May 9, 2018

ISLAMORADA — Village Council members welcomed news of a state proposal to loosen limits on workforce-housing developments in the Florida Keys, but have questions.

Under the plan announced by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity on May 2, Islamorada could apply for up to 300 building allocations for new workforce-housing units, state Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, outlined at the May 3 council meeting.

“I don’t go anywhere where people don’t want to talk to me about workforce housing,” Raschein said. “We probably have the most unique situation in Florida, if not all the United States, when it comes to housing.”

Moderate-income workers had trouble finding affordable Keys housing before Hurricane Irma, she said. “Irma obviously exacerbated the situation. … The state heard our cry and said here’s our offer.”

Overall, Monroe County could receive 1,300 workforce-housing building allocations, if the Florida Cabinet approves a revision of the Keys’ Area of Critical State Concern rules that limit building units keeping a 24-hour hurricane evacuation time.

Each Monroe municipality would be eligible for 300 allocations.

“The workforce housing thing is going to be interesting,” Councilman Jim Mooney said. “Obviously we don’t have room [for 300 units]. There may have to be some changes for it to work.”

Council members Deb Gillis and Mike Forster asked about potential time limits on the village’s allocation, or whether the county and other Keys cities could seek a portion of Islamorada’s allotment.

Even with the allocations, developers likely would need additional financial incentives to build rent-restricted housing, Councilwoman Cheryl Meads said. 

“It’s so expensive to build here. … It’s hard to make the numbers work,” she said.

Under the proposal, residents of the additional housing would pledge to evacuate 48 hours before an expected hurricane strike, in order to preserve the Keys’ current 24-hour evacuation time.

The Florida Cabinet is scheduled to meet Tuesday, May 15, to discuss the proposal. 

Some of the housing allocations would be drawn from other parts of state-mandated Rate of Growth Ordinance that governs the Keys, such as transient units, the state representative said

During her appearance before the council last week, Raschein said the Florida Legislature’s 2018 session that ended in early March approved $248 million in restoration money toward Everglades restoration, which includes “a big chunk of money to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee, which seems to be behind of lot of issues we’re having down here with Florida Bay.”

The state’s $88.7 billion budget also includes $1 million toward lionfish-eradication efforts. 

“The state finally recognized these little creatures and the plague they are having on our water,” Raschein said.

Islamorada’s lobbyists and Raschein said legislators were able to block much of “an unprecedented attack on home rule” that could have allowed state officials to override locally approved regulations.

“We’re not out of the crosshairs yet,” Joseph Salzverg, an attorney representing Islamorada, said. 

The next legislative session will take place under a new governor and Florida Cabinet so “there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the state’s going to look like,” Salzverg said.

Raschein said she plans to continue trying to keep the state from overturning Keys rules on issues like vacation rentals.