Every time I round the entrance to Key West’s Truman Waterfront Park I hear echoes of the decades-long kerfuffle that accompanied every step and misstep toward getting the park built.
I don’t know why I hoped building the Lofts at Bahama Village on the remaining 3.2 acres of the park would go smoother. It hasn’t, of course, and periodically there’s a robust outburst of frustrated outrage or generalized confusion that gets a breathless social media post along the lines of “the sky is falling” and then things quiet down and I forget about the 3.2.
On Sept. 14, the City of Key West broke ground for the workforce housing project that will include 98 rental apartments and 28 owner-occupied townhomes. Designed to create a path to homeownership, first for Bahama Village residents and then other residents of Key West, the 3.2 project does good for the community.
When completed late in 2024 or thereabouts, the significantly-below-market-rate units will become the flagship for workforce housing in Old Town. Before then, the complicated process stands a good chance of looking akin to a litter of cats in need of a wrangler.
It’ll look like herding cats. Some days it may seem like herding cats. But it won’t BE herding cats because behind the public-facing headlines and meetings, the people resolving the complicated, often conflicting, city, county, state and federal rules for using public money for housing actually know what they’re doing.
Here are the people who will ensure the 3.2 gets built
Good thing the city has an experienced cat wrangler in housing project manager Tina Burns. AH Monroe and The Vestcor Companies out of Jacksonville are skilled, experienced affordable workplace housing developers. They understand the rental market and they know how to pull project construction funding together. Habitat for Humanity of Key West and the Lower Keys has the home ownership side down to a science.
The Monroe County Comprehensive Plan Land Authority (now there’s a mouthful) brings the political clout to facilitate a statute language change at the state level so that land authority funds can be used to significantly reduce the cost of purchasing one of the townhomes without owners having to requalify annually.
Having homeowners requalify annually is a deal-breaker. Having the city “hold the mortgages” isn’t viable. Ignoring the requalification language would land everyone in, if not real jail, at least in ethics court. Forcing Vestcor to eat the cost is bad for business and akin to the city pulling a bait-and-switch on the company. (Vestcor has said it would help by lowering some prices if the language can’t be changed, but we can’t expect them to build for free.)
The land authority acquires land throughout Monroe County to protect environmentally sensitive areas and it acquires other properties to be used for affordable housing. The authority’s funding comes from state grants and from various taxes and fees mostly affecting visitors to the Keys. Key West gets a nice chunk of those funds and it long planned to use the land authority money to offset the price of the 28 ownership units.
Until, oops, everyone realized that while, sure, the money could be used for that purpose, the homeowner would have to requalify financially every year — and if they exceeded the income limitations, they’d be forced to sell and move. That was most definitely not what anyone wanted.
Imagine, dear homeowner, that every year your mortgage company told you you’d have to sell and move — even though you’d paid every mortgage payment, every insurance payment, every homeowners association fee — unless you could prove your income hadn’t increased except by a jot and tittle.
No one wanted that; it’s counterproductive to the reason for buying a home rather than renting. By the way, as they have had to do for time out of mind, renters whose rents are offset by public funding have to re-up annually to prove they still qualify for taxpayer-assisted housing. That’s a whole different thing from owning a 3.2 townhouse.
Next up on the major hurdle list will be qualifying potential homeowners whose finances are already stretched; who assuredly won’t have the customary 20 percent down payment the banks will ask for; whose monthly income won’t stretch far enough to cover homeowner association fees, insurances, upkeep and all the things that go into owning a home.
That’s where the partnership between the city and Habitat for Humanity slides in to take care of business. The partnership is already holding workshops around town to work with potential owners to get their financing and finances in order and their understanding of what it takes to own a home. It’s one thing to be able to cover a monthly mortgage; it is another thing to handle the legion of costs and responsibilities as a homeowner. (Or at least it was for me when I switched from renting to owning.)
The 3.2 will be built. It can, I hope, become a bulwark between the historic Black and Bahamian neighborhood residents and the inexorable gentrification that has priced the grandchildren of Bahama Village out of their neighborhood. It can extend a hand up to dozens of Key West’s teachers, local business entrepreneurs, firefighters, cops and professionals.
It’s complicated. There’s handwringing and breathless “what where they thinking” to come. But the people doing the 3.2 work know their stuff. I’m not naive so, sure, I’ll keep checking in, but I am also going to trust them to do the right things.