Monroe County: Our top challenge is the lack of affordable housing for Keys workers

Monroe County adopted its strategic plan for the next five years with an emphasis on providing more housing that is affordable for the workforce that sustains the island chain’s tourism-based economy.

The document agreed upon by the five-member Board of County Commissioners at its Thursday meeting in Key Largo was based on input from residents and business owners gathered over 18 months in 2017 and in the summer and fall of 2018, while the Keys were still recovering from Hurricane Irma.

The eye of the Category 4 storm made a direct hit in the Lower Keys and caused heavy damage up and down the archipelago. It also changed the priorities of the people who live and work there, based on the difference in the list of priorities between the current strategic report and the last one, which covered 2013 to 2018.

The previous 40-page plan mentions “affordable housing” three times, but only in a couple of vague bullet points buried within the report. At the time that plan was being developed, housing was not as expensive as it is now as the country was still coming off the 2008 recession, which chilled real estate prices.

However, the report did note that Monroe is a rural county with the highest cost of living in the state. It also lost 8 percent of its population since 2000, largely due to the busy 2005 hurricane season. But, the 2013-2018 report stated the loss in the permanent population was equivalent to the gain in seasonal population during the same time period.

The county was also scrambling to meet the state mandate that all Keys properties be connected to centralized sewer systems by 2015. The rule was aimed at cleaning up near shore waters and protecting the reef. It is estimated to have cost the county around $935 million, according to the 2013-2018 plan.

Irma changed things. About 3,000 people left the Keys since the storm, mostly middle- to lower-income workers on whom the local economy relies to survive, according to a September report from the University of Florida. Most of those people haven’t returned because the cost of living in the Keys continues to rise and commuting from Miami-Dade only makes sense if you work in the Upper and Middle Keys.

“As a community, we must address the challenges we all face of workforce recruiting and retention in our unique geographical landscape,” the newly-adopted plan reads.

The county received feedback from around 440 residents who responded by mail, online and in social media polls, or attended town hall or other meetings. Of them, 24 percent said affordable housing is Monroe’s biggest challenge.

Other challenges residents cited: controlling growth (21 percent), traffic congestion and safety on U.S. 1 (19 percent), water quality (12 percent), wind insurance rates (7 percent), building for resiliency (6 percent), hardening infrastructure (6 percent) and the building and planning code process.

Although housing topped the list countywide, it was more of an issue for people in the Middle and Lower Keys, according to the report.

“While the Middle and Lower Keys rank Housing at the top of their list, the Upper Keys is most concerned about Growth Control and Overdevelopment,” the report states.

Kimberly Matthews, senior director of strategic planning, wrote in the report that the difference in priorities actually creates an “obvious conflict: succeeding at housing without exacerbating concerns about over development.”

The plan, however, was short on specific solutions. Matthews, who could not be reached for comment, said in a statement released with the report that it is meant to be “a 30,000-foot view of the largest issues, biggest concerns and most daunting challenges facing our Keys community.”

“The next step is to create programs, solutions and actions focused on the priorities and areas of concern that are detailed in this plan,” Matthews wrote.