We still need that workforce

By Steve Estes

It’s looking more likely every day that in the very near future the largest single source of workforce housing on Big Pine Key may well disappear.

One group or another has been trying to tap into the pot of building allocations that is Seahorse Trailer Park on Big Pine Key for most of the last decade.

The plans have always been to take the building allocations, a scarce commodity in the Keys to start with, and move them to some prestigious waterfront development where a workforce is needed to maintain and service the users of that development.

The latest iteration is to move almost all of the building allocations at Seahorse, of which county officials believe there to be 130, to Stock Island as part of the redevelopment of that area into upscale transient residential units—otherwise known as vacation rentals—and to perhaps leave the fallow land of Seahorse behind for some non-profit to try and come in and pick up the pieces of the more than 100 lives that will be shattered when the deal closes and the owners walk the building allocations away.

We understand that Seahorse has in the past been a source of unsocial behavior from some of its residents, a some-time hot bed of petty crime, and generally an area where folks believed unsavory acts were the norm.

But buried behind all that public negativity is the very real issue that hundreds of members of the workforce for Big Pine Key and surrounding islands live in Seahorse Trailer Park with its affordable rents.

It’s highly unlikely the county will be either able or willing to stop the destruction of Seahorse in the coming months, so we would ask that our county officials turn their thoughts right now, today, to ways that the workforce housing represented by Seahorse, a workforce that serves many of the small, and large businesses, of the nearby Lower Keys area, can remain a part of our community.

We will never be able to bus in enough workers from the mainland to fill the jobs we have, and why would we want that salary money to go waltzing off to the mainland and benefit our local economy not even a little bit?

The land is privately owned, but in documents, the private owners have voiced an interest in perhaps turning the remaining land over to a local non-profit,or to the county to lease to a local non-profit, so that the affordable housing community that exists there today might survive into tomorrow.

Having workers to fill lower-wage-scale jobs is important to our local economy. But most of those workers can’t pay traditional rental prices in this area where land is scarce and housing at a premium. So the general workforce tends to gravitate to places like Seahorse where living isn’t easy, but possible.

The county is on the verge of agreeing that the developers on Stock Island can have 125 transient rental units from Seahorse to move to their Stock Island development.

Before that agreement is inked, our elected leadership needs to do everything in its power to try and get the land under Seahorse deeded back to the taxpayer, or to a non-profit housing entity such as Habitat for Humanity.

If they accomplish that, rip as many affordable housing allocations out of the pool of them sitting in the county’s virtual bank as necessary to ensure that every unit currently inhabited at Seahorse can remain while this transition takes place.

No one has applied for affordable housing allocations in a long time. After the market tanked, affordable allocations made no sense as market rate prices plummeted to levels akin to affordable pricing, which by the way was never really affordable anyway. Now that market rate prices are rising again, the need for affordable units—truly affordable, not formulaic affordable—becomes a hot button issue again that isn’t being addressed—again.

If it’s trailers that are the issue, a public/private partnership under the umbrella of a non-profit can put together a system that uses the rather extensive income of the property to slowly discard the storm-prone trailers and replace them with storm-resistant rental units.

It might take 10 years.

Who cares?

We will need the workforce that Seahorse represents in the near and long term.

We will need our leadership to fight for its continued survival.

It’s in our best interests.

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