“Micro-unit” apartments could be solution to Key West housing crisis

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

With Hurricane Irma shining a disastrous spotlight on the lack of affordable workforce housing in Key West and Monroe County as a whole, city officials are working with the state to develop a pilot program that if approved could install “micro-unit” apartments on city-owned property.

Key West City Attorney Shawn Smith said he met with city and state officials recently to discuss new funding strategies for creating affordable housing in the Florida Keys. Smith said he and Assistant City Manager Greg Veliz spoke with representatives from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation and the state Department of Economic Opportunity to address the urgent need for worker housing. While the lack of affordable housing in the region is not a new problem, hundreds of Monroe County residents were left homeless by Hurricane Irma. In Key West, many business owners are facing worse-than-normal employee shortages just when the winter tourist season is beginning.

Smith said the meeting with state officials focused on using state tax credit financing to build micro-units, small apartments usually ranging from 200 to 400 square feet, on city and county-owned property.

“I can say without hesitation it was the most productive meetings I have ever had with a group of governmental entities from Tallahassee,” Smith told city commissioners at their Nov. 8 meeting. “We’re working on a funding strategy that hasn’t been done before.”

Smith said he and Key West Planning Director Patrick Wright are helping develop a plan that would allow the city to access tax credit financing it hasn’t had access to before, specifically to build affordable housing using the micro-unit concept. A developer would be granted a state tax credit for building low-income housing, allowing him or her to reduce their corporate taxes equal to a percentage of the cost of the development. Sometimes that credit is then sold to a group of investors in return for development capital for the project.

The idea of building small apartments aimed at single professionals has taken off around the country. In Miami, three new apartment buildings that include a large number of micro-units are slated to break ground in 2018. And the concept has taken off in western United States, Smith said.

“They [Florida state officials] think it might be something in our tourism-based environment with very limited land resources that could be an efficient measure to address some of our problems,” he said.

Key West City Commissioner Sam Kaufman said that the majority of the requests for housing made to the Housing Authority of the City of Key West are for one-bedroom apartments, indicating that smaller units are needed more than larger, multiple-bedroom units aimed at families. Kaufman was the author of a resolution that passed at the commission’s Nov. 8 meeting directing city staff to identify all government-owned property within Key West that could potentially be developed into affordable housing. The measure passed unanimously and City Manager Jim Scholl will report back at the Dec. 5 commission meeting.

“Everything changed with this storm [Hurricane Irma]. We really need to prioritize this and come up with more locations,” said Mayor Craig Cates.

“We haven’t added any new affordable housing units in the past two years,” Kaufman said, adding, “It’s frustrating for some of us.”

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley asked that a special workshop session be scheduled to focus specifically on creating a game plan to address the urgent need for new workforce housing. Scholl said he will schedule the meeting and ask that the city housing and land authorities attend, as well.

“We really need to come together with one vision and one voice on how to get to where we want to be,” Weekley said.