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Monroe County school board considers new plan to build affording housing on district land

Nancy Klingener

The Monroe County School District is again considering getting into the landlord business.

The board is reviewing a proposal from a developer to build 76 affordable housing units at the site of the district’s administration building in Key West.

Under the unsolicited proposal from the firm SPGL, LLC, the apartments would be limited to “essential” district employees.

School board member Bobby Highsmith said there’s a desperate need for more affordable housing in the Keys, where demand from tourists and investors is driving up rent beyond what many district employees can pay.

“We’ve all recognized and admitted that workforce housing is the number one issue facing the future of this community,” Highsmith said.

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According to Keys Weekly, the board has considered building affordable housing at the site for two decades.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, Highsmith cautioned against moving too quickly with the plan, suggesting that the district property at 241 Trumbo Road and 240 White Street could be used for a development that would serve more than just school employees.

“First and foremost, yes, we’re going to put our people in there to the greatest extent possible. But Key West police, Key West firefighters, Key West nurses, there’s a whole other slew of essential service folks that need housing —that need good quality housing,” Highsmith said.

“I think this is one of the last big pieces of real estate left, particularly on the island of Key West. And I think we need to treat it as a community asset,” he added.

Other board members were ready to advance the proposal from the firm, which has also been contracted to build 42 units of workforce housing for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

“I want us to build housing for school district personnel,” said board Chair John Dick, arguing for keeping the development limited.

“I really don’t want to be building it for other people,” Dick said. “I think that’s our charge, is to take care of the school district. So I’m not looking for the maximum amount of houses there.”

According to Gaelan Jones, an attorney for the district, the process for moving forward with the unsolicited proposal would be similar to a competitive bid, with the district advertising the bid and other vendors getting the chance to submit their own plans.

“I would like this if we went forward with it,” Dick said. “Somebody else can come along and give us a proposal on it.”

Instead, board members opted to get more input from the district’s affordable housing task force before moving forward.

Other proposals to house South Florida educators in school buildings have been dismissed by union members, who say they should just be paid more.

But the approach may be more appealing in the Keys, where residential development is strictly regulated and where there’s just not that much land.

While communities across South Florida are grappling with skyrocketing housing costs and pressure from outside investors, the market in the Keys is also constrained by policies that limit development in order to speed up evacuations during hurricanes.

As a result, some workers commute from hours away, double up in cramped and substandard conditions, or live on boats tucked in the islands’ channels and canals.

Superintendent Theresa Axford says some staff in the district are running out of options.

“I’m getting calls from teachers and emails letting me know they’re losing their homes,” Axford said. “I will say that the task force does feel a sense of urgency about moving forward with this.”

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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