Raschein leads affordable housing talk

City Planner Don Craig on Monday couldn’t come up with a single thing that is working well when it comes to providing workforce housing in the Florida Keys.

“I wrote, ‘Nothing,'” Craig said, referring to the first question on the comment form handed out at Monday’s roundtable discussion about affordable housing.

To the question of what is not working well, Craig wrote, “Everything.”

Craig was among some 50 people who turned out for the public meeting held at the Marathon Government Center, attended by Keyswide elected officials and hosted by State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, who said the terms “affordable housing” and “workforce housing” are interchangeable as far as she is concerned.

Monday’s meeting was a first step in the county’s effort to formally assess affordable housing Keyswide, directing a Florida State University team to interview locals most affected by the drought of workforce housing and return with an updated report.

Robert Jones, director of the FCRC Consensus Center at FSU, who attended Monday’s meeting, said he is open to hearing from all residents on the issue.

Jones’ email is rmjones@fsu.edu.

Monroe County has a declining population, counted in 2010 at 73,090 and projected to drop to 66,700 by 2040, according to Jones.

At the same time, the county’s tourist economy is growing.

Workforce housing is defined by Jones as households led by service industry workers, teachers, law enforcement and other professional jobs. They shouldn’t have to pay more than 30 percent of their total income on housing, including utilities, by his definition.

Households that spent more than 30 percent of their housing have a “cost burden,” Jones’ Powerpoint presentation said, and do not have affordable housing.

In Monroe, about 8,000 home-owning families are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30 percent of their take-home pay on housing. Of that number, half pay more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

The gathering, which included County Commissioners Heather Carruthers, Sylvia Murphy, George Neugent and David Rice; Key West City Commissioner Tony Yaniz, Marathon Mayor Dick Ramsay; Housing Authority director Manuel Castillo; Mark Moss of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, along with developers, real estate brokers and concerned citizens, was to revisit a familiar Keyswide woe.

“We are short 6,800 units of workforce housing,” said Carruthers. “This is a crisis of extreme proportions. Housing is the most expensive item on our list. Affordability in the Keys also relates to insurance, the cost of food and the cost of daycare.”

Everyone agreed on one thing: The Keys hasn’t made a dent in solving the affordable housing.

“We’ve been talking about affordable/workforce housing since 1940,” said Yaniz. “We need to stop talking and we need to start walking because it’s as big an issue as a hurricane hitting us tomorrow.”

Mayor Craig Cates, who is running for a fourth term in today’s primary, didn’t attend. He said city staff and officials were there and that he is well-versed in the topic.

“We had some people there,” Cates said. “Tim Root was there from Key West. I spoke with him. Key West was represented. This is the first step to get this started. I’ll get really involved in it after the election.”

Cates said he talked to Carruthers ahead of Monday’s meeting to tell her he couldn’t make it on account of previous commitments and the election.

“We’ve made a lot of strides in affordable housing but it’s not enough,” said Cates, referring to the new apartment complex that went up last year on MacDonald Avenue in Stock Island that were instantly filled. “It’s an issue that continues to grow and grow.”

Root, who runs a construction company and is a Utility Board member, sat in the audience, which included Mayoral candidate Margaret Romero, and Jeff Sharp, a resident of the Seahorse Trailer Park on Big Pine Key, which he fears is on its way out of business in light of a developer’s recent purchase.

Several officials recalled how in 2007 the county released a report on affordable housing, written by Lisa Tennyson, now the county’s director of legislative affairs and grants acquisition.

Every concern in that report remains unsolved today, they said, after much discussion at that time but no true action.

“Then it just fell off the face of the Earth,” said Roman Gastesi, the county administrator. “We didn’t solve it then, let’s solve it now. Frankly, I don’t know if there are any solutions. We have to at least understand the problems.”

Raschein assured the crowd there were solutions and told Gastesi, “Be positive, Roman.”

Craig said revenue producers such as a tax on every alcoholic beverage sold or a 1 percent real estate transfer tax could generate enough money to build housing. Simply relying upon Land Authority funds won’t work, he said.

“There is land owned by governmental agencies that can be repurposed to affordable housing,” Craig said. “You also have to consider what we have control over in terms of our zoning and comprehensive plans.”

Commissioner Carruthers said the Key West building height referendum is an example of what government has to grapple with once the pro-affordable housing rhetoric fades.

In Key West, many homeowners cannot raise their homes above base elevation flood due to the city’s height restrictions, which are in the city charter.

Voters on Nov. 4 will decide whether to allow an exception to the restrictions, limiting building height to 40 feet.

While the city commission unanimously decided to let voters decide, there were some dissenters who questioned the motivation behind the height referendum, including Romero, who called the planning department’s education campaign a “sales job.”

“Some say it’s a conspiracy by developers,” Carruthers said of the height referendum. “As a friend of mine said, Conspiracy theories are the last refuge of those who don’t understand the issues.”

gfilosa@keysnews.com

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