Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Community Housing

Several weeks ago I went to a day-long meeting arranged by and for the people in the Keys who are trying to organize community consensus behind getting more community (used to be called "affordable") housing. As a result of attending that forum, I've gotten on a mailing list that frequently sends out pertinent information on the topic. In addition, I'm getting Google Alerts on the topic "affordable housing Key West", and the number of alerts is increasing in frequency.

The problem is one that isn't unique to the Keys, but the causes are similar no matter where there is community recognition that the lack of affordable housing is having negative economic effects on those who earn their living from the sweat of their brow. There is a rampant boom in real estate being bought for investment rather than for shelter. The greater fool theory is in full swing in many parts of Florida, indeed in many parts of the nation.

I came across these interesting statistics in a recent article in the Palm Beach Post:

Markets with the highest percentage of homes sold to investors or vacation-home buyers through the first four months of 2005:

Rank Location, Percentage of market

1. Myrtle Beach, S.C. 70.2%
2. Naples 57.0%
3. Atlantic City-Cape May, N.J. 48.6%
4. Fort Myers-Cape Coral 48.4%
5. Punta Gorda 46.5%
13. Treasure Coast 34.9%
16. Palm Beach County 33.3%

National average 17.0%

In his book, "Living and Working in Paradise", Dr. William Hettinger, CEO of the Wyndham Financial Group says that "market failure" with regard to housing is the result of several factors, one of which is when more than 50% of the housing stock of a place consists of second homes owned by part-time residents. When that threshold is reached (or before it is reached), a community has to assess whether it constitutes a housing crisis requiring community intervention. Each community where such a condition exists must decide whether it wants to do anything to change the balance by allocating more resources to the housing needs of year-round residents. There are a variety of ways that this can be done, but many of them pit the community against developers who are continually pressing to build (and remodel) housing for the people described in the Palm Beach Post article.

Here in Bahama Village, we see the problem as a microcosm of the state and the country. Key West often gets missed in surveys like the one above because of its relatively small size, or simply because the community has no idea how big the problem is for here. I heard estimates between 30% and 50% for the percentage of homes that are owned by part-time residents who either let their residence lie empty for most of a year, or who rent it during the times that they are not here, either on a month-to-month basis, or to transient renters, usually illegally since transient rentals are supposed to be carefully controlled and limited to those who have valid licenses to conduct that kind of business.

We have a brouhaha developing here over whether the City will grant transient rental rights to Truman Annex property owners, a knee-jerk reaction (once again) to threats of legal action by those owners if they are not granted a right that was never supposed to be given to them. There was supposed to be a vote by the City Commission last Tuesday (cancelled by Rita) that would have opened up Truman Annex, and maybe other areas of the City, to transient rentals for less than six months out of a year, with conditions. The agreement smells bad to me. It's another TAMPOA agreement like the one concerning traffic on Southard St. Bad policy, bad negotiation, buckling under to the threats of a small minority to the detriment of the majority. I'm waiting to find out when the Commission meeting will be rescheduled, and I have to reread the materials attached to the ordinance, looking for the "gotchas" in it.

This Commission is nearing the end of its tenure, there are three lame ducks and two potential lame ducks on the the Commission, which will be elected to office on October 4. There's a real potential for significant changes on the Commission that may reverse the trend of paying more attention to those who want to gentrify the entire island (and parts of Stock Island, too) into a Nantucket, a Martha's Vineyard -- or into a Myrtle Beach.

It's a complex matter, no doubt. We who live here the year round are the ones who will control, or not control, the direction our home town takes. To do that intelligently requires that everyone who cares must understand what is at stake, what it will take to fix the problem, and which candidates to vote for to ensure that there is a community will to do it.

The information is out there. If you don't understand what the issues are and what effect they will have on you personally, find out from someone who does. Read the papers, visit the Key West Neighborhood Association web site, ask questions, decide, then vote. There's no other way. If we don't take care of ourselves, we're going to 'get taken care of'. The results will not be pretty.

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