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Florida Keys crisis: Help wanted but no place to house workers

Florida Keys crisis: Help wanted but no place to house workers

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In July, a guest of White Sands Inn on Grassy Key posted on Trip Adviser, “This place was so special I just had to tell the world about it.” Will Janice Stephens and daughter Rachel Price be able to bring their family-owned piece of paradise back?
Patricia Borns/USA Today Network

In Key West, Aida Fortner holds a second waitressing job besides her gig at Denny’s to afford a $2,600 rent split with a roommate. Currently they’re housing a third who’s looking for a place, while her boss Tim Berthiaume was interviewing three people Saturday to replace employees who left town after Hurricane Irma.(Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

KEY WEST, Fla. — Since arriving in the Florida Keys from Michigan, David Dodge had been sleeping in his van in the Kmart parking lot in Marathon — but not for long.  

Leaving home with next to nothing, doing odd jobs along the way, the construction worker filled his van with tools strewn by Hurricane Irma on the Overseas Highway. Now he was going to fetch another Irma roadside freebie — a camper.  

“There is work everywhere here, and a lack of people to do the work,” Dodge said. “I guess I can help them help me.”

As cleanup from the Category 4 hurricane segues into recovery, the Keys are reshuffling like a deck of cards. Out of money and homes, workers in growing numbers are leaving the islands, while businesses rebooting for tourist season hang out help wanted signs.  

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“Yes, there’s a lot of work,” said James Sullivan, a soft-spoken handyman living under a blue tarp outside his crushed green trailer in the Avenues on Big Pine Key. “It’s just a matter of a roof.”

While many workers are leaving the Keys because they lost housing, David Dodge from Michigan sees them as a land of opportunity. Dodge, a construction worker, worked his way south to Marathon doing odd jobs and picked up free tools strewn by Hurricane Irma on the side of the Overseas Highway. By Monday he had found a job. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

Sullivan has a girlfriend waiting for him in Seattle. He and three other handymen he knows who also lost trailers are leaving the Keys.

“There are a lot of retirement homes here, and they won’t find people to fix their doorknobs,” he said.

A cashier at the Tom Thumb service station in Marathon, Alicia Zielinski said her company is “hiring for everything, even the in-store Subways. A lot of people left, and a lot of people need jobs.”

One applicant apologized to Zielinksi for being dirty because she’s now homeless. “I told her, ‘I’m not worried about what you look like,’” the cashier said.    

In Marathon in the Florida Keys, a rental RV parked in the Kmart parking lot temporarily houses company employees who lost homes in Hurricane Irma while they try to find alternative housing. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

Too little, too late for many workers

Before Irma, Monroe County counted less than 900 affordable places to live for the people who directly or indirectly support the Keys’ roughly $2.2 billion tourism industry. Between flooded ground floor apartments and mangled trailer parks, the options are gone.

About 933 residents are staying in hotels through FEMA’s Transition Shelter Assistance program, the county reports. Marathon’s Hyatt Place last week was filled with residents, many of whom had camped in their cars waiting to get a room near their damaged homes.

The Red Cross is sheltering another 70 people at the Sea Base Boy Scout camp on  Summerland Key.

The first Keys family received a temporary trailer from FEMA last weekend out of 9,200 units the county requested. It will be months before a critical mass is available, a county website advised.

A Heritage Tours of America guide points out the Key West sights on a rainy Saturday; the day before the Keys officially opened its tourist season on October 1. The company founded by Edwin Swift, III continued to pay its 350 employees through Hurricane Irma. It is also the Keys’ largest affordable housing builder, providing for its staff. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

“It’s almost like a genocide of our workforce,” said Steve Henson, a Rockland Key site work contractor who offered 3 acres he has under agreement with Walmart as a staging area for the anticipated FEMA trailers.

Without the trailers, Henson estimates 50% of the working people in Key West, who live from Boca Chica to Duck Key — the Keys that took Irma’s blunt force trauma — need temporary, and eventually permanent, homes.

The only permanent solution may be leaving

It’s not the first time the islands have had to worry about losing workers.

When 1,000 of them left the Keys in two and a half years, a 2006 study interviewed those remaining to see what could be done to stem the tide. Three out of five workers who responded — about 8,000 people — said they had plans to leave within five years.

The biggest reason cited: “the cost of housing.”    

The 125-mile island necklace has little land to begin with. FEMA regulates how much can be built on Keys lands for hurricane evacuation reasons — right now, less than 3,000 county building permits for the next 10 years. Already over half the housing is seasonal or second homes.

A live-aboard floating home at city-controlled Garrison Bight Marina in Key West sustained more damage from Hurricane Irma than its neighbors. The live-aboard community of mostly workers and civilian military enjoy affordable dock rates that are lower than apartment rents. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

By 2015, the county reported a worker housing crisis, projecting a shortage of almost 7,000 affordable units. Key West Planning Director Donald Craig anticipated 6,500 more.

Such was the gap between need and available building rights that even before Irma, planners described “the futility of trying to build our way out of the crisis.”

“The Lower Keys have the greatest workforce housing shortage of any place in America except maybe San Francisco,” Historic Tours of America President Edwin Swift, III said. “This storm has exacerbated the situation.”

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wift is not only one of the island’s biggest employers with 350 people, or cast members, as Historic Tours staff are called; he’s also the biggest affordable housing builder with over 350 units for the cast and their families. “Our government has stood in the way of housing projects for the last 40 years,” he said. “I’ve never built a project I haven’t had to fight for.”

Beyond 300 affordable units already in the pipeline before Irma, county staff were too focused on sheltering people temporarily to answer if or how Monroe County will build back its workforce housing. 

Rachel Price points to a palm tree favored by honeymooning guests at family-owned White Sands Inn before Hurricane Irma. Where Price used to manage the inn for her mother Janice Stephens, she’s now seeking extra bartending hours to make the rent on a $1,000 a month efficiency apartment or risk losing it in the fierce post-Irma competition for an affordable place to live. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

Residents last year defeated a proposed apartment project that would have added 160 affordable homes on a former shrimp farm on Summerland Key.

“It was easy to say no before Irma,” said co-developer Claude Gardner, a partner at Berkshire Hathaway Knight and Gardner Realty. “Post-hurricane, there will be consequences.”

Gardner’s cohort Joe Walsh, who owns five Keys restaurants, is already feeling them, with 40 of his 300 employees now homeless. The partners are scaling down the project to try again.

In a tent camp on Summerland Key that looks like a scattering of Conestoga wagons, Red Cross Communications Director Lynn Levine compared the post-Irma scene to international disasters she’s served.

“The housing stock is sorely diminished now,” Levine said. “The expectation in the non-profit sector is that property builders won’t focus on affordable options. The word going around in the support and relief community is one of great concern.”

FEMA spokesman John Mills agreed, “A disaster can exacerbate an already difficult situation for different people. There’s a valid concern that the amount of remaining available rental properties in the hardest hit areas is limited.”

Swift predicted, “People will leave because they don’t have a place to live. I think you will see business close because they can’t get help.”

Sandal Factory store manager Mike Klimpl waves to a friend outside the back of the Marathon shop. Klimpl and a skeleton crew took out the molded carpet and linoleum of the entire store (shown) in order to open for business and give a few employees back their jobs. Some have left the islands. One is sharing a room with her mother, boyfriend and three dogs while waiting to see if she qualifies for transitional shelter assistance from FEMA. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

In the short term, businesses are responding to the county’s requests for help.

“The only way I can open today is that there are other properties that are not,” said Cliff Taylor of Spottswood Companies, the Keys’ only locally-owned, large flag hotel operator. “Their employees are coming to me.”

Through a handshake of Florida Lodging and Restaurant Association members, 700 residents in Islamorada and Marathon who need work will temporarily be taken into businesses that are open. Spottswood, which has four properties including Key West Marriott Beachside, employs 350, Taylor said.  

Gidgett Jackson, broker-owner of Realty Executives on Grassy Key, enlisted some of her short-term vacation home owners to rent rooms to displaced residents at reduced rates for 30 days.

Jackson also talked with trailer park owners, whose properties now look like boneyards, about letting people stay on their lots temporarily.    

Many park leases are written to expire if the trailer is destroyed.

“One owner I spoke with wants to make sure people in his park have a place to stay,” the broker said. “But ultimately, I have someone interested in buying the whole park. It makes more sense for him to sell it.”

She predicts a huge transition in the next three to six months as people realize staying in the Keys won’t be affordable when many of the parks rebuild.  

Miami-Dade Transit Wilfredo Rocha waits for passengers to board at the Kmart shopping plaza in Marathon for the return trip up the island chain to Florida City and Homestead on Saturday. The two mainland cities have lower housing costs than the Keys and a high immigrant population willing to commute up to two hours each way to work in island restaurants and hotels for $10 to $12 an hour. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

Survival of the fittest, financially

Meanwhile, those who can are hanging in as long as possible. Although tourist season doesn’t begin in earnest until January, employers who can are opening to serve the trickle of day trippers and save some of their employees.

They’re workers like Daire Perez, a house cleaner for Cudjoe vacation community Venture Out, who lost her trailer home and hasn’t worked since Irma; now staying with her son Luis at the Red Cross shelter, living off her credit card, hoping to work again soon.  

Like Keys Fisheries bartender Dustin Dornan, who evacuated to Ohio. After he and three friends lost the trailer they d on Cudjoe Key, they went in on a fifth-wheeler trailer and are headed back, confident of getting their old jobs back or finding new ones.  

“I’m 42, and it’s the first time in my life I’ve had a smile on my face every day,” Dornan said. “I’m absolutely determined to be there.”

And like Rachel Price, who until Irma managed family-owned White Sands Inn on Grassy Key and now can’t pay herself a salary.

Here where the ocean smashed the windows and roared through the ground floor motel rooms, pushing whole buildings several yards over the sand, Price was scrambling to get an extra shift at Wreck and Galley to make the rent on her $1,000 a month efficiency.

“The rent is due tomorrow, and I’m very concerned,” Price said, wearing a mask to remove furniture from the moldy rooms with her friends. “If I give up the apartment, I don’t think I could find another place that’s affordable any time in the near future.”

In lightly damaged Florida City and Homestead, workers who commute to hotel and retail jobs from Key Largo to Marathon still have their roofs, but they, too, have used up their rent reserves.  

“My economy, being positioned at the end of the turnpike, depends on the Keys,” Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace said. “One of the biggest effects, quietly under the radar, is that until businesses reopen, many of our people don’t have a job.”  

Daire Perez and 16-year-old son Luis a time-out laughter break from stressing about losing their trailer and Daire’s housecleaning job at Venture Out, a 600-plus manufactured home vacation rental property on Cudjoe Key, many of whose units suffered as much damage as theirs. Perez and her son are staying at a temporary Red Cross shelter at Sea Base boy scout camp on Summerland Key, living off her credit card while waiting for work to return. (Photo: Patricia Borns/USA Today Network)

That could soon resolve itself in their favor, however.

Since losing the room she rented in a house on Big Coppitt Key, Publix grocery store employee Gigi Gonzalez has been bunking at the Red Cross shelter while trying to get help from FEMA.  

Meanwhile, the Lakeland, Fla.-based supermarket chain, which is opening two new stores on Islamorada, is busing in workers from the mainland to Marathon; even reimbursing the workers’ commute times, Jackson said.

Although Gonzalez loves her Publix job and, before Irma, hoped to earn a promotion into management, “I’m willing to go anywhere to work,” she said.

In the Keys’ post-Irma housing shuffle, she might have to.

Follow Patricia Borns on Twitter @PatriciaBorns

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