A rendering shows four complexes comprising one- to three-bed units for the workforce behind the proposed Publix supermarket on property in Tavernier once used for concrete production. The proposed grocery store size has since decreased from 64,000 to 49,340-square-foot square feet. CONTRIBUTED

Exploding rents are forcing frontline workers and other employees on modest salaries out of the Florida Keys. Residences turned into secondary homes and vacation rentals aren’t making life any easier for full-time workers who are trying to live, work and play here. 

Housing for deputies, nurses, teachers and bus drivers, as well as servers and those in the tourism and service industries, continues to be a need throughout the Florida Keys and especially in the Upper Keys. One project in the planning and regulatory stages is hoping to fill some of the workforce housing demand on the upper island chain.

Developers with Blackstone Group-Tavernier 925 LLC are hopeful their project will proceed to ultimately construct 86 workforce housing units on property that currently houses a defunct concrete plant at MM 92.5, oceanside, in Tavernier. The Blackstone Group includes the long-established Toppino family of Richard, John and Andrew, as well as Midwest developers Joe and Mimi Hurwitz. They’re working with the Jacksonville-based Vestcor Companies on the design and building of 58 two-bed, two-bath, 16 three-bed, two bath and 12 one-bed, one-bath units for workers who make 70% of their income in Monroe County. Vestcor has developed and operated 40 affordable/workforce communities in Florida comprising more than 6,900 units.

Per county code, developers need to build 24 units of workforce housing. With a track record that includes the building of the 208-unit Quarry in the Lower Keys alongside Vestcor, Richard Toppino said they’re going above and beyond what’s required with goals to provide long-term housing that financially suits everyday Keys workers. 

“The workforce housing isn’t just for Publix. It’s for anybody who qualifies,” Richard said.

Developers say they’re hoping to secure ROGOs through municipalities, which includes Monroe County and possibly the village of Islamorada.  

Monroe County commissioners will meet Thursday, Feb. 15 at the Murray Nelson Government Center in Key Largo to consider Blackstone’s request to create a Tavernier Key Overlay District, which would allow for the other component of the project, a Publix grocery store, to be constructed on the property. An original proposal for a 64,000-square-foot supermarket has since been reduced to a size of 49,340 square feet. The commercial side of the project has brought concerns from nearby residents regarding potential traffic congestion. And county staff have said the project is in conflict with the Tavernier Livable CommuniKeys Plan, which guides new commercial land use districts beyond that contained in the master plan to protect the U.S. 1 corridor and community.

The Tavernier Community Association has stated its opposition to the project, citing no valid health, safety or welfare need that justifies an exception to the current regulations for suburban commercial development. 

During an April 28 meeting, Monroe County Planning Commission voted 3-2 to recommend county commissioners deny the developers’ original proposal to create an overlay district to allow for, what was at that time, a 64,000-square-foot supermarket and liquor store. The five-person board makes recommendations to the board of county commissioners (BOCC) as it relates to land development code changes.

During a September community meeting, Joe Hurwitz said the workforce housing side of the project wouldn’t go on without the Publix supermarket. If approved, Mimi Hurwitz said, construction of the grocery store and housing would happen all at once. 

“We’re in lockstep with Vestcor,” she said. “Construction will happen all together.” 

While the workforce side of the project may not fully solve the housing crisis for everyday workers in the Florida Keys, some in Monroe County believe it would help keep working families who are struggling to pay monthly rents of more than $3,000 in the community. 

“It’s definitely a challenge to recruit people, and obviously even those who are here and maybe they’re renting or moving from place to place just to try to keep their rents down,” said Drew Grossman, chief executive officer for Mariners Hospital in Tavernier and Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon. “It’s a challenge for everybody, whether your fire, police, educators and health care workers.

“When we have people who leave the workforce, they have to relocate. Sometimes that is the meaning of ‘they couldn’t afford to live here any more,’” Grossman continued.

Monroe County Mayor Holly Raschein said the effect of 86 new workforce housing units would have a huge effect on the Upper Keys. 

“We are discussing options, and I think the entities are amicable to making sure we’re focusing on essential personnel, like deputies, nurses and teachers,” she said, adding that county commissioners could discuss adding a hiring preference for frontline workers onto the project.

“We’ve heard from all those entities, whether it’s the sheriff’s office, the school district and the hospital that they’re able to hire good employees who are ready to hit the ground, but they end up not making it through the final process because there’s no affordable, safe space to live.”

Monroe County Sheriff Ramsay said housing for the workforce is a critical component for his organization, which currently has 60 job openings awaiting applicants. The lack of workforce housing has become so dire that Ramsay entered a public-private partnership to build a 24-unit complex for deputies and staff in Key West. 

“For us, if this does happen, I envision a lot of people who work for the sheriff’s office or future employees who are looking for employment and want to come here,” Ramsay said in relation to the proposed 86-unit workforce complex in Tavernier. Ramsay explained his deputies, detectives and other staff are leaving due to similar situations of either not being able to afford rising rent costs or landlords selling homes which are then transformed into vacation rentals or secondary residences. 

“I have more people from South Dade who want jobs and are willing to move to Monroe. We get them a job but they can’t find a place and they commute back and forth. Eventually it gets too much for them that they quit or go to an agency up north,” Ramsay said. 

Monroe County Schools Superintendent Theresa Axford said the district had 30 qualified educators who weren’t able to accept positions before the start of the school year. The reason? They couldn’t find any housing they could afford. Axford said the school district is also struggling to keep teachers and staff for the long term. 

“We’re faced with a revolving door,” she said. “Teachers just don’t get paid in sunshine. They actually need to have a working wage and still enjoy their lives. Having to work second jobs and do things like that stand in the way of building a workforce.”

Raschein said there isn’t a day goes by that she doesn’t hear from an employer about the workforce housing shortage. The most recent instance happened while she was attending her son’s flag football game. 

“We’re never going to be able to completely solve the problem. Understanding that, this is a giant step for our community in the Upper Keys,” she said of the proposed project in Tavernier. “Just the sheer number is incredible.”

Ramsay said housing for the workforce that’s affordable remains the No. 1 problem facing Monroe County — and it’s been that way for the last four decades. 

“We hear a lot of talk but we don’t see action, or we have people say that their project is affordable but by the time they’re done it’s not for the average worker. You’re talking $3,000 a month for a rental unit; that’s not affordable,” he said. 

Axford said she’s excited to think that a project of this magnitude could come to fruition.

“If they can stay in affordable, workforce housing for five years, they can have the opportunity to put away money they need to move toward homeownership in the Keys,” she said. “There are other grants for first-time homebuyers that they’d have access to, especially for teachers.”

Monroe County commissioners will convene at 10 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 15 to discuss the project. 

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.