Can workers afford to live in the Keys? More struggle to make it, a new report says

A man fishes next to the Southernmost Point Buoy damaged by Hurricane Irma, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Key West.
A man fishes next to the Southernmost Point Buoy damaged by Hurricane Irma, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, in Key West. AP File

Beyond the shimmering waters of the Florida Keys, where luxury hotels are reopening and snowbirds own second or third homes, there is a hidden side to the island chain that tourists don’t clearly see.

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Poverty courses through the Keys at a troubling rate, a new report shows. A large number of people from Key Largo to Key West may not fall below the poverty line, but they still can’t make ends meet.

The waitresses, store clerks, hotel housekeepers are hurting.

More than 40 percent of Keys residents can’t afford basic living expenses such as food, healthcare, housing, transportation and child care, according to the United Way of the Florida Keys’ 2018 Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed report or ALICE. The report zeroes in on households that earn more than the federal poverty line but less than the basic cost of living for the county.

The high cost of housing is the hardest cost to bear, as it accounted for 44 percent of a single person’s monthly budget at $999. A tiny one-bedroom apartment in Key West can go for $2,000 a month, while an efficiency or a room in a house can rent for $1,500.

Robert Phillips looks at his neighbor’s house on Williams Street in Key West, a tree crushed the house as Hurricane Irma passed over the island on September 10, 2017. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Across Florida, 46 percent of households face similar financial challenges, compared to Monroe’s 42 percent. More than half of Florida Keys families with children fall into either the ALICE category or live below the federal poverty line.

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Monroe County once again had the highest “survival budget,” which for a single person is $27,192 a year and $68,916 for a family of four with two young children.

Tricia Becker, 40, doesn’t fall into the ALICE report’s working poor category — only because she puts in between 80 and 100 hours a week as a certified nursing assistant. She often works overnight to afford her monthly rent of $2,700, plus utilities, for a two-bedroom home, and pay the bills that come with being a single mother.

“That’s what I’ve got to do to survive,” said Becker, who earns between $16 and $18 an hour caring for the elderly and the ill in their homes. “I love it down here. I don’t want to leave but it’s crazy.”

Becker doesn’t get days off, she gets hours. She is in the process of moving to a smaller place owned by a friend.

It’s not in Key West but on Geiger Key, about 11 miles north off U.S. 1. She’ll pay $1,300 a month, but the one-bedroom apartment has no kitchen. She’ll put up a divider in the living room to make space for her son, Mark, 18, who is leaving this summer to enter the Navy.

“I won’ t have to work so much,” she said. “Sixty to 70 hours a week.”

The age-old “if you can’t afford to live there, then move,” argument lacks insight into the consequences that would happen if the working poor left the Keys, nonprofit leaders say.

“It’s something that’s been hidden in our community,” said Stephanie Kaple, executive director of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, which offers shelter and limited permanent housing for families and people with special needs.

“Some of these households provide necessary roles for us. These are the people who stock the shelves, who check us out at the grocery store. These are public works employees who take care of our streets. These are essential services.”

Kaple credits the United Way of the Florida Keys with shedding light on an issue often overlooked.

Stock Island, a slice of unincorporated Monroe just north of Key West, has the highest percentage of combined ALICE and poverty-level families at 63 percent. The lowest percentage was North Key Largo at 22 percent, home to the upscale Ocean Reef Club.

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Although the numbers are slightly better than the prior year, Monroe County’s “survival budget” is still the highest in Florida at $27,192 for a single adult and $68,916 for a family of four with two young children.

The figures represent the bare minimum that is estimated to be needed to survive financially, and do not include any assets or savings. The “stability budget” was $42,228 for a single adult and $119,628 for the two adult, two young children household.

“This is the person delivering your mail, the person teaching your children their ABCs, the person drawing your blood at the doctor’s office,” said Leah Stockton, president and CEO of the United Way of the Florida Keys. “We all have to work together to address these many challenges in the community. It can’t be something nonprofits can do alone.”

Solutions, she said, include providing more affordable housing and also urging employers to pay higher wages. In Florida, 67 percent of jobs pay less than $20 hourly, yet $27 per hour is needed to cover the basics costs of living.

What isn’t addressed in the so-called ALICE report: the fallout after Hurricane Irma slammed the Keys in September 2017, wiping out or severely damaging some 3,000 homes.

Since Irma, the Keys population has dropped by about 4 percent, according to a September report from the University of Florida. Many people left ahead of the storm and never came back.

Becker, a Connecticut native, was renting a three-bedroom trailer for $1,100 a month on Stock Island before Irma struck. She evacuated, staying in a hotel for six months, and came home to find her place ruined and looted of everything, down to the toaster oven. She started over with what she had packed into her car and wound up paying more than double for a new place.

“Nobody wanted to rent to me because I have a single income,” Becker said.

Michelle Coldiron.jpg
Michelle Coldiron

Monroe County Commissioner Michelle Coldiron, who represents the Middle Keys city of Marathon down to the Lower Keys island of Big Pine Key, says she expects the number of people struggling in the Keys to continue to rise in the wake of Irma.

“If they go down, it would be because people moved away,” Coldiron said. “The cost of living in the Keys continues to be expensive.”

Coldiron said that being able to afford to live in the archipelago is just one challenge facing those struggling to make a go of it in the Keys. For many, there’s just not that much to do in the Keys outside of Keys West unless you have a boat and have enough money to take it out on a regular basis.

After all, one of the top questions tourists ask when they visit is, “Where’s the beach?” With a few exceptions in Marathon, Islamorada and Key West, the answer is, there aren’t many conventional sandy beaches in the Keys. “Having a workforce house is just one aspect,” she said.

“We also need to address activities available for families and people, both young and old, for example, our parks and recreation and our beaches.”

A street scene in Key West during the annual Poker Run. Miami Herald File

But when that workforce starts to leave, will others move down to take those jobs? “Housing’s too expensive so people have left,” said Kaple of the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition. “Gas is more expensive. Groceries are more expensive. A lot of people are saying, I just can’t do it and there’s not necessarily someone coming in to fill their spot.” Other areas of the state with tourist-dependent economies are also feeling the pinch.

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In Central Florida, home to Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and SeaWorld, 46 percent of families are “living on the verge of financial disaster,” according to the 2018 ALICE report from Heartland Florida United Way, which covers Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.

In the Orlando region, where most of the major theme parks are located, 16 percent of the 468,515 households living there survive at the federal poverty level.

More than 30 percent, however, are in better shape, but “live in constant fear of financial ruin,” according to the report. Directly to the north of the Keys, in Miami-Dade County, the situation is more dire, according to the United Way.

Of the 880,766 households, almost 20 percent are living at the poverty level, and 40 percent are barely keeping their heads above water.

Officials in the Keys, however, don’t take comfort that the current ALICE report shows the Keys doing slightly better than their neighbors, and they say once the post-Irma data is collected, the picture will likely be more grim for Monroe County.

Mike Forster Grand Marshal
Islamorada Village Councilman Mike Forster.

“I believe that the new version when it comes out and included 2017 and 2018 numbers, it is going to be worse than this. We lost so much affordable housing in trailer parks alone,” said Islamorada Village Councilman Mike Forster

The storm destroyed the side-by-side mobile home communities of Sea Breeze Resort and San Pedro RV Park and Resort on the ocean side of U.S. 1 at mile marker 87. The company that owns Sun Communities, plans to rebuild with newer mobile homes that meet flood and windstorm standards, but as of November, the company was still in the approval process with the Village of Islamorada.

Jim Hoekstra, vice president of sales for Sun, said he hopes to rebuild by the middle of the year “as long as we continue on the path we are on.”

The problem for working- and middle-class people living in the Keys seems to grow every time there is a major hurricane. After the Keys suffered through back-to-back hurricanes Rita and Wilma, the U.S. Census figures show the population shrunk from almost 80,000 people to just over 73,000.

At the same time, save for the great recession in 2008, property values have gone up.

“Every storm we have, the redevelopment seems to increase the value of property and pushes out affordable housing and almost the entire middle class,” Forster said. “People pay prices that are just incredible to live here.”

In the meantime, Forster said the village, a four-island, 18-mile incorporated community in the Upper Keys, is down 144 units of what is considered affordable housing, mostly mobile homes and downstairs enclosures.

“We don’t recover them as fast as we lose them,” he said.

Judy Hull, president of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, agreed that life in the Keys has gotten harder for residents in Irma’s wake, but she sees some promising developments on the horizon.

“I believe residents are struggling even more since Irma than before,” Hull said. “But on a positive note, we have a wide variety of job openings, and I believe the salaries are increasing.”

However, she said providing housing for those who would take those jobs is an issue officials haven’t thoroughly sussed out.

“I think everyone is aware of what the problem is,” Hull said. “It is just not something you can wave a magic wand and fix immediately.”

The village government is in the process of building more projects designated as affordable housing. Over the past year, more homes geared toward lower-income families have been built, or are in the planning stages, than have been built in the past seven years, Forster said.

The village has bought several parcels of unused land and donated them to non-profits like Habitat for Humanity of the Upper Keys to build neighborhoods for people like restaurant and hotel workers, firefighters, police officers and teachers.

Most recently, Monroe County’s Land Authority gave the village $1.5 million to buy a property on Windley Key where Habitat is building a 16-unit community. Islamorada put in $300,000 for the project, Forster said.

However, Forster, who owns several businesses, including the popular Mangrove Mike’s Cafe, said lack of places for working people and families to live is just part of the problem. Businesses still need to pay liveable wages, he said.

“You can build all the affordable housing in the world, but you also have to pay affordable wages,” Forster said. “We have to do our part to maintain a middle class.”

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