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Miami Herald - 7/5/03

Housing crunch making life tough in Keys

Lack of affordable housing hits workers from all sectors

By David Ovalle

KEY WEST - When Mary Givens moved here in 1981, finding a home she could afford was not a problem, even for her, a bartender making $2.05 an hour plus tips. In fact, the city sported many dilapidated buildings no one wanted to fix up for fear of increasing property taxes.

Today, those same buildings are worth a fortune, affordable housing is scarce and Givens, who has a teenage son with a learning disability, earns slightly more than she did 22 years ago: $4 an hour plus tips.

''I love it here,'' said Givens, who waitresses and tends bar at Alice's at La Te Da on Duval Street. ``But I probably won't be here much longer. In 22 years, I've gone backward.''


Givens is one of many Key West workers struggling to make ends meet in a city where the real-estate prices rival those in New York and San Francisco. The island's increasing lack of affordable housing has hit workers from all sectors, from teachers to motel workers.

But the problem is most visible at Key West's restaurants and bars, where workers often toil mostly for tips. The booming real-estate market has forced many to take in more roommates, commute from other islands in the Keys or simply pack up and leave.

When Givens split from her husband last year, the high housing prices forced her and her son to crash with a friend in Key West. In April, she moved into one of the island's few low-income housing units.

She pays $400 a month plus utilities. She earns, she says, maybe $250 a week.

During the slow summer months, when meal prices are often fixed to attract waning tourist dollars, fewer tips means Givens sometimes earns only about $12 a day.

Her son, Sam Givens, is 14 years old, six feet tall and outgrows his clothes quickly. He loves fishing; all the charter boat operators know him by name.

Sam also has a learning disability and requires special schooling.

''Somebody's got to work here, and we can't afford it,'' Givens said. ``It's beautiful here, but to leave, I'll probably need $3,000 just for a moving truck. It's a quandary.''

Key West's growing appeal as a tourist destination has attracted a wealth of rich buyers who have snapped up properties. But no one wants to build affordable housing when land is such a hot commodity, said Key West City Commissioner Merili McCoy.

''Everybody wants to be the last one over the bridge,'' McCoy said. ``You have an island that really is paradise, and it's getting a little crowded.''


Key West's land boom is undeniable. A decade ago, Monroe County appraised all of Key West's properties at $1.5 billion. Today, according to Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley, it is $4 billion.

Across Monroe County, where much of the environmentally sensitive land is protected by the government, real-estate prices have skyrocketed. Many old trailer-home parks are being forced out in favor of luxury residential units.

The dark side of the boom has trickled down to Key West's service-industry workers, who rely on a dwindling stock of rentals. Many of those pricey homes used to be rented to five or six people. Now their owners have turned them into single-family vacation homes.

Unlike other cities -- such as Miami Beach -- that also rely heavily on tourist dollars, Key West cannot house its service-industry workers in cheaper areas. For example, many Miami Beach workers live in places such as Kendall or Hialeah. That kind of land simply does not exist in Key West, and cramped one-bedroom apartments can easily rent for at least $1,000 a month.

All that translates into headaches for bar and restaurant employees and employers alike.

''We really have become a culinary destination,'' said Weekley, the mayor. ``This is our livelihood.''

Property taxes for Key West business owners are rising, which will further hamper their ability to pay higher wages.

Some business owners fear the quality of service will suffer, because the job-candidate pools are smaller. It's difficult to find help that wants to work days because the shift makes less money than nights.

''It's dramatically getting worse. I'm starting cooks with no experience at $16 to $17 an hour,'' said Bart Hofford, part-owner of Alice's at La Te Da and executive director of the Key West Restaurant & Bar Association.

Right now, La Te Da isn't fully staffed and it isn't unusual to see Hofford cooking or waiting tables.

Of course, the logistics of running a business don't always matter to employees just trying to keep a roof over their heads.

At Key West Seafood on Duval Street, bartender Brian McDermott laughs at the island's concept of affordable housing.

Last year, the raspy-voiced McDermott divorced his wife and was forced to look for his own place in Key West. Scouring the classifieds and the Internet yielded nothing ''affordable,'' he said, and McDermott didn't want roommates.

So he found a small one-bedroom apartment in Cudjoe Key, 23 miles up U.S. 1. He pays $550 a month. The place is small, but he lives alone.

The trade-off is tough. McDermott spends about $200 on gas each month. The nearest grocery store is seven miles away. All his buddies live in Key West.

McDermott works six days a week. At least one day he pulls a double shift. If he's lucky, he earns $700 a week.

''I hate the drive every day,'' McDermott said. ``But I've got to work all these shifts just to meet the bills.''


City and county officials say that while about 100 new units of affordable housing are scheduled to open on the island's north side next year, there is no magic solution. There are, however, ways to juggle resources on an eight-square-mile island.

The city has talked with Miami-Dade County about extending public bus service past Marathon Key to encourage workers from the neighboring county, Weekley said.

Key West officials have also urged the city's business owners to use upstairs spaces as ''accessory'' units -- living spaces that can be rented out.

Hofford, of the restaurant and business association, said some owners have considered buying property to offer subsidized housing for employees.

One idea that fizzled: buying an old cruise ship, anchoring it off Key West and using it to house workers, Hofford said.

Still, despite the lack of affordable housing, many workers are willing to work that extra shift or share an efficiency to enjoy Key West's lifestyle.

Many restaurant workers work at night but enjoy the island's water activities by day. Some are artists or writers. Others come to enjoy the city's vibrant gay community.

''It's not easy to save money here,'' said Lise Desgauer, an avid diver who tends bar at Rick's Tree Bar on Duval Street. ``But you have to pay a price for paradise.''