Local officials are calling Monroe County’s shortage of affordable housing a “crisis,” one that trickles down into other areas of the unique economy of the Florida Keys.

“I don’t think we’re cognizant yet of how much of a crisis this really is,” said Mayor David Rice at the April 19 meeting of the Board of County Commissioners.

“If you go through the agencies, everybody’s having problems with employees and I think speed is certainly of the essence.”

He said this in response to a new project unanimously approved by the commission, which also stressed the need for affordable housing to go up fast.

The county will potentially buy four lots on Big Pine Key from the Florida Keys Community Land Trust at a total cost of $399,996 ($99,999 per lot). The land trust has already started construction of four units in the Lower Keys.

Attorney Bart Smith spoke on behalf of the land trust and said he’s been tasked with rectifying the affordable housing issue that was in place before Hurricane Irma and “exponentially magnified” by the storm.

“At this juncture, the land trust has put up $1.4 million in funds toward getting homes built, but it cannot do this alone,” he told commissioners.

Three of the four units already have their building permits, “So we’re at the stage where we can proceed,” Smith said.

Structural insulated panel homes (SIPs) homes are being put on the lots. The county will own the lots, the residents will rent, and the property will be managed by the trust. Each unit is 760 square feet and “extremely energy efficient,” according to designer Marianne Cusato.

She helped design 450 cottages in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

“They’re raised above the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood level, so they’re designed to meet the extreme weather and climate of the Keys and be affordable and durable to maintain over time,” she said.

“It may be the cure, or at least help for the problems we have in acquiring property.” – Mayor David Rice

Rent will be restricted to 30 percent of the actual household income, Smith said.

“They’ll all qualify under ‘low income housing’ and the rent will be adjusted, therefore providing truly affordable housing,” he said.

“We’ve got a model here that is moving ahead. It may be the cure, or at least help for the problems we have in acquiring property,” Rice said.

The first home could be installed by the end of June and the other three could possibly be built by the end of July.

Once the county attorney vets the contract, it will go to Mayor Rice for approval.

County Commissioner George Neugent, left, speaks to Jack Armstrong of the Structural Insulated Panel Association last week as one of the new homes is constructed in the background. KRISTEN LIVENGOOD/Keys Weekly
Katie Atkins is a western New York native who, when not working, can probably be found on the beach with her nose in a book. Sweets are her weakness (10 fillings this year), along with pizza and her adopted senior cat, Buddy.