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Keys Governments Start Looking At Their Own Land For Housing Solutions

Nancy Klingener
Graeme MacDonald works at the Monroe County jail in Key West, but lives in Broward County. So he stays at a bunkroom in the jail between shifts.

The Keys already had an affordable housing problem, before Hurricane Irma. Then that storm destroyed thousands of homes and is already driving up rents. So some government agencies in the Keys are looking at going into the landlord business.

Graeme MacDonald works as a detention deputy at the Monroe County jail in Key West. He lives in Miramar, in Broward County, 167 miles away.

So MacDonald stays in a bunkroom at the jail between shifts. It’s a former storage area fitted out with metal bunks. No windows. There’s a small room with a TV and a microwave.

He says of course he’d rather live in the Keys, closer to work.

But “even if you find a cheap place, that is not even a cheap place,” he said.

Rent near the jail where MacDonald works can easily run more than $2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. He’s been with the sheriff’s office for seven years and he’s committed to the staying there.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Monroe Sheriff Rick Ramsay says he wants to build housing for his employees — similar to the modular housing a private developer is building next door - on land currently occupied by the Key West homeless shelter. The shelter has until next fall to move.

The housing market in the Keys is governed by the laws of supply and demand. The supply is limited by strict rules about building and the simple of facts of Keys geography: It’s a chain of small islands and there just isn’t that much land.

At the same time, demand is high. People who live and work in the Keys are competing with people willing to spend thousands to rent a house or condo for vacation.

A quick search on apartments.com finds apartments in Key West or nearby ranging from $1,800 a month to more than $7,000. There and on other sites, like trulia.com you can see the competition with vacation rentals — where a three-bedroom house can rent for more than $8,000 a month.

When people do leave the job, the sheriff’s office conducts exit interviews and asks them why they’re leaving.

“They almost always say the same thing,” said Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay. “Cost of living, cost of living, cost of living.”

Ramsay says since Hurricane Irma, some of his employees have seen their rents go way up, because the supply is even more limited now.

“We had a few of our officers who said, ‘That’s it. I can’t afford it. That’s my entire paycheck,’” Ramsay said.

So now some government agencies in the Keys, including the sheriff’s office, are talking about a new approach — providing housing for at least some of their workforce.

Ramsay wants to build on county-owned land next to the jail. That land is currently occupied by Key West’s homeless shelter. The city had already agreed to move the shelter and in late September, after Irma, the county set a one-year deadline for the move so that the sheriff could move forward on building units there.

And the sheriff’s office isn’t the only agency looking at becoming a landlord for its employees.

“We have the means to take care of our own problem,” said Andy Griffiths, a 25-year member of the Monroe County School Board. The means he’s referring to is land the school district already owns.

A couple weeks ago, Griffiths proposed the district build 20 homes on 2 acres it owns next to Sugarloaf School. That’s in the Lower Keys, the area hardest hit by Irma.

And he says if that project goes forward it could pave the way for more housing on Trumbo Road in downtown Key West. That’s where the school district has its headquarters. In the city, you could build higher density — and people who live there might not even need a car.

“Half of our enrollment lives within 5 miles of the Trumbo property,” Griffiths said.

Rebecca Keenum is the guidance counselor at Poinciana Elementary School in Key West. She serves on the school’s leadership team, which means she helps interview job candidates.

This year they had 10 openings for teachers, out of a total of 65. And that was before Hurricane Irma.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
Rebecca Keenum is the counselor at Poinciana Elementary School in Key West. She said the Keys school district should consider providing housing for its employees like the military, or a Navajo reservation where she once taught.

Keenum said some excellent candidates turned down jobs after they learned how much it costs to live in or near Key West.

“If you want to attract good people and you want to keep good people then that basic need — housing is a basic, basic need — has got to be addressed,” she said.

Compared to other school districts in Florida, Monroe County pays its teachers well. The average teacher salary is $56,411.

But when housing costs are so high, that salary gets eaten up quickly.

Keenum points to the military locally as an example of a public agency providing housing for its workforce. And she once taught on a Navajo reservation, where an apartment came with the job.

“You’re either going to have to increase those salaries some more, or you’re going to actually have to provide the brick and mortar,” she said.

The proposal for Sugarloaf would be a relatively small project. But “I think that would move the needle on our particular need,” Griffiths said.

And more importantly, he said, it would set a precedent for public agencies to start building housing on their own land so their employees can afford to live in the communities where they work.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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