December 20, 2017

BIG TORCH KEY — With the push to build affordable housing seemingly gaining momentum following Hurricane Irma, a family who considers the Florida Keys an extension of their home has committed $1 million to a new nonprofit designed to acquire land for workforce housing development.

Maggie Whitcomb and her family, who spend much of the year on Big Torch Key, were moved to act after the September storm upturned so many of their neighbors’ lives.

That’s according to Marianne Cusato, a home designer who, partnered with another group, tackled the intense affordable housing issues in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Now she’s helping the Whitcombs’ nonprofit, the Florida Keys Community Land Trust, manage the complexities involved with getting to the groundbreaking phase on new housing in both the short- and long-term.

“Our expertise is the design and implementation of replacement housing after disasters,” said Cusato, who indicated that a pilot program is tentatively scheduled for early next year. “We’d like to get something coming out of the ground as soon as possible.”

Cusato didn’t have many details on the pilot program, but says the nonprofit is in the midst of managing the regulatory hurdles involved with building in the Keys.

That process will likely take some time to work through. In the meantime, Cusato says that she has a vision to build “dignified and attainable homes” that fit into the Keys motif.

Before that vision is fulfilled, the nonprofit will have to manage the common problem of lack of buildable land and other well-known roadblocks.

“It’s a process,” Cusato said. “There’s good reason why it’s difficult to build (in the Keys), because there are evacuation issues and environmental issues, so we’re just working through understanding how to navigate that.”

The Whitcombs seem to have anticipated the complications involved with the provision of affordable housing and have sought out other experienced partners. One of those is the Florida Housing Coalition, whose mission is to “bring together housing advocates and resources so that all Floridians have a quality affordable home,” according to its website.

Florida Housing Coalition CEO Jaimie Ross says that the idea of a community land trust is to ensure the long-term affordability of housing in the highly competitive Keys real estate market.

“It is imperative that any housing intended to be affordable located in the Keys needs to have long-term or permanent assurances of affordability because the housing market runs from hot to hotter in the Keys,” Ross wrote in an email.

Ross also says that her group has been in the Keys to “assess how we can best help with recovery efforts.”

Another area Ross delves into is the potential sour taste left in the mouths of many after the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust went defunct after former executive director Norma Jean Sawyer was convicted of misappropriating over $100,000 in funding donated to build affordable housing in Key West in 2012.

“That’s unfortunate, as the problems with the BCCLT were not problems inherent in community land trusts,” Ross wrote.

Her organization explains that community land trust leases prohibit those who own homes on trust lands from selling them “to remove housing from the open market,” among a range of other provisions designed to keep housing on land trust property affordable perpetually.

Cusato’s experience with Hurricane Katrina gives her insight on similar problems in the Keys, the main one being the presence of the affordable housing problem that Hurricane Irma revealed, rather than caused. She believes the community land trust approach could be the best hope for providing housing sooner rather of later.

“When something so major happens, it really magnifies that there’s a major issue, and usually the people that can least afford it are disproportionately affected,” she said. “The damage the day after the storm highlights the issues that were there before the storm.”

As the new nonprofit continues to gather funding, locate buildable land and secure allocations, Cusato is unworried about the myriad obstacles that come with building affordable housing in the Keys.

“(We’re) looking for solutions for homes that were destroyed, but also looking at the big picture,” she said. “We haven’t seen any indication so far that it won’t be hugely successful.”

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com