Census data may be off track here

By Steve Estes

Browsing through the census materials for 2010 in the local area, we are hard pressed not to cry foul for the statistics in this area.

According to the 2010 census, Big Pine Key lost nearly 800 folks in population from 2000.

That’s not a number we have a hard time believing. With the mass exoduses we experienced following the real estate market crash in 2008, no one has a hard time hanging their hat on a population loss.

The numbers we have a hard time swallowing are the ones that say we lost nearly 300 housing units in that 10-year span.

There was a building moratorium on single-family residential units on Big Pine Key for the early part of that decade due to a lousy level of service on US 1. That was lifted. And homes began to crop up again.

Residential expansion will never be quick on Big Pine Key with the massive number of restrictions on this island by the federal and state governments…enforced of course by the county government…but the trend had been steadily upward based on anecdotal evidence at least.

Some older mobile units have come down. But for every one that has come down, a newer modular or site-built unit has been erected to take its place. A couple of inner-island mobile home parks were concerted to modular units with less density, such as the park that was replaced by Habitat Landing and the small park replaced with single-family units in the Sands Subdivision area.

But that doesn’t account for a loss of 300 units.

If Big Pine had indeed suffered a loss of 300 housing units in 10 years, we wouldn’t be as close to the maximum hurricane evacuation clearance time as we are today, and trying to get buildable land off the books wouldn’t be the issue it has become.

Our guess is that the census takers, most of whom were from parts elsewhere, were unable to find many of the small back roads on the island and just wrote them off as not there.

That also affected the population numbers.

In 2010 there were more unoccupied homes on Big Pine Key than there are today. The economy was more sluggish and dozens of homes were in foreclosure or on the brink of being so. Owners had just walked away from the unaffordable mortgages.

But those unoccupied units still count as housing units because eventually, as they have been, they will fill back up with a new generation of Piners anxious to call the island home.

What this tells us is that the supervision of the census takers in this area was probably very lax and if they reported no unit at that address, even if it was the wrong address, no further check was ever made.

That’s not fair to the area, nor does it give us great faith in any data that is spewed out based on the 2010 census numbers.

Overall, Monroe County lost population. The high percentage of still-vacant homes from the crash can lend credence to that number. What we fail to understand, however, is how the vacant units weren’t counted as housing units. Even if no one is home, the structure still stands.

Population loss can also be explained by the Keys’ ever-increasing transition from permanent residents to part-time resident. Many of those part-timers were counted as full-timers elsewhere and thus couldn’t be counted as one of us.

But they are part of our functional population in season, and any services must be geared toward servicing the entire functional population, whatever the month on the calendar.

And even vacant housing units require police and fire protection.

We have no suggestions on how to correct what we feel is an erroneous census count of housing units, not just on Big Pine Key, but throughout the Keys.

We can attribute part of the shortage to liveaboard boaters, many of whom we have heard weren’t contacted in any fashion during the census count. We can also attribute part of the shortage to a crew of census takers that knew far too little about the area they were supposed to canvass.

The liveaboards in the equation are issues with every census and quite possibly become moot if they’re similar each time.

But missing housing units begins to concern those of us who wonder where all those structures went that were here 10 years ago.

We haven’t seen them trucked out of the Keys. We haven’t watched them burn to the ground.

It’s a question that begs an adequate answer.

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