The Land Scarcity Chess Board – Part 1

chess-217701__340There’s a finite amount of land in the Florida Keys.  Very little of that can be developed.  And there aren’t enough available permits to go around even for what can be developed.  Real estate is in high demand.  At the same time, the workforce is struggling to hang on.  Pressure is intense.  Competition is intense.  Politics are intense, especially in the secretive, cut-throat political world of the Keys.

Well-meaning people focus on different aspects of the land-scarcity issue:  keeping housing affordable for the locals, preserving habitat, controlling growth, protecting property rights, preserving quality of life.  While these issues are debated, the politicians will do what suits them.  And that rarely has anything to do with what is best for the Keys community.  Citizens have to be vigilant unless they want to see their tax dollars and their ROGO’s poof away into the sky.

It’s hard to know what to think when any individual issue comes up.  So I think it would be useful to try to zoom out and take in the big picture.  In this series of posts I’ll be looking at the whole chess board, if you will.  What are the issues?  Who are the players?  How do they interact?  Local government officials have characterized the affordable housing situation as a “crisis”.  Yet they’ve made decisions that don’t line up with what a reasonable person might do to resolve this “crisis”.

The original Peary Court purchase was clearly outlandish, and thankfully Key West voters slapped it down.  But the second Peary Court proposal went through – $12.5 million to “preserve” some unspecified number “affordable” housing units.  The definition of “affordable” includes monthly rents up to $2,700 per month apparently.  Keep in mind, the city could have built 125 units for $12.5 million.  But there’s a “crisis” on, and our government officials use this to justify throwing gobs of money at a situation before anyone has a chance to ask any questions.

Next up is Sunset Marina, also in Key West.  The City approved a redevelopment project.  Problem is that project will wind up displacing about fifty live-aboards.  The project itself will yield about seven “affordable” units.  If the goal is affordable housing – truly affordable housing – it seems they’re moving in the wrong direction.  Its been pointed out that the live-aboards weren’t allowed by code.  Fair enough, but what would it take to bring them up to code?  If affordable housing is truly the “crisis” politicians say it is then why not try to preserve it in the form of live-aboards?  Why displace the live-aboards without providing some sort of alternative?  In a “crisis” situation shouldn’t all possible solutions be on the table?

Meanwhile, there’s the Florida Keys “Stewardship” Act (FKSA).  When the FKSA was first proposed, it included a provision that allowed the infrastructure sales tax to be used to purchase land that would reduce hurricane evacuation times.  At this point in time, hurricane evacuation is the main limit on run-away development.  So how did that provision find its way into this “environmental” bill?

The FKSA discussion prompted me to submit a public records request.  You see, Rep. Raschein mentioned a “plan” for land purchases that would prioritize conservation land.  The county responded by saying there is no plan.  Yup, they threw Rep. Raschein under the bus.  Stay classy, Monroe County.  They finally did send documents my way, and those documents do clearly state that purchasing Tier 1 land is the highest priority.  But there are few specifics.  As always, we’ll have to watchdog whether the county actually follows this “plan”.  I suspect that since “affordable” housing is a “crisis” and conservation land is not, this “plan” will fade away.  It outlived its usefulness as soon as the FKSA was passed.

The FKSA also allows infrastructure sales tax money to be used to settle property rights claims arising from the Keys’ designation as an Area of Critical State Concern.  Will the county handle all this in a smart, strategic way?  Or will they use it as a mechanism to throw taxpayer money at well-connected associates?  We already know the answer.  Once again, citizens will have to keep their eyes open.

There’s only a finite amount of land.  There’s only a finite amount of taxpayer money.  So what should the priorities be?  Luxury condos or Key deer habitat?  Affordable housing or market rate housing?  And who gets to decide?  Will these issues be managed in a comprehensive, strategic way?  Or will they somehow evolve in a way that just so happens to favor the usual suspects at the expense of the Keys-wide community?

We know a few things already.

  1.  It costs about $100,000 to $150,000 to build a unit of affordable housing.  Here’s an analysis of an affordable housing project in Key Largo.  Here’s one for several projects in Key West.  So when a government entity is willing to spend $350,000 per unit to “preserve” and/or build “affordable” housing, it doesn’t pass the sanity test.
  2. When elected officials are finishing the sentences of developers seeking approval for a new project, that certainly looks unseemly.  Can’t help but wonder what’s happening behind the scenes.  We know it’s certainly not good.
  3. We know that the affordable housing issue affects the entire Keys community from Key Largo to Key West.  Census data supports that observable reality.  The county’s own report supports it.  (See page 12.)  So when politicians and their cronies claim that the problem is concentrated in one area, we know they are lying.  Their own documents prove they are lying.  They are simply looking for a way to funnel scarce resources to one of their own.  It happened with wastewater.  It’s still happening with wastewater.  It will happen with affordable housing, too.
  4. We know that recently approved developments do little to relieve the housing crunch experienced by low-income workers.  The very people for whom the problem is most acute.  The very people for whom the housing crunch really is a crisis – no scare quotes needed.

There’s lots of work to do here.  Let me start with the income brackets as defined in Monroe County code.  The code references Housing and Urban Development’s median household income calculation.  You can search for Monroe County here.  I can’t link directly to the calculation for Monroe but I saved it here.  According to the code, the Planning Department is supposed to put together a table of these allowable limits.  Strangely enough, I can’t find this table anywhere on the county’s site or within the affordable housing report.  Maybe it’s me?

I put a table together below, which I’ll use for now.  When I am able to scrape together the patience and fortitude needed, I will submit a public records request and get my hands on the real one – assuming it exists.

HUD Incomes

Speaking of Monroe County’s report, that was prepared by a consultant called the FCRC Consensus Center.  These are the same people who the iPhone Bandit wanted to use to resolve the wastewater funding disparity issue.  Since I had zero desire to put Key Largo’s financial interests into the hands of a kangaroo court hand-picked by the iPhone Bandit, I refused to participate.  Besides, the wastewater funding disparity issue is a matter of numbers and facts.  You reach a consensus on simple math by pulling out a calculator – no  pricey consultant needed.

Needless to say, I read over FCRC’s report with a good dose of skepticism.  There’s a whole lot of filler, but I have to say that the table they assembled on page 12 is useful.  Not only that, I was able to trace back the numbers they used to the 2015 ALICE report and the 2012 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates.  So the numbers aren’t made-up junk – a refreshing change from the county’s usual approach.

The task is to make sure the county uses the numbers to provide affordable housing where it is needed and to those who need it, rather than squandering tax money any old way they want – using the affordable housing “crisis” to justify it.  We saw from the wastewater projects, how badly off-track the BOCC can go.  I’d love to prevent that from happening again when it comes to affordable housing or any other issue.

It’s not just money either.  Building permits are in limited supply – so if the county is serious about this affordable housing “crisis” then they need to approve new development accordingly.  I believe the affordable housing “crisis” is real, but I suspect it is also being used as a smoke screen to justify ridiculous spending (Peary Court) and approval of new developments that better meet the needs of a few well-connected developers than the Keys-wide community.

I took the table from page 12, computed the number of ALICE households in each area and sorted it.  Here’s what I came up with.

ALICE Households

While Key West tends to be in the spotlight on the affordable housing issue, it turns out that the Upper Keys have nearly the same number of ALICE households.  I don’t want people to lose sight of this fact.  When it came to the wastewater issue, the Cudjoe Regional project was treated as an urgent “crisis” as well.  Nothing else could be done until Cudjoe Regional was under control.  Funding equity would have to wait.  Four years later, we’re still waiting and lo and behold there’s a brand new crisis to deal with.

Needless to say, Cudjoe Regional was negligently mismanaged from start to finish.  It’s disastrously over budget – $49 million and counting.  It’s absolutely hated by the residents, to the extent that multiple lawsuits have been filed.  Important information about the project was withheld until the decisions had already been made – forcing citizens to play catch up.

Even the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority (FKAA), the county’s supposed “partner” and the lucky recipient of over $125 million in taxpayer money, is embarrassed by the project.  So much so, that an FKAA staffer gave a presentation about what a joke it is.  In fact, that presentation rightfully pinned much of the blame on the BOCC.  Affordable housing has some eerie similarities.  It’s being flogged as a dire emergency that requires immediate and costly measures.  So urgent that people barely have time to ask questions before the deals are done.

The BOCC failed to address wastewater in a fair and cost-effective manner.  They will almost certainly fail to address the affordable housing issue in a fair and cost-effective manner.  It’s up to the citizens to watch closely and call them on their crap.  The Upper Keys, once again, needs to be especially vigilant.  Even if Robby Majeska beats chronically ineffective Sylvia Murphy in the Republican primary, he’s only one commissioner and he’s going to need all the support he can get from his District 5 constituents.  The good news is he’s willing to listen, and definitely willing to work.

This post was all about getting the information on the table and there is lots of it.  The BOCC will be discussing the Affordable Housing Committee’s recommendations at the August 17 meeting.  To me, these recommendations look very sensible and they clarify the issues.  One wonders why it took a committee to come up with some of them.  Nothing raised any red flags on my first read through.  At this point, it appears to be a good faith effort.  Will the BOCC follow those recommendations?  Or will they throw them out the window and do whatever they wanted to do in the first place?  That’s what we have to watch.  A lot of times, the participatory process is just window dressing so the BOCC can claim adequate public input when the project inevitably goes sour due to their mismanagement.

Commissioners Murphy and Carruthers are the liaisons to the Affordable Housing Committee.  It will be interesting, given their track records, to see where this goes.  Murphy, of course, has repeatedly failed to act in good faith when it comes to representing her constituents in District 5.  If she refuses to represent her own district honestly and effectively, how can she be counted on to represent anyone else honestly and effectively?  In January, Carruthers tried to impose a tax that would have placed an inordinate financial burden on low-moderate income locals, especially renters.  Now she’s expressing concern about affordable housing?  Hmmm…that’s quite a contrast.  Her position certainly seems to have evolved in a major way in the past few months.  Maybe I should ask her about that on her Facebook page.  (By the way, Carruthers disabled commenting and deleted existing comments.  Apparently she’s not looking for feedback.)

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4 Responses to The Land Scarcity Chess Board – Part 1

  1. Again:

    Housing prices are supply & demand. We need more supply. Doesn’t matter how we get it, but it cannot be just one way. Manuel Castillo at the Housing Authority keeps saying we need to address the problem on multiple levels.

    • More units (of ANY kind) lower the price. How can you expect to build units that won’t be available for years for certain parts of the current demand? You don’t, you just build MORE units and the market will adjust.

    • Use the ROGOs to build more units. You might be able to gently steer them to a lower price point, but too much of that makes them unprofitable and developers & the capital go elsewhere. You just build MORE units and the market will adjust.

    • Lots of government programs will help funnel cash into the market for development. HUD programs like HOME, CBDG, etc., will help, somewhat. You just build MORE units and the market will adjust.

    • Slum and blight units don’t need ROGOs to be developed. INCENTIVIZE the property owner to make them usable or charge them out the ass to keep them fallow. They’ll put them on the market pronto. You just build MORE units and the market will adjust.

    • Give tax breaks to developers to make units like you want/need them. You just build MORE units and the market will adjust.

    • Raise the minimum wage to help at the other end. People can’t afford cause they don’t make enough. Help them make enough.

    This ain’t rocket science, but we keep fussing over it like it is…

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    • M_Blank says:

      I agree that there are many, many ways to address the situation. The Keys aren’t the first community to face this problem. Some of the Affordable Housing Committee suggestions are pretty sensible – so sensible I wonder why the county wasn’t doing it already. And so are yours. My worry is that no meaningful action will be taken. The “crisis” will just be used as an excuse to squander money and/or approve questionable development projects. I’m gathering up all the information I can. That way when the politicians start making their bogus claims, I’ll be ready to run some sanity checks.

      It’s like with the wastewater projects. Those were needed and necessary and certainly not rocket science. But the county completely mismanaged them and squandered a ton of money. The FKAA, the contractors and subs made out like bandits, but the taxpayers took a bath. Don’t want to see that happen again.

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      • Developers try to make money. That’s their business. It’s why they do what they do. Bitching and moaning over every nickel they make just tells them to go elsewhere, and they will. A hostile environment will chase developers away faster than anything. Sometimes, they’ll get a little windfall; sometimes they will lose money. It’s risky, and they accept a certain amount of risk.

        But if we continue to chase them away, we will continue to have low supply, and the prices will never come down.

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      • M_Blank says:

        I started my career working for a developer. People need places to live and places to shop. Developers aren’t automatically evil. Development projects aren’t automatically bad. Balance is the key. But can our local officials be trusted to strike a fair and reasonable balance? They have identified an affordable housing “crisis” but will they follow through with logical action to resolve the “crisis”? State law was recently changed to allow local tax money to be used toward land for “affordable” housing and settling property rights claims. Not a bad thing in and of itself. But will the BOCC act wisely? Or will they blow it like they did with wastewater? I’m 100% sure they’re going to blow it. All indications are they’re going to steam ahead with their incompetence and/or corruption. Hence the watchdogging. The BOCC has no problem doing wrong, but they sure hate getting caught at it.

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