Five kinds of people can afford Key West | Are you one?

Key West knows it faces a catastrophic housing challenge: Working people can’t afford to live in Key West. We’ve become an island of cruise-ship visitors, day-trippers, second-home owners, vacation renters and nicely-heeled retirees.

How much time do we have before there are no workers and few permanent residents to sustain the bloated tourism and vacation rental-investor economy that we’ve created?

Five kinds of people can afford to live in Key West.
1. The 1 percenters who need not concern themselves with a price tag;
2. The been-here-for-generations and live-in-my-great-great-grandmother’s cottage;
3. The bought-my-house-before-2003 and have one of the handful of good paying jobs on the island;
4.  The sure-I-like-five-roommates–in-800-square-feet 20-somethings who sleep in shifts;
5. The wandering ones who sleep on the beach and under the pier, or live in a local storage unit.

cropped-KWWM_Letters.pngEveryone else watches in stupefaction as housing costs on the six-square-mile island re-tread the heady days of 2006 when 200 percent price increases didn’t raise an eyebrow before they tumbled into the abyss in 2008 and didn’t recover for seven years. Today, we’ve got listing prices rivaling 2006.

Two things happen when home prices tickle heaven’s gate. Investors gobble up houses and toss them into the vacation rental pool. And, regular folks – the working middle class – can neither buy nor rent a place to live.

Here’s what we’ve got: Hundreds of former family homes rented to snowbirds for three or four months, which then sit vacant or rarely used for the rest of the year. What most certainly would have been long-term rentals for the island’s working families are no longer accessible.

On the first of February, there were fewer than 300 rental listings in the Key West-Stock Island area. A handful listed for under $1800 a month; most were $2,000-plus. About a third of the listings were clearly seasonal vacation rentals and carried price tags of $4,500 to $10,000 a month. Yes, you read that right.

Consider it this way. The per capita income in Key West is right around $31,000. Median household income (2.56 people in a household) is about $54,000. We are wealthier than most places in Florida and the United States. That’s good, right?

Sure, until we start doing some long division. Let’s generously assume a household can afford to spend 40 percent of its income on rent. They can’t, but we’ll assume they’re willing to eat canned green beans and forgo a cell phone.

Forty percent of $54,000 is $21,600. Divide that by 12 and we get $1,800 a month to spend on rent.

Remember what I said about not much listed for under $1,800? In Key West, the definition of affordable housing rents is about $2,450.

Whether we call it “affordable” housing or “workforce housing,” the island’s firefighters, teachers, cops, small business owners and retail and entertainment workers can’t afford to live here. There are no affordable places to rent and local salaries don’t support the buy-in for a home purchase.

One piece of the solution may be found in the city-sponsored, March 15 referendum asking Key West voters to approve the purchase of Peary Court for $55 million, a plan the city says will preserve 157 units of existing workforce housing. If I were predicting today the outcome in March, I’d say the referendum would fail.

And if it does? Look for a private developer to push ahead with luxury homes and rentals.

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband and four cats live in a single family home in Key West. Had they not bought it during the Great Recession, they would still be living in Rockford, IL, and shoveling snow.

Think you’re one of the 99 percenters? Might want to recalculate

If your annual household income is $150,000 and you’re living in most of Florida, you’re in the top 4 percent of those who live here, and in the top 9 percent nationally.

You’d need an annual household income of  $289,657 to wear the Florida 1-percenter badge and $383,001 to match the national 1 percent ranks. Still, look how close to that top spot a household income of $150,000 can get you.

Who earns that much money here in the Rock River Valley? A two-some household of veteran teachers, cops or firefighters easily make it. Many of the executive director types will do it, especially if they’ve got a paycheck spouse. Ditto the CEO-sorts of the various public bodies and private companies.

Worker bees? Not so much, of course. Two veteran journalists under one roof might make it into the top 13 percent, if they stretch really tall.

The New York Times today posted this fascinating interactive tool for figuring out where your household income falls against the local metropolitan areas, the state and the nation. Try it. Good learning experience.

It doesn’t take much more than a couple making middle-income paychecks to push them into the top percentage income brackets. They might not make it to the 1 percent, but they’re sure going to be low single digits.

I think sometimes we get so caught up in the 1 percent versus the 99 percent rhetoric that we stop realizing the real conversation ought to be less about hard lines and who wins and far more about doing what’s best for the most of us and for the least among us.

Tuesday’s ballot box: Out with fan-folks; back to the middle

Americans are Bell Curve people. We live happily along that 80 percent bulge in the middle of things, and we’re open to learning new things from the strident fan-folks farther down the curve and out to its edges.

For a while. Not forever. Just about the time fan-folks think the rest of us have become their true believers, we say “that’s far enough; time for a deep breath.”

The middle needs fan-folks to get us moving, to introduce us to new ideas and concepts, to keep us from staying too long in one place. We need those extreme points of view to make us sit up and take notice.

Whether it’s the whacked-out Carrie Nation with her anti-alcohol, women’s and  families’ rights messages, or the deranged John Brown with his anti-slavery screeds, the far left and far right of the Bell Curve are the ones who make things change.

Those revered “founding fathers” were terrorists bent on overthrowing the legitimate government. The idea that society (read that government) ought to take care of children and old people came from the fringes, resulting in the now-sacrosanct Social Security and Medicare entitlements.

So, we need the Tea Party, far-right Republicans, flaming liberal Democrats and, yes, the Jello-like Occupy Wall Street. We also need Barack Obama’s sense of hope and call for change. And, we need the predictable confrontational clash that has been the United States’ dissonant symphony for the past three years.

If Tuesday’s election results are any indicator, and I think they are, then Middle America has gotten the messages, absorbed them, and is sending a message of its own: Enough. Enough of the fan-folks, hardline, confrontational, I-win-you-lose. Back to the middle where we can get something constructive done.

The New York Times editorial today calls it “back to common sense.”

Douglas Schoen, a political strategist and Fox News commentator, was nowhere near as accommodating, positioning himself on Tuesday ahead of voting, to warn that these kinds of results did not, in fact, mean collaborative heads would prevail. But this paragraph is worth noting because it makes my point that the middle is reasserting its power:

“In fact, that will almost certainly be something of a misreading of the results, as voters in Ohio are strongly supportive of efforts to curb excessive state spending and high levels of taxation, but they are equally skeptical of efforts to reign in unions– particularly through the elimination of collective bargaining rights.”

Yes, the middle can hold both those positions at the same time and search for a middle ground solution. It’s that middle ground on which the fan-folks on all sides can’t walk.

We’re not going to miraculously join hands this afternoon and sing “We are the World.” It will take another decade to pick and choose from among the “extreme” ideas of the past 10 years and adapt them to something quintessentially American.

But, for those who wondered if we’d ever return to less strident, less destructive, less polarizing discussion, the answer was in Tuesday’s ballot box. Yes, we will. Middle America is back in charge.

Friday Five: lessons in economics for Sunday dinner

Friday Five: If yours is a family inclined to Sunday dinner conversations, then you know there are a handful of subjects generally off the table: sex, religion, politics and money.

That leaves precious little about which to chat, except for the weather and your sibling’s awful spouse, that last one guaranteed to have someone leaving the room unpleasantly.

Inevitably one of those “no-no” topics slithers onto the table. Those are subjects about which everyone has an opinion — and about which most of us know little more than a couple headlines worth of facts.

This week has been bewildering for the economics-high-finance-challenged among us. In case you missed them, or just flat out didn’t bother since you were busy making your own ends meet, here’s this week’s Friday Five: lessons in economics.

All the better for that Sunday dinner.

* Capitalism good. Crony capitalism bad. Who knew?

* Bail out the Greeks? Sure. Italy? Not so much. I guess they like Greeks better than Italians. The seat-of-your-econ-chair agreement that was two-years give or take a couple months in the making appears to be an outline with not much in the way of details. Now the hard work begins.

* The U.S. economy grew more than all those ugly August and September “oh, lands, a double dip is inevitable” talking heads bloviated upon. I swear, if we  could muzzle 24-7 “news” channels and talk radio, the world would be less stressful place and we might actually get some traction on getting things done. But, that would be unkind to the First Amendment, so tune out the cacophony.

* Are those Occupy Wall Street people “half naked, over-educated, children of the privileged, preening Socialists” or just regular Americans annoyed with what they perceive as “take from the poor and give to the rich” a sort of backwards Robin Hood thing? Probably both and more since few things — including economics and politics — are so either-or. Good to see the First Amendment flexing its muscles, too.

* And, then there’s 9-9-9 and similar plans from enthusiastic presidential candidates that start with “now, this won’t hurt a bit and we’ll be healthy, wealthy and wise to boot.” Sigh. Getting our fiscal house in order requires pain: raise revenue; cut expenses. Eat less; exercise more.

And, that comes from an original flat-tax kinda fan, folks. Steve Forbes and Bill Bradley, two New Jersey boys, did that song-and-dance back in the 1980s when I was editor at the Trenton (NJ) Times. I got to hear the original version.

And, there you have it. Economics and high finance lessons for the weekend dinner table or wherever your conversations lead you. May God smile upon you and yours.

Save the middle class: Part II — Stop getting sucked into class bashing

Two veteran teachers in a household push their income beyond middle class. A veteran firefighter has a darned good chance of having an upper class income.

Ditto for a slew of folks who think they’re making middle class incomes, when, in fact, they are playing on that much-maligned “rich” spreadsheet. That ubiquitous “Joe the Plumber” made a heck of a lot more than a middle class income.

The typical middle class household annual income today is about $97,000, reflecting the combined income of the “typical middle class man” in the high $50,000 and the woman in the very low $40,000.

That’s what makes this “hate the rich” and “love the middle class” arguments so silly. Whether it’s the Tea Party’s anger at taxes and big government or the Occupiers demonizing of Wall Street’s excesses — both potentially worthy causes, by the way –  none of this should be framed as a love affair with middle class coupled with a burning at the stake of the upper class.

There’s just not much middle class left. I’m not the only one thinking that way. The Atlantic posted an impressive, fact-driven narrative on the same subject. It’s long, and as the friend who shared it with me said, well worth the time.

These days most Americans like thinking of themselves as middle class. There’s something safe, comforting and downright American about being solidly in the middle. Neither too rich or too poor; too educated or too not. Just not “too” anything.

There have been times in our cultural history when moving on up was top of our collective goals. Getting to the hallowed ground, first of middle class, then of “upper middle class,” or, gasp, even “upper class,” was the way things were supposed to be.

To get there, we had to be educated, responsible, skilled at our jobs, reasonably fluent in the civics of our government, clean, reverent and brave, to borrow from the Scout manual. If we did those things, we made more money. Being middle class and then moving up the ladder was then, and always has been, far more than household income. It was about being and valuing the whole package.

I think today’s class definitions are all bollixed up. First, there’s this fact-less idea that middle class is “salt of the earth” types with good family values and a Christian work ethic, and enough education and civics lessons to know a little about a lot — all regardless of income.

Then, there is the equally fact devoid concept of an “upper class” that scarfs up all the money, looks down its nose at the middle class, ignores the needs of those less fortunate and, in general, fiddles while Rome burns, to use a cliche.

And, the “lower class”? What about its cultural types? Oh, the lower class is uneducated, has no values or work ethic, sucks off the public dole for generations and, generally, isn’t American.

The trouble with these cultural stereotypes is they make being middle class the only true and good “class” to be. And, that frames all of today’s disgruntled, polarized, frustratingly unsolvable challenges.

Let’s try to let go of these emotional, fact-less class stereotypes. We are all in this together.

Pin It on Pinterest