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Florida Keys business leaders on Thursday urged the Monroe County Commission to endorse Gov. Rick Scott’s gift of 1,300 new affordable housing building permits for an area where growth is mandated by the state.
“None of us can find the employees we need, or if we can find them, they can’t stay here,” said Joe Walsh, a developer who owns several Key West restaurants. “They’re proposing a way for Monroe County to be in charge of its own destiny.”
The permits come with strings attached: Those living in the new homes must evacuate the Keys within 48 hours of tropical storm winds hitting the shoreline.
Critics of the plan say adding housing stock will create traffic nightmares and pose dangers if a hurricane evacuation is ordered. And county commissioners on Thursday, hosting a special meeting on the topic in Marathon, had more questions and concerns than answers over whether to accept the county’s 300 of the 1,300 new permits.
County commissioners by early afternoon had not made a decision on the permits. Scott’s cabinet meets May 15 but the county has until June to provide input to state leaders.
Key West, Marathon and Islamorada may apply for 300 allocations each. The remainder could be requested by Key Colony Beach and Layton.
Supporters, however, say the housing crisis is driving away workers.
“We are seeing businesses that are going to have to close because they don’t have employees,” said Virginia Panico, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody is shorthanded,including the county and the city of Key West’s police department.”
Increasing the number of housing units in the Keys isn’t the only way to create affordable housing, said County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.
Government could create incentives, such as tax breaks, for home owners so they would rent to long-term renters at rates dictated by municipalities and county’s regulations, she said.
Supporters of the new housing permits include the Island of Key Largo Federation of Homeowner Associations, the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, the Islamorada City Council, the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West and managers of the Hemingway House and the Hard Rock Café.
“Don’t look at the county, we’re not in the construction business. We have developers out there. Where are they?” said Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, of Key Largo.
Murphy called Scott’s plan for 1,300 additional permits a political ploy.
“I so bitterly resent it,” Murphy said.
Murphy noted the county has 450 permits for affordable housing sitting around with no takers. Monroe also has 1,000 permits for market-rate homes.
“We have some pending projects in the pipeline,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage of Key West.
The Keys are greatly restricted in building and rate-of-growth ordinance permits, called “rogos,” are needed to add housing must come from the state.
“We really need to make baby steps and not come up with excuses as to why we can’t do this,” said Diane Eliopoulos, who manages the Hard Rock on Duval Street. “We need rogos for affordable housing and I don’t know how anybody can deny that point of view. Here’s an opportunity to have rogo units for affordable housing.
Eliopoulos ticked off a list of employees who are leaving because they can no longer make ends meet in Key West. One, a single mother, just had her rent raised to $3,800 a month. She’s leaving for North Carolina.
In Key West, a modest one-bedroom runs for about $2,000-a-month.
“If a city wants to build affordable housing it’s something I would always support,” said County Mayor David Rice of Marathon. “I don’t covet ownership of affordable housing. We need affordable housing not affordable permits sitting there unused.”