November 21, 2014

Housing in the Keys

Creative Alternatives

A pricey real estate market is forcing employers to find affordable housing solutions.

David Villano | 12/1/2005
p>Around the State: MIAMI-DADE
Creative Alternatives
A pricey real estate market is forcing employers to find affordable housing solutions.

by David Villano

Average home prices in the Florida Keys are up nearly 40% this year to about $750,000. That's not good news for the hospitality industry here, which employs thousands of service workers at minimum wage or slightly above.

Most service workers rent; many are seasonal residents. "So who can afford to pay $1,800 a month for rent working on a housekeeper's salary?" bemoans Michael Knowles, general manager of the Hampton Inn in Key West. "They'd have to work two full-time jobs."

While the Monroe County Commission and local municipalities are working to build some affordable housing for the 15,000 service workers in the county, many resort operators have taken matters into their own hands. Most major resorts now provide subsidized housing for service workers. At the 60-acre Hawks Cay resort on Duck Key, for example, about a third of its 450 workers are housed in the 110 units it owns both on and off property. "We couldn't remain in business without it," says spokesman Doug Luciani.

Knowles says he and other operators are always on the lookout for an old home that can be converted to low-income housing. Up the road in Marathon, the school board is considering a proposal from a resort owner to buy a shuttered nursing home the district owns, which the resort could use for workforce housing. "You've got to be creative," says Knowles.

Creativity will only go so far to ease the crunch, says Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West. A host of factors compounds the problem: Skyrocketing land values are prompting owners of the islands' once ubiquitous trailer parks to sell to developers and speculators; marinas are raising the fees they charge live-aboards; and a spate of condo conversions is further reducing the supply of rental units.

Weinhofer says local governments must pressure state officials to ease the growth management restrictions that impede affordable housing projects. That's no easy task. Designated by the state as an Area of Critical Concern, the Florida Keys face strict land-use regulations that limit construction. Many property owners, decrying water pollution and habitat degradation, vehemently support those restrictions. "The problem is going to get worse and worse," says Weinhofer. "There are so many jobs to fill, and we can't just bus people in from Miami to fill them."

Tags: Southeast, Housing/Construction

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