Nicole Javorsky is an editorial fellow at Mother Jones, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab.
After the destruction of Hurricane Irma, the Florida Keys Community Land Trust started building affordable cottages that can withstand the next storm.
The Florida Keys are known for their appeal to tourists eager to escape to Margaritaville and fish or snorkel in turquoise waters. Like other tourist destinations, the Keys—a string of islands off the southern tip of Florida—require workers to staff their restaurants, hotels, and glass-bottom boats.
Big Pine Key is a bedroom community where many people who live and work in the Keys year-round reside. The island between Key West and Marathon, Big Pine Key has a population of over 4,000. Monroe County, encompassing all the Keys, has a permanent population of slightly over 73,000. The median monthly rent in Monroe County is $3,500, according to Zillow—too expensive for much of the county’s workforce. (The median household income in the county is $60,000.)
When Hurricane Irma struck the Keys in September 2017, it exacerbated an already pressing need for affordable housing. Much of the cheaper housing on Big Pine Key comprised trailers at ground level and older buildings that couldn’t withstand the storm surge and 120 mile-per-hour winds.
“The affordable housing was extremely vulnerable, so when the storm surge came in, the houses that were housing a lot of the workforce were destroyed,” said designer Marianne Cusato. According to Monroe County data, Irma destroyed 473 homes on Big Pine Key—the most of any Key—and damaged 1,538. Three months after the storm hit, the Miami Herald reported that some Big Pine Key residents were still living in tents.
Irma instilled new urgency to address the islands’ housing problem. “What was an emergency prior to the storm is now a crisis—an utter and complete crisis with regards to the housing for average worker here in Monroe County,” said Mike Laurent, executive director of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust.
The Florida Keys Community Land Trust was founded in 2017 with the goal of “preserving and enhancing the way of life for the workforce of Monroe County, Florida.” Community land trusts are non-profit entities that steward land and develop and manage affordable housing.
On lots that Monroe County purchased and will lease back to the trust for 99 years, the trust is building four new cottages that are engineered to withstand 200 mile-per-hour winds and are elevated 12 feet—one foot above the required base flood elevation. The trust finished construction on the first cottage earlier this month. The other three will be ready this fall, and five more homes are expected to be finished by the end of January, all on Big Pine Key. They were designed by Cusato, who led a similar project in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
The trust hopes to build 20 more homes next year. Every home will be affordable in perpetuity, so, as Laurent put it, “people can stay a part of the community.”
The initial four cottages, built for $199,000 each (through a mix of public and nonprofit funding), measure 760 square feet and have two bedrooms and one bath. Monthly rent will be capped at $1,588—80 percent of area median income—and will likely be lower for many families, Laurent said, depending on their income. To qualify for a cottage, 70 percent of a household’s income must be earned in Monroe County. More than 100 people have already pre-applied to move in, and the land trust will give preference to families displaced by Irma. It hasn’t yet selected the first residents, but Laurent hopes they will move in by mid-September.
One challenge for building sufficient housing in the Keys is limits on development that are intended to make 48-hour evacuations possible. Then there’s the simple geographical fact of being a chain of islands.
“Most communities, you can ‘drive ‘til you qualify,’ if you will, where you just drive a little out and cities grow like rings of a tree,” Cusato said. “They’re concentric circles. So if you have a coastal town, you have 180 degrees to go out. If you have an inland city, you can go out all the way around it. The Keys don’t have that.”
Everywhere he goes in the Keys, Laurent said, people talk about what happened to them during Irma and their living circumstances. “These are conversations that I don’t even have to initiate. I just hear them in line at the restaurants or coffee,” he said. “People deserve better. It’s not cheap to live and work down here, but we sure would like to make it cheaper.”