No realistic alternative | Key West should purchase Peary Court

Here’s some wishful thinking.
Wanted to Rent: One bedroom, one bath house or apartment. Long-term lease. Willing to pay security, first and last. Employed. Good references. Can afford up to $775 monthly. In Key West. Don’t have car. Need to be close to work.

Did that $775 a month make you snort your morning cereal out your nose? Thought so.

There hasn’t been rent that low in Key West since, well, probably the 1970s. This little island is one darned expensive place to live. In a place where folks can’t blink an eye at $2,500 a month for a teensy, not-so-great bungalow, condo or apartment, the idea of $750 rent is a pipe dream.

Key West recognizes it’s face-to-face with a housing crisis. There simply isn’t enough affordable or workforce housing on or near the island for the workers needed to sustain the local tourism economy.

cropped-KWWM_Letters.pngPassage of the March 15 referendum asking Key West voters to approve the $55 million purchase of Peary Court and preserve its 160 homes as workforce housing has some potential – but the swirling controversy makes it difficult to sift through to the facts.

Key West’s long-term rental market is disappearing as single-family homes become the darlings of second-home owners who put them into the lucrative seasonal vacation rental pool. Many of these homes are rented for three or four months of the season, then sit empty or barely used the rest of the year.

I can’t blame new owners for wanting a piece of island paradise that might pay for itself. But every home or condo that’s not a permanent residence threatens the stability of Key West’s workforce.

Pricing the workforce – seasonal and long-term – out of Key West leaves us with no one to be the teachers, cops, service providers, retail workers, gardeners, chefs and refrigerator repair folks.

Florida defines affordable housing as “rent or mortgage payments, plus taxes and insurance, that don’t not exceed 30 percent of median gross income.” Hence the $775 figure. That’s what the state says an individual making Key West’s median income of about $31,000 can afford in rent. And, that’s a long cry from what’s on today’s market.

Workforce housing gets a bit more complicated and more expensive.  Florida statutes say workforce housing ”means housing affordable to natural persons or families whose total annual household income does not exceed 140 percent of the area median income. …”

In Key West that means monthly rent in the neighborhood of $1,890 to $2,520, depending on whether the family, whose adjusted median household income is $75,600, wants to spend 30 or 40 percent each month on rent.

And those calculations bring us to Peary Court, a 29-acre parcel of prime real estate, right next to Old Town and a developer’s dream – if a developer could get designs through the city, the Historic Architectural Review Commission and Key West’s always-vocal residents.

Peary Court, in principle if not legal fact, is workforce housing. Rents are in the $2,400 range and people who work in Key West or serve in the military occupy the homes.

Peary Court has been the site of military housing of some sort since the 1800s. The U.S. Navy built today’s Peary Court in the early 1990s when the military said it needed housing. Twenty years later, in 2013, the Navy sold the 160-home Peary Court to White Street Developers, which planned to tear it down and replace the Navy-built homes with luxury development. Key West opposition killed those plans.

White Street Partners said “enough” and offered Peary Court to the city for $55 million, a whopping $20 million more than what they paid two years earlier.

On March 15, City of Key West voters will decide via referendum whether the city should purchase Peary Court and designate those homes forever as workforce housing. In true Key West fashion, the fors-and-agins are slugging it out in print and in social media, with the most common opposition argument being “we don’t trust the government.”

I’m not so sure I trust them either, and I have my doubts. But if the city doesn’t own it, Peary Court is going to another private developer. Eventually the high-end development will get built. When it does, its current residents will be displaced and there are no comparable relocation possibilities.

We can toss political hand grenades and re-open the door to housing stock Key West’s workforce cannot afford. Or we can preserve 160 homes for the people who do the work for all those tourists and second-home owners.

We need to fix this problem before there is no one left to pour the drinks, cook the seafood, teach the kids and police the streets. The Peary Court referendum has its flaws, but it’s better than doing nothing.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband own a home just down the street from Peary Court.

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