Islamorada's first affordable housing

Housing on Iroquois Drive in Islamorada, after a 20-year deed restriction to ensure its affordability, can be rented or sold at market rate as the affordable restriction expires this year.

In 2000, Mark Gregg built Islamorada’s first three affordable houses in the Indian Waterways neighborhood on Plantation Key, which had a 20-year affordable deed restriction. This year, that deed restriction expires, allowing the homes to be sold or rented at market rates.

Before 2020, the Village of Islamorada limited the maximum household income of the occupants of each house so that lower-income residents had an affordable housing option, according to the restrictive covenant. Now, the three-bedroom, two-bath, 1,250-square-foot houses made of reinforced wood can sell or rent with no restrictions, at market value, which definitely will be higher than the $149,000 it cost to build each of them.

Councilman-elect Gregg said he only made a small profit when he built the Iroquois Drive houses, but he was motivated to build because he lived a couple houses down at the time. He hired builder Fred Snowman, who had constructed more than 250 homes in the village. Since then, Gregg tried to develop three other affordable housing projects in the village but was not successful.

It is difficult to build workforce/affordable housing in the village because the numbers don’t work, he said. It currently costs about $250 per square foot to build, in addition to land costs. If the land costs more than $30,000, a developer loses money, generally — and no lots are selling at that price any longer. Developers can try and get the land donated in exchange for affordable housing or come up with a plan that has construction efficiencies.

Gregg was close to the right numbers recently with a proposal on land he owns south of Hog Heaven on Windley Key near Mile Marker 85, but he would have had to sell transferable development rights to be able to invest the proceeds as a subsidy there. The long timeframe involved in making the plan happen likely will lead to his selling the property instead.

Gregg is more optimistic about the possibility of accessory dwelling units (ADU) as affordable housing. There is a 68-page booklet, https://pzw.522.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ADU-Guidebook.pdf, that describes what they are, how municipalities can make them happen and educate the public about them at the same time.

Because ADUs can be downstairs enclosures or standalone structures on a property, buy-in from neighbors and support from residents are key. Small issues can become big ones, such as parking space for additional inhabitants at a property, and thus Gregg feels it is necessary to design an ADU plan that fits the community, with which the booklet intends to help.

Gregg said tweaking what works in which neighborhoods is necessary. Gregg suggests, at minimum, the village start with addressing downstairs enclosures that are above the floodplain as a starting point. “It will give value to the property when the ADU is legitimized.” That is one benefit. Another benefit includes income to the homeowner through rent.

Gregg served on the village’s “achievable housing committee” and will vacate that appointment as he becomes a councilman Thursday, but the committee has tried to address that “entry-level” housing need that caters to, for example, a wage-earning couple that needs a modest place that is truly affordable, he said.

Since Islamorada’s regulations already allow a downstairs enclosure to have a stove, refrigerator and wet bar, Gregg said, the village is close to being able to offer affordable housing. However, the hurricane evacuation model throws a curveball at the prospect because it calculates people per unit, whereas two people per bedroom would be more accountable, he argued.

The state has determined that development in the Keys stops when 100% of the Keys population cannot evacuate in 24 hours when threatened by a hurricane. The state also determined the 24-hour evacuation requirement will be impossible to meet after 2023, and there will be no more new building permits issued in the Florida Keys after that date.

In his campaign website, Gregg suggested the severe lack of affordable housing in the village causes numerous economic and social problems.

While serving on the land planning agency for five years and the achievable housing committee, Gregg as one of the citizen appointees recommended the village council adopt an ordinance recognizing certain existing ground level enclosures as “accessory dwelling units,” a concept allowed under Florida law on any residentially-zoned property. The creation of newly-constructed ADUs also would be allowed.

Gregg’s website said, “An ordinance legalizing ADUs would go a long way toward keeping existing homeowners in place with extra income from rent while providing low-impact housing for our workforce without the need to develop or clear any vacant land. If I am elected, I’ll ask the new village council to begin the process to pass an ADU ordinance at our first council meeting.”

Because village staff encouraged the new council to proceed slowly at its first meeting, the timeline may adjust. Yet, the topic is moving along. On Monday, the Islamorada Achievable Housing Committee asked Islamorada residents via email for input on affordable housing. A 10-question survey asking for “a minute or two of your time” was sent by the village’s public information officer to gauge affordable housing needs, as well as possible means to increase affordable housing supply and perceived obstacles to providing affordable housing. The committee asks only those who live or work in the village complete the survey.

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