We could all use a breather following a 2017 that saw the Florida Keys battered by the Category 4 Hurricane Irma on Sept. 10. We’d like to enter 2018 with hope.
There wasn’t much of that in the initial days following the storm, which wrecked much of the Lower Keys and, to a lesser extent, the Middle Keys and Islamorada. For many who remain homeless or in substandard housing because of Irma, there still isn’t much hope.
But each day is generally better than the day before, and tomorrow should be better than today. What 2018 presents us out of necessity is the opportunity to tackle our housing problem. We had a severe lack of affordable housing pre-Irma and now that problem is so much more dire. It escapes no community in the Florida Keys, not Islamorada, not Marathon, not Key West.
The lack of solid affordable housing in the Florida Keys affects not only those who have nowhere to go and are still couch-surfing but also the businesses that need staff. There are “help wanted” signs posted on businesses up and down the island chain because many people just up and moved out after the storm. It’s because they simply were left with nowhere to live, their job disappeared among the hurricane rubble or they decided they just weren’t going to risk being here for another hurricane when the next one hits.
And there will be a next one, and one after that, and one after that. It may be a while (the last major hurricane to affect the Keys before Irma was Wilma in 2005) but it will happen.
To our elected officials — those in the unincorporated areas, those in municipalities, those in the state Legislature — we say do not squander this moment, this singular moment when all agree that we must finally talk the talk on affordable housing and not just use talk of doing so as campaign fodder.
Hard choices must be made. Should allowable density per acre be increased and if so, how much? Should we take a new look at zoning laws? Should we, perhaps, even consider raising the allowable heights of buildings? There are so many related issues, such as environmental impacts and the effects on an already-clogged main road.
There is no easy way to make this island chain a place where housing can be obtained without having to spend half or more of your paycheck on it. But we are now in that moment where it must be done. Without housing there is no one to work at the stores, restaurants, hotels, anywhere. And without business, our tourism-based economy will die. And then more will move out and before you know it, the Florida Keys are just one 120-mile-long vacation home for the wealthy but minus any infrastructure.
If Irma didn’t kick us in the collective butt to finally take action, nothing will.