School board members question affordability of planned employee housing at Sugarloaf School. GORMAN & CO./Contributed

School officials are still planning to build 20 units of employee housing next to Sugarloaf School, but pumped the brakes during an April 27 update, demanding more information from the project’s for-profit developers, Gorman & Co.

School board members liked the appearance of the apartment complex, but questioned the  affordability.

A one-bedroom unit would cost $1,700 to $2,100 per month, Two-bedroom units would cost $2,000 to $2500 and three-bedroom units would cost $2,400 to $2,900 per month, based on the employee’s salary and how it compares to the AMI, or area median income, which is used to calculate income eligibility for affordable housing.

“Are we building affordable housing or are we just building housing?” school board member Andy Griffiths asked during the discussion. “This is a big disappointment.”

Board member Mindy Conn echoed his dissatisfaction and dismissed Gorman & Co.’s claims that the units would be brand new and built of high quality.

“But if they can’t afford it, it doesn’t matter how good the quality is,” Conn said. “I’m just worried that this is not going to be affordable.”

Further discussion revealed that many teachers earn too much to qualify for the income restrictions.

“Two teachers in one household couldn’t qualify to live here,” Griffiths said, noting the “minuscule” difference between the “affordable” rents and market rate rents. “Even two starting teachers would be right up against the eligibility limit.”

And then what happens when those teachers get raises each year? Do they have to leave when their income exceeds 120% of the AMI? If employees can afford these rents, do they really need the school district to build this housing? How many employees earn enough to afford the rents, and how many of those earn too much to be eligible for the housing? 

These and other questions dominated the discussion, although the board members each acknowledged the county’s desperate need for housing and the benefits of a brand new apartment with amenities and a landlord that’s not going to put the place on the market in 30 days.

The hits kept coming when the board learned the project also requires the construction of a $600,000 access road. 

Conn and board chair John Dick told the developers they need to come back with details about how many employees would qualify for the apartments.

“We need to know which workers would be able to go into these units,” Dick said.

“My issue is will people qualify,” Conn said. “We’ve only spent $22,000 to date, and I’d like to stop this if our purpose is to house people who work for us, and those people make too much to live there.”

District 1 Board Member Bobby Highsmith said this affordable housing project has been on the drawing board since the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, when many teachers lost housing. But discussions of employee housing at Sugarloaf School started as early as 2007 with former board member Duncan Mathewson.

“I’m impressed with the design,” Highsmith told Keys Weekly separate from the meeting. “The rents are higher than we hoped. We were hoping for a bigger discount exclusively for employees and staff.” 

Dick pointed out that MCSD is not paying for the construction of the affordable housing units. The district is providing the land, while Gorman is finding the money for the construction, budgeted to be $5.1 million. 

No votes were taken as the discussion was a workshop item, but the board members directed the developers to come back with more information about income and eligibility.

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines;; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.