Commissioners reject Bight affordable housing project




Historical preservation won out over affordable housing when the Key West City Commission, sitting as the Caroline Street Corridor and Bahama Village Community Redevelopment Agency, rejected a proposal to build four affordable workforce housing apartments at the Key West Bight.

Literally only two hours after they had argued strenuously at their regular meeting for the need to fast-track affordable housing developments in the city, commissioners voted 4-3 against a proposal to build four workforce housing apartments on top of 907 Caroline St., a city-owned building at the Key West Bight that needs extensive repairs because of its age and failing condition. City officials and the Key West Bight Board agree the building needs to be demolished and Port and Marine Services Director Doug Bradshaw presented a plan that would have added a second story to the new building where the apartments would be located. The first floor would continue to be used for commercial rental. The one-story building currently houses a retail store and the KWB maintenance shop.

The cost of the apartments would add an estimated $1 million-$1.5 million to the $1 million cost to rebuild the structure, Bradshaw said. Apartment tenants would be allowed to earn a maximum of 80 percent of the median household income, which is set at $54,306.

“The City of Key West has a shortage of affordable workforce housing and the city commission has made one of their priorities addressing this shortage,” Bradshaw said, outlining the housing proposal.

But commissioners sided with the Bight Board, which said 907 Caroline St. was not the place to put affordable housing because of its location within the historic seaport. The housing project would only break-even on costs, Bradshaw said, and the Bight Board’s mission is, in addition to preserving the historic nature of the area, to maximize revenue from tenants renting property in the popular city-owned marina area.

“They’re in business at the Bight to make money and to make businesses down there. If you look at what we’re going to get out of this [workforce apartments], more than likely, in the long run, it’s going to be a break-even,” Bradshaw said.

But commissioners were more worried about building a new structure in an area known for its “funkiness,” according to Commissioner Jimmy Weekley. Putting a second story on 907 Caroline St. would be like adding a second floor to Key West’s oldest house on Duval Street, he said.

And Mayor Craig Cates said he would “hate” to see the building torn down. Although 907 Caroline St., built in 1955, is not old enough to earn historical designation, it is located within an historic district, he said.

“Yes, affordable housing is very important but we just can’t build it everywhere, either,” he said. “That’s our business district there. That’s historic. We want to keep it historic. That’s what people come to see down there, the old buildings.”

But Bradshaw said it may not be possible to repair the building. Under city code, if the cost of repair is at least 50 percent of the assessed value of the building, the property must be brought up to current building code. That would trigger expensive flood control measures, which might cost more than demolishing and rebuilding the structure he said.

Commissioner Sam Kaufman expressed dismay that the commission was rejecting an opportunity to build new affordable housing that only two hours before it had been pressing for.

“There’s always going to be a reason not to build affordable housing,” he said. “I just have a concern we’re sending the wrong message again” by not taking advantage of a realistic proposal to quickly add to the city’s workforce housing stockpile.