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State Approves 1,300 New Affordable Living Units Outside Keys Growth Limits

Al Diaz
Miami Herald
Hurricane Irma made an affordable housing crisis in the Florida Keys much worse.

Development in the Florida Keys has been limited for decades by hurricane evacuation; the state requires that everyone who lives there be able to get out within 24 hours. But that may change under a new program approved Wednesday by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet.

The Keys could receive up to 1,300 new units, restricted to affordable workforce rentals, under the approved plan. People who live in those units would be required to evacuate 48 hours before a hurricane is projected to make landfall — before other residents.

“The Keys have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help resolve the issue of workforce housing that has challenged their island communities for decades,” said Julie Dennis, director of the division of community development for the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees growth management.

Each community in the Keys could get up to 300 units. Key West City Manager Jim Scholl said the city is delighted at the opportunity.

“We’re not adding bodies,” he said. “We need places for the existing workforce to live, and to live in safe homes.”

Marathon Mayor Michelle Coldiron said the Middle Keys city has been doing everything it can to address affordable housing, and that the new units will help workers who have been displaced by the conversion of homes into vacation rentals.

Business owners struggling to recover from Hurricane Irma are facing extra challenges finding workers, she said.

“The successful tourist town needs a service industry,” she said. “It is extremely important to our economy.”

The Monroe County Commission, which regulates growth in unincorporated areas of the Keys, has not taken a position on the new units. Commissioners have said they don’t have enough information on how the new program would work.

The local environmental and quality of life group Last Stand opposes the program, saying there is no way to reliably insure that residents of the new homes will evacuate early. And the statewide group 1000 Friends of Florida also opposed the plan.

“I really think that we have other options to look for affordable housing in the Keys,” said Thomas Hawkins, director of policy and planning for the group.

He said instead of adding new units outside the growth cap, the Keys should focus on rebuilding the affordable housing lost in Irma, making more new units under the current rules affordable and converting homes back from vacation rental use.

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