focused on telling the stories of diverse communities.
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