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Plan To Add 1,300 New Affordable Housing Units In Keys Closer To Reality

Tim Chapman
Miami Herald
When major hurricanes approach the Florida Keys, the entire island chain goes under a mandatory evacuation order.

A plan to add 1,300 affordable rental units to the Florida Keys is a step closer to reality, as a state administrative law judge sided with the cities that want the new units.

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Three Keys residents challenged the plan, saying they didn't meet the rules governing growth on the island chain — especially the requirement that all residents be able to evacuate within 24 hours.

That 24-hour limit is the underpinning for growth management in the Keys. The number of new homes has been calculated and allocated, and is scheduled to run out in 2023.

But after Hurricane Irma, the state came up with a program to add more units, by requiring their inhabitants to evacuate early, at the same time as tourists.

Richard Grosso, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that provision has been "flawed" from the beginning.

"The lack of enforceability of this idea that people will sign a piece of paper promising to leave early — you're looking at really having wiped out the whole process of managing growth based on public safety, let alone water quality, the fishing industry, the way of life in the Keys," he said.

The cities' rules for the new units require an on-site property manager and a provision in the lease that people will abide by the early evacuation order, with the threat of eviction if they don't comply with the order.

Opening the floodgates?

An even larger question is the impact of allowing development outside of the 24-hour limit, as long as people promise to leave early in an evacuation. That could open the floodgates for new building that claimed residents would also leave early, Grosso said.

"So you'd be looking at not 1,300 units but something in the neighborhood of 6,000," he said.

Key West, Marathon and Islamorada all agreed to accept 300 units under the state's plan. Monroe County, which directly governs unincorporated areas like the Lower Keys and Key Largo, is still considering whether to accept them. A series of community meetings was set to take place, but they've been postponed due to the coronavirus restrictions.

Key West City Commissioner Sam Kaufman said the 300 units are a small step in addressing a huge problem. A study by the city's planning director in 2014 found the city needed more than 3,000 affordable housing units.

And, he said, "we're not really increasing population. We have a lot of people that live doubled up, tripled up, quadrupled up in units. If you look at the housing stock, some of it is substandard," Kaufman said.

He said he sympathized with those worried about loosening restrictions on development. But, Kaufman said, he wasn't worried about the potential impact on hurricane evacuation.

"From my practical experience in 2004 and 2005, we had dozens of hurricanes in those years and there was never an issue of backups or problems vacating the Keys," he said.

The judge's recommended order next goes to the state Department of Economic Opportunity, which oversees growth management in the Keys because the island chain is a state Area of Critical Concern.

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