Can Rick Scott fix affordable housing in the Florida Keys?

Hurricane Irma destroyed about 1,100 buildings throughout the Keys, not including trailers. Al Diaz Miami Herald file 2017

The state is preparing a 1,300-unit rescue to the affordable housing crisis that has gripped the Florida Keys but, to make it happen, it has had to bend some rules that planners say may only make the problem worse.

The governor and Cabinet are expected to hear a report Wednesday on a plan by the governor’s Department of Economic Opportunity to allow the development of multi-family housing units for working people throughout the Keys.

But instead of considering the new housing units as replacement housing for the 4,000 homes destroyed or significantly damaged by Hurricane Irma, DEO is leap-frogging the strict growth-planning process and adding the new housing to the growth capacity of the fragile island chain.

Individual cities of Key West, Marathon and Islamorada, along with Monroe County, may apply for up to 300 housing units each, and the remainder could be requested by Key Colony Beach and Layton, according to the proposal. But to bypass the state’s strict growth law, the agency will require anyone who qualifies for the workforce housing and signs a lease to promise to evacuate from the Keys 48 hours before a storm.

DEO has no plan for enforcing such an evacuation notice and will expect local officials to handle that.

"If the locals choose to participate in the program, they will be responsible for mandatory evacuation — just like they are now," said Tiffany Vause, DEO spokesperson. "But we are going to work with them."

Current law requires tourists to evacuate the Keys 48 hours before the approach of a storm, but some local officials caution that a 48-hour requirement for a select group of residents is unpractical.

"We find it difficult to understand how that would happen in an approaching storm," Christine Hurley, Monroe County assistant county manager, said during a meeting of Cabinet aides last week.

In a letter to DEO last week, Emily Schemper, acting senior director of planning and environmental resources for Monroe County, asked what might happen to emergency personnel and first responders who live in the housing and suggested it might limit access to many Keys workers.

Environmentalists warn the notice may simply be ignored, compounding evacuation woes.

"Are you going to have affordable housing police going door to door? This guy is at market rate — they’re not required to leave — but this guy is?" said Richard Grosso, an environmental lawyer who has spent the last two decades working on growth issues. "You have to question why we are doing this now."

Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, was in the Keys on Friday for a media event in which he said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is sending $616 million to address affordable housing destroyed by Irma throughout the state. He couldn’t say how much will go to the Keys or when the money will get here.

For the last 44 years, the Florida Keys has been designated an Area of Critical State Concern because the governor and Cabinet determined that the near-shore waters could not handle any more loss of natural habitat stemming from nutrient pollution and other growth-related degradation of the fragile ecosystem.

As a result, growth limits were set primarily because of the evacuation needs in a hurricane. The Keys population also had reached its limit for safe evacuation time, so, rather than attempt to calculate how much more development the environment could handle, the state settled on using a formula based on evacuation time.

But rather than update the growth limits and revise the Florida Administrative Code, the Department of Economic Opportunity wants to require the select group of people who live in the 1,300 proposed units to evacuate early.

Grosso notes that there has been no analysis showing that the evacuation can happen as the state expects and, absent that, the policy could be a misfire.

"Protecting people when hurricanes approach is the highest calling of government," he said. "If you start fudging numbers and start adding development for any reason and you are not maintaining the integrity of the development numbers, you run the risk of jeopardizing the entire legal support for those numbers."

Jim Schull, Key West city manager, disagrees: "I say, ‘Thank you very much. We’ll work out the details.’ "

He said that his city, which has less of an affordable housing crisis than other areas of the Keys and only lost two homes during Irma, doesn’t believe the 1,300 new units will increase the strained growth limits.

"If we can get deed-restricted workforce housing in perpetuity, we can maintain the workforce population that is already here and we’re not going to add to the population," Schull said.

"The population of Key West hasn’t changed in 50 years, but 50 percent are not primary residences anymore," he said. "We have the same census, but they are living in half the available homes because there are so many private homes converted to vacation rentals."

Compounding the issue is the fact that many of the homes destroyed by the hurricane were acting as "de facto affordable housing" and they are being replaced by vacation homes, Hurley said.

When Hurricane Irma made landfall as a Category 4 storm, it destroyed thousands of homes that were older, single-family homes and mobile homes that housed the workforce throughout much of the Keys. FEMA provided temporary housing and loans to repair many homes. The federal government has provided block grant funding to construct homes for low- and moderate-income residents.

The number of vacation and second homes in the county has soared from 35 percent to 50 percent, "which totally eliminates our ability to have housing stock available for the sheriffs and teachers," Hurley said.

"We have competing interests for housing in our community and it is growing — and growing in the wrong direction," she said.

Monroe County already has 555 affordable housing permits and more than 800 market-rate permits available, more than the demand for building permits. But in Marathon, where more than 400 homes were destroyed and 1,400 were damaged by more than 50 percent, the number of affordable housing permits is running low.

"Marathon and the entire Florida Keys has an affordable housing issue," Chuck Lindsey, Marathon city manager, said during the Cabinet aides’ meeting. "Who doesn’t in our country right now? But, in paradise, it’s greater than most."

The destroyed homes could be replaced as affordable housing, or they could be sold as market rate housing, become vacation homes "and exacerbate the affordable housing problem," said Schemper, the Monroe County planning director.

But neither the county nor the state can tell a resident he can’t sell his property to somebody who wants to build a swanky new house on the site, so all this new development poses a problem, she said.

The county is already seeing property that had been destroyed by Irma "purchased by developers or individuals — new owners who were not the owners of housing prior to the storm," Schemper said.

"The direction they’re going creates public safety hazard issues, environmental and infrastructure capacity problems," said Thomas Hawkins, policy and planning director of 1000 Friends of Florida, a growth management advocacy organization. He urges the state to start permitting vacation rentals and requiring some of it to be converted to workforce housing.

Schemper said Monroe County has not taken a position on the proposal by the state for the 300 units the county is entitled to, but if it agrees it would have to submit a comprehensive plan amendment and conduct public hearings to work out the details.

"The county could impose as many restrictions on those units as it wants," she said. "The county could also choose not to take on additional units."

Grosso and Hawkins want the Cabinet to urge DEO to slow the process down.

"No one can pretend that the affordable housing problem is not a real problem in the Keys," Grosso said. "But is that really going to fix it?"

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