In Florida Keys, land trust aims to bring affordable housing back post-hurricane

Celebrated as a sunny, laid-back paradise, the Florida Keys, and its reputation as a tourist hub, mask serious housing affordability issues. The archipelago of islands strung out into the Caribbean, filled with an increasing number of high-end resorts and expensive beach homes, leaves little room for those with lower incomes.

High housing costs burden many of the region’s working class residents. In Monroe County, which contains the Keys, 49 percent of residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and 26 percent spend more than half their income on housing, according to Gladys Cook, a technical advisor for the Florida Housing Coalition.

When Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys on September 10 last year, the storm wrecked havoc on the islands, and turned an already existing affordable housing problem into a crisis. More than 7 percent of the housing stock was destroyed, and Monroe County commissioner David Rice called the situation a “crisis.”

“We were surprised how disproportionate the damage was to lower income housing,” says Cook.

As the saying goes, don’t waste a crisis. A new private initiative, the Florida Keys Community Land Trust, seeks to turn the disaster into an opportunity to build new affordable housing.

By purchasing property damaged by the storm, and placing it in a public trust, the newly formed nonprofit will be able to reduce the impact of speculation on real estate value and maintain affordability. In addition, the construction of new workforce housing on land owned by the Trust aims to add much-needed options for affordable and accessible housing for area hospitality workers. It joins an increasing number of community land trusts across the country that are using a collective land ownership model to lock-in long-term affordable housing.

“The community land trust is a solution to create affordable housing and keep it affordable forever,” says Cook. “They’re replacing lost workforce housing and preventing new developments from being market rate.”

Turning damaged property into affordable developments

The trust was the brainchild of seasonal residents Margaret Whitcomb and her husband Richard. The couple, who spend much of the year on property they own on Big Torch Key, wanted to help the area recover after Irma. Long worried about the area’s lack of affordable housing, the post-Irma landscape offered a rare opportunity to invest in property to preserve and protect affordable housing.

Existing affordable housing, including manufactured homes such as trailer parks and older apartments, suffered more storm damage than newer homes. Damaged property could be purchased at market rate, meaning speculation, new development, and more upward pressure on rent.

“If I don’t buy these properties, nobody else is going to buy to save affordability,” Whitcomb said.

After discussing the idea, the couple quickly acted. The Whitcombs donated a million dollars to form the trust and, working with local housing groups, such as the Florida Housing Coalition, bought he first parcel of land on December 29.

In addition to acquiring and adding land to the public trust, the organization has also spearheaded the creation of new buildings. Dubbed the Florida Keys Cottages, these new affordable units were designed to be sustainable, storm-resistant, and inexpensive.

The first of the cottages are currently being assembled on a site in Big Pine Key. Two other local nonprofits, the Florida Keys Hurricane Recovery Foundation and Ocean Reef Community Foundation, have invested in the project.

“The speed at which these are planned on going up is essential,” Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent told Keys Weekly. “If this goes well, it will pave the road for more projects.”

New cottages inspired by vernacular architecture

Designed by architect Marianne Cusato, who previously designed affordable homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Keys Cottages references the vernacular style of the area’s cottages, a melange of different Caribbean styles.

Built on stilts to protect from floods, the 760-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath homes are simple and straightforward. High ceilings, porches, and extra windows help with circulation and cooling, and the use of structural insulated panels (SIPs) provide strong exteriors while cutting material costs.

The idea was to be budget-conscious, but not cheap. Each of the four units currently under construction will eventually be rented to tenants making 30 percent of median area income.

“It’s exciting to have the opportunity to help out,” Cusato says. “In every disaster, there’s a silver lining. The storm, while it brought a lot of destruction, was also the catalyst for a nonprofit to help.”

Whitcomb says the group is currently looking to purchase additional land and expand the Trust, which has raised $1.4 million to invest in new housing. She hopes to expand the cottage concept, if the Big Key Pine experiments proves itself, and also try and solicit funding from many of the large employers in the Keys, who stand to gain from more affordable housing options for their workers.

“This may not be popular with for-profit developers,” Whitcomb says. “But we have such a deficit of affordable housing.”