Key West knows it faces a catastrophic housing challenge: Working people can’t afford to live in Key West. We’ve become an island of cruise-ship visitors, day-trippers, second-home owners, vacation renters and nicely-heeled retirees.
How much time do we have before there are no workers and few permanent residents to sustain the bloated tourism and vacation rental-investor economy that we’ve created?
Five kinds of people can afford to live in Key West.
1. The 1 percenters who need not concern themselves with a price tag;
2. The been-here-for-generations and live-in-my-great-great-grandmother’s cottage;
3. The bought-my-house-before-2003 and have one of the handful of good paying jobs on the island;
4. The sure-I-like-five-roommates–in-800-square-feet 20-somethings who sleep in shifts;
5. The wandering ones who sleep on the beach and under the pier, or live in a local storage unit.
Everyone else watches in stupefaction as housing costs on the six-square-mile island re-tread the heady days of 2006 when 200 percent price increases didn’t raise an eyebrow before they tumbled into the abyss in 2008 and didn’t recover for seven years. Today, we’ve got listing prices rivaling 2006.
Two things happen when home prices tickle heaven’s gate. Investors gobble up houses and toss them into the vacation rental pool. And, regular folks – the working middle class – can neither buy nor rent a place to live.
Here’s what we’ve got: Hundreds of former family homes rented to snowbirds for three or four months, which then sit vacant or rarely used for the rest of the year. What most certainly would have been long-term rentals for the island’s working families are no longer accessible.
On the first of February, there were fewer than 300 rental listings in the Key West-Stock Island area. A handful listed for under $1800 a month; most were $2,000-plus. About a third of the listings were clearly seasonal vacation rentals and carried price tags of $4,500 to $10,000 a month. Yes, you read that right.
Consider it this way. The per capita income in Key West is right around $31,000. Median household income (2.56 people in a household) is about $54,000. We are wealthier than most places in Florida and the United States. That’s good, right?
Sure, until we start doing some long division. Let’s generously assume a household can afford to spend 40 percent of its income on rent. They can’t, but we’ll assume they’re willing to eat canned green beans and forgo a cell phone.
Forty percent of $54,000 is $21,600. Divide that by 12 and we get $1,800 a month to spend on rent.
Remember what I said about not much listed for under $1,800? In Key West, the definition of affordable housing rents is about $2,450.
Whether we call it “affordable” housing or “workforce housing,” the island’s firefighters, teachers, cops, small business owners and retail and entertainment workers can’t afford to live here. There are no affordable places to rent and local salaries don’t support the buy-in for a home purchase.
One piece of the solution may be found in the city-sponsored, March 15 referendum asking Key West voters to approve the purchase of Peary Court for $55 million, a plan the city says will preserve 157 units of existing workforce housing. If I were predicting today the outcome in March, I’d say the referendum would fail.
And if it does? Look for a private developer to push ahead with luxury homes and rentals.
Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband and four cats live in a single family home in Key West. Had they not bought it during the Great Recession, they would still be living in Rockford, IL, and shoveling snow.