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Florida Officials Struggling To Find Affordable Housing For Locals Months After Hurricane Irma


In the Florida Keys, a shortage of affordable housing has become a crisis after Hurricane Irma. More than 27,000 homes were damaged or destroyed by Irma's high winds and storm surge. A lot of those were mobile homes or trailers. And NPR's Greg Allen reports that this is having an impact on the service and tourist economy in the Keys.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: The Driftwood Trailer Park in Tavernier is a rarity now in the Florida Keys. It's one of the few trailer parks left on the ocean side of the Overseas Highway - the road that runs from the mainland to Key West. When Hurricane Irma blew through the Florida Keys, a 4 to 5 foot storm surge flooded thousands of properties, including mobile homes in the Driftwood.

TODD SABIN: Yeah, all the ones in the water are gone now. There were - there were RVs all in there.

ALLEN: Yeah. How many do you think are gone now?

SABIN: I think they lost 15 units in here out of - I think there were 33 or 35, something like that.

ALLEN: Todd Sabin has lived in the Driftwood Trailer Park for decades. He's retired now. He and his wife are lucky. When they returned after Irma, their mobile home was intact. Most others weren't as fortunate. Some received enough damage that their mobile homes are slated for demolition. For many like Sabin, this is a second home.

SABIN: But there's also working people that live in here, and they got no place else to go because the housing costs down here are so high. Hey, Jimmy. How are you doing?

ALLEN: Sabin's longtime neighbor Jimmy Aurelio has stopped by. He's moving out. He owns his own business - a towing company. He's staying with a friend for now but says he's looking for a new place to live in the Keys.

JIMMY AURELIO: They're hard to find, but you can get a halfway nice motorhome and then put it on a lot - a campgrounds or - it's going to be a thousand dollars wherever you go. It's going to be a thousand or better, so...

ALLEN: That's a motorhome with wheels, one that can be moved when there's an evacuation order. Following Hurricane Irma, mobile homes installed on a lot, the kind Aurelio used to live in, are becoming an endangered species in the Florida Keys.

STEVE MILLER: The reason I brought you here is because this is where I used to live, these vacant lots right here.

ALLEN: Steve Miller has lived on Big Pine Key for 35 years. Like more than a dozen of his neighbors, his mobile home was destroyed in Hurricane Irma. This island has long been one of the most affordable places to live in the Keys. One reason for that, Miller says, are the mobile homes - many of them old but available for rent.

MILLER: Most of them weren't, you know, what you would call living in the Taj Mahal. I mean - but they were fine for people that are out there and, you know, you're working every day, you want a home to come home to. It was four walls, a ceiling, the whole nine yards. But now those are gone.

ALLEN: Miller says he has many friends who have already left. He worries many more will follow unless local officials act quickly to make more affordable housing available for the people who staff the Keys' restaurants, hotels, schools and hospitals. But in the Keys, like other resort communities, proposals to build workforce housing are often met with strong opposition. At a recent county commission meeting, Bill Hunter was one of several residents worried that workforce housing would increase density and traffic in his neighborhood.

BILL HUNTER: And now this is beginning to sound like NIMBY, but it's not. Caring about your community is different from NIMBY.

ALLEN: This problem, the need for workforce housing, isn't a new issue here. County Commissioner Heather Carruthers says over the last several years, with incentives and help from the county, developers have built more than 800 units reserved for workforce housing. But she says Irma has turned a longstanding problem into a crisis. Carruthers says it's about more than protecting the vital tourist economy.

HEATHER CARRUTHERS: What's at stake here is a real downturn in the service that's provided in the essential services like police officers, firefighters, nurses, teachers, that really make a community run. If those folks can't find places to live, they're going to have to move someplace else.

ALLEN: Carruthers says the county is looking at available land where it can build workforce housing. But she knows that's something many residents will oppose.

CARRUTHERS: People have an image and a dream about the Keys, that they're going to have their little piece of paradise, and it's going to be, you know, my little kingdom, and that's great. But there certainly are areas here where increasing density would make sense.

ALLEN: Carruthers acknowledges that even the fastest plans to build more workforce housing will take a year or more to carry out. That does little to help workers who are struggling to find a place in the Keys where they can afford to live right now. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.