Data from the 2020 census showed that Monroe County experienced a population increase of about 14% during the past 10 years, bringing the total number of Keys residents to 82,874. That growth was somewhat more pronounced in the Upper Keys.

Of the roughly 10,000 residents added to the county, the region that gained the most was the Upper Keys, growing from 19,976 people in 2010 to 23,631 in 2020. That broke a few decades worth of population loss and surpassed the region’s previous population high of 22,056 in 1990.

The City of Key West’s population grew to 26,444 after a few decades of remaining stagnant at around 25,000. In census data, Key West is lumped into a county subdivision containing the city, all of Stock Island and Big Coppitt Key. That subdivision as a whole also grew from 32,405 residents a decade ago to 35,444 in 2020.

Two other county subdivisions, the Middle Keys, containing Duck Key, Key Colony Beach, Marathon and Layton; and the Lower Keys, consisting of the area of Big Pine and Cudjoe Key, grew at a slower pace. Each added  about 1,500 residents during the last 10 years.

Data showed that much of the county’s diversity is located in the Key West subdivision. It contained 3,868 of the county’s 4,807 Black residents and 740 of the county’s 1,170 Asian residents. Of the 12,477 Keys  residents who consider themselves two or more races, 5,313 were located in Key West’s area and another 4,030 were in the Upper Keys. Key West contained 8,971 of the county’s 19,432 Hispanic residents, with another 5,705 residing in the Upper Keys.

Monroe County Commissioner Holly Raschein, who represents the Upper Keys in the county government, said she was surprised to see the jump in growth, especially with Hurricane Irma causing so much devastation in 2017. She pointed out that the timing of the 2020 census may contribute to some skewing of the data given the impact of the coronavirus.

“Part of me thinks that if you did the census six to 12 months later, you would have seen less growth as we lost a lot of locals during the heart of the pandemic, but we probably also gained some who fled the cities and can work from home, so it may be a wash,” she said.

The Upper Keys’ growth was also a bit of a surprise to Islamorada Councilman Mark Gregg, who said he’d also expected a bit of a depopulation effect after Irma. But he said there had been a lot of new construction in the area since 2010, which would imply an increase.

Those city-fleers who Raschein spoke of have caused a noticeable effect on the demographics of the Keys.

“Now with COVID, people discovered they can work from anywhere,” Gregg said. “Rather than be up north in the cold,” they would come to the Keys.

“Islamorada got discovered,” Gregg added. “It kept getting more and more desirable.”

Gregg said that desirability comes with a caveat, though, in the form of Islamorada and the Keys as a whole becoming more and more expensive and less populated by full-time residents and more by second home-owners and tourists. Gregg said in Islamorada, less than half of the homes are owner-occupied. In some Monroe County municipalities, that number is even lower.

Census data showed that in 2020, the Keys had 53,961 available units of housing, but 17,525, or 32%, were considered “vacant,” one of the highest rates for any county in the state. For example, Miami-Dade County had a vacancy rate of about 10%.

The Census Bureau defines a unit as occupied “if a person or group of persons is living in it at the time of the interview or if the occupants are only temporarily absent, as for example, on vacation. The persons living in the unit must consider it their usual place of residence or have no usual place of residence elsewhere.”

Almost a third of the housing units in Monroe County are considered “vacant” by the census. The Upper Keys has the greatest percentage of vacant units, with 7,666 out of 18,376 available units. Additionally, new housing in the Keys has slowed since the ‘90s. From 1990 to 2000, the total number of housing units rose from 46,215 to 51,617. But the county has only gained about 1,200 units in each of the following decades since.

The type of person who is buying in the Keys has also changed. Amidst a mass buying surge, Brian Schmitt, founder of Coldwell Banker Schmitt Real Estate Company, estimated earlier this year that about 70% of the new home buyers in the Keys were intending to use them as second or third homes.

“In the last 20 years, Islamorada has gone from being a sleepy island village to a highly desirable destination resort,” Gregg said.

That’s caused the village’s economy to become highly dependent on tourism. Gregg said 20 years ago, there was a larger component of sport and commercial fishing, as well as goods and services. It’s also made it so there are fewer and fewer places for working-class people to live.

“It was kind of a regular small town. Now everything has a heavy weight toward tourism,” Gregg said.

Gregg said many of the homes that were once on the lower end of the price spectrum, that working-class people could afford, have been bought up and upgraded, often into luxurious second homes.

“Some people use the word ‘gentrified,’” he said. “(It’s) gotten out of control and out of reach for ordinary working people.”

Kurt Lewin, a member of the county’s Affordable Housing Advisory Committee, said the Keys’ housing issue is “an incredibly difficult question.”

“Affordable housing isn’t very unique or new in the Keys, but it’s been especially magnified in the last 25 years,” he said.

Lewin said remedies to the problem are hard to come by, but points out that the county and cities within it have been working to provide workforce housing since the 1940s and that Key West is currently building some new workforce housing projects. He said that people who make middle-class wages in the Keys oftentimes leave when it comes time to buy a home and start a family, seeing that there are more affordable options in other states.

“You have to love the atmosphere around here and love the ocean to stay because there are better opportunities outside the county,” he said.

Many people who work in the tourism industry in the Upper and Middle Keys now live in mainland Florida. Gregg said that shouldn’t have to be the case, and that allowing housing access to more people would help with traffic and community relations in the Keys.

“Folks who come in on a bus everyday don’t have that sense of belonging that someone who lives here would,” he said. “I would really like to see that come back because it’s gone.”