The Key West Mystique

Key West Island News

 

Key West Island News connects Key West residents and friends of the island, fosters our One Human Family culture and advances understanding of shared goals for our island community

What real people say about living in Key West

Living in Key West gets tougher for residents — and visitors

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

02/16/2022

I touched a nerve with last week’s column about living in Key West.

“Key West is a lovely renovation,” I wrote, “with a spiderweb of salt spalling as its foundation. Beneath the Key West mystique of our white picket fences, manicured lots, art galleries, restaurants, theater venues and water sports lies a particularly ugly truth. Real people cannot live in Key West anymore.

Dozens of Key West locals, snowbirds and visitors shared their stories online and social media. These weren’t angry screeds filled with political invective, finger-pointing or clueless entitlement. They were, instead, heart-breakingly personal, capturing a resigned acceptance of why things changed; an understanding that, yes, change was inevitable; and ending with a dusting of that Key West magic that reminds us we love this island, warts and all.

I wonder sometimes if the island’s political and economic leadership hears much from people without commas and titles after their names. Those folks (I call them Comma People) can always get the ear of an elected or appointed leader. Comma People have political and economic clout; they run businesses, organizations, boards and such. In the absence of the clout that comes with an actual title, they know how to stir up things on social media, organize for a cause or lead a grassroots effort.

That’s no criticism of Comma People. I’ve pretty much always had a comma and a title after my name. Comma People get things done. They are the “they” we’re always asking to lead us, do something, fix something. You know, “they” ought to do such-and-so. Comma People talk to other Comma People. A lot.

Sometimes that becomes an echo chamber where the voices of regular folks don’t hold much sway. They likely don’t hear much from long-time visitors who silently stop coming to Key West because they can no longer afford it. It’s unlikely they hear directly from hundreds of workers who are losing their apartments, but they most certainly do hear from potential new hires who turn down job offers because there’s no where to live — affordable or otherwise. Even though I’ll bet many Comma People know how bad things are, they are perplexed over solutions, if, indeed, there are solutions — other than wait to crash and burn, a la 1970s, and then re-build.

Comma People, elected officials, chambers, guilds, real estate and business owners — and, yes, columnists — have to work hard to hear the voices of regular people. That’s why the responses to last week’s column are worth a listening.

Living in Key West, say locals and visitors, is tough

I’ll share a few to make this point: Unless Key West crafts and executes a vision for its future that centers wholly on rebuilding the island’s middle class; retaining and supporting the people who make things and make things run; and insisting that the island’s families and permanent residents are the cornerstones of our quality of life, we can kiss farewell the pretense we are a One Human Family paradise where all are welcome, except the jerks.

So sadly true and it gets to me all the time. Our children grew up there, 6 of our grandkids are Conchs. We were part of the machine that kept great service moving forward in KW and the Lower Keys. We fly our Conch Republic flag in our front yard, but none of us live there anymore.”

“It has been a marvelous life. I am a real person. One of the adventurous hippies who hitchhiked to the end of the road in 1972. The gas station map I carried carefully folded in my pocket did not include Key West. … As a Hemingway fan I knew Key West was at the end of the road. In the late ’70s every hippy and his brother put on a tool belt and remodeled our way out of affordable housing. … Learning to adapt to change allowed myself to enjoy 50 good years of prosperity on the Island I love and loves me. As it has been it will be. Affordable housing is all that will save the next generation of adventurous dreamers.

As a conch family, with generations buried in the local graveyard and my whole life here, we have to leave kw. There’s no potential for security anymore. The only other average conchs my age I know who are planning to stay have housing assistance. They can only stay because of govt assistance that I’ll never qualify for. And the number of homes available to people with housing assistance is very limited. The only others I know that can stay are inheritors. Kids who’s parents owned nice homes or businesses on Duval etc and they were blessed with the hand me downs.
Thing is we have way too many tourists on average here now and nobody will be here to serve them. And beyond the frivolous ways of serving them, (drinks, food and clean rooms) what of the safety and community? Nurses, teachers, cops.. None of them qualify for the affordable housing income restrictions. They never fit the bracket, but they barely make enough to pay market rents. Without a properly staffed hospital, how is it safe to host thousands of tourists? We always say “well now who’s going to clean your rooms??” as if only housecleaning are being run out of town. But no, it’s the entire foundation of what makes a city run, and it’s crumbling, rapidly.

Just moved to Key West in the last few years and I already know. I have no chance to stay long term. I’m a nurse… I work 2 jobs and I’m getting too old to do this for long. Looking for where I might be able to settle and in the meantime enjoying and building relationships with those in Key West that are not the elite.

“Having watched what has happened to hotel room rates, a trip to KW has definitely become a luxury. As someone who loves Key West, I find myself relying on the creativity and flexibility of the real people. Seems like after the current ride ends, there will once again be a crash and hard times. Hoping that the next revival is quick and more for real people than just the rich. Until then, my island getaways will be Marathon or other more affordable destinations with maybe a day trip to KW.”

My first visit was 20+ years ago, like so many others, I fell in-love with this little, beautiful Island called, Key West. My husband and I have traveled to KW, yearly, ever since, sometimes two or three visits a year. I love the Island much more than my husband. He simply says, when I beg and plead to move there, “I can’t live where I’d have to struggle for money”. As prices began to rise, I stopped bringing up the subject. I now know it will never happen. I narrowed my visits to twice a year, Pride week in June and I do The Smart Ride in November. I canceled June, this year. It breaks my heart but, I refuse to pay so much for a nightly bed and bathroom. At first, I wanted to live there because of the warm breezes, the high energy and the beautiful tropical landscapes. After meeting and friending many locals, they became the reason I wanted to live there. Some are imports, some born and raised on the Island. But, they are all one thing, real, loving people. I worry about them constantly. I couldn’t imagine rent going from $3,000 a month to over $7,000 a month! To inflict such stress and hardship on another person, out of greed, is just wrong. My friends have made a life on that island, they have planted deep roots. I will miss carrying the Pride flag down Duval. I will miss that feeling of excitement as the plane lands in paradise. I’ll continue to visit as much as I can until the day my friends are no longer there to welcome me to their Island.

Not everyone shares my concerns about the hollowing out of Key West’s middle class. One commenter called me a “Debbie Downer” and another suggested anyone who worked hard and built up a portfolio could easily live in Key West.

I remain optimistic. If we heed the voices of those determined to hold Key West together, we will find a good place without first having to crash and burn.

7 Comments

  1. James O'Bryan

    The comma people don’t seem to realize (or they don’t care, which is a scary thought) that our entire way of life (theirs too) depends upon a thriving middle class. What you are writing about is happening all over the US. My family and I first came to Key West about 10 years ago. We have been back a few times with family and friends. I dabble in rental properties, and have wondered since I first visited Key West, how the working class could possibly afford to live there. I was kind just checking in because a group of us are looking to book a trip in 2023. Good luck to us all!

    Reply
  2. Louise

    I appreciated reading your column. My husband and I have been living in Key West for several years, lured here by a job offer for him working as a designer in a small local architecture firm. We are both working professionals with master’s degrees (I work in mental health) and despite the fact that we both make good salaries (at least they’d be good anywhere else) we have been saving up for a home since before we even moved here and it seems impossible to save up enough to buy anything. All we want to do is put down roots and use the insane amount of money we pay for rent towards a mortgage, yet during COVID and the rapid buying up of houses for second homes and tourist rentals, being outbid for houses as far away as big pine, our savings are still no match for the price of buying a home here, especially when you’re competing with people who willingly spend $1 million to tear the home down and build a brand new one. You make excellent points about how viable the key west and lower keys remains when there are no professionals to staff the day to day important jobs that have nothing to do with tourism. It’s disappointing how little political will there seems to be to set forth any kind of limitation on the damage being done to the year round residents by taking away our housing options. I commend the city in creating affordable housing (though obviously a lot more is needed), but what about pathways to stability for the middle class, also known traditionally as home ownership? Nothing makes me more upset than to see houses that sit empty all year round save for a month or two in winter, or when I see my neighbors forced to move out and find myself surrounded by tourist rentals when I used to know the people who lived on my block and would bring them thanksgiving dinner and drop care packages at their door when they were sick. What key west is doing isn’t sustainable; there is an employee shortage here that is at this point permanent. And you can’t afford to run a restaurant or hotel or hospital if there aren’t enough staff to perform the services they need to generate revenue to keep the doors open. This is a problem affecting everyone that doesn’t already own a home and in my opinion is rooted in the avarice of the wealthy landowning class who don’t give a damn about community, just how much money the people who actually work hard in this community can fork over just to have a roof over their heads. Rent control, tougher enforcement of occupancy and temporary rental laws, programs that incentivize locals to buy homes with down payment assistance, encouraging density, requiring secondary structures that can be rented out to locals whenever someone builds a brand new home – please start doing SOMETHING to make the keys an affordable place for hardworking professional people to settle and strengthen the community. Last time I checked tourists who are here for a weekend really don’t care if there are enough teachers or nurses or police officers, yet everything in this community seems oriented towards making them happy even if it means screwing over your locals and losing your workforce.

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      So heartbreakingly accurate. I wish it weren’t. Thank you for sharing.

      Reply
      • mandy

        This is sadly not unique to Key West. It is happening all over the country (although I imagine the situation in Key West is more extreme). I currently live in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is virtually impossible to secure workers in many fields because housing is so short and home prices have escalated to a ridiculous level. Any home in my part of the city listed for under 1 million dollars in reasonable condition is typically selling in hours. Like many, I have enjoyed years of vacations in Key West, I would imagine the steep rises in prices is also impacting the demographic of visitors.

        Reply
  3. Kim Vigen

    Ok, I must say something. Your column last week really got me thinking..a lot. You made me feel guilty about purchasing a home in Key West and I didn’t like that feeling.
    We bought a beautiful home 4 years ago to escape the cold North Dakota winters. We searched the Caribbean and Florida before finally deciding on lovely Key West and have had no regrets.
    We love the beautiful restaurants, fun bars and all the activities to enjoy on the island. Our adult children and Grandchildren love it as well. We do not live there all winter as my husband is not fully retired yet but, when we are there we Live.
    How about a little appreciation to those who come and spend the money, tip the service workers and take out the fishing charters and sunset sails. Key West is a tourist destination unlike any other in America and I’m so glad I live there.

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Oh, Kim, my apologies on any guilt. Never my intention; I encourage you to read some of my other columns. As I’ve written before, your path here is so very similar to many of us who live on and love the island. Indeed, Ranger Ed and I made similar choices in 2008 and we are grateful we were able to do so. Still… We can love the island and be concerned about its future as well.

      Reply
  4. Gina Nordyke

    Thank you. My husband and I were to retire in KW. But the pandemic happened and prices went well as we all know, higher. So, after a 15 year goal, we have decided to move more in the southern area of Florida. It was heartbreaking, but we just cannot afford the new price of houses. We will have to visit like we do now. You are very lucky, to be a local, cherish it.

    Reply

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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