Key West housing crisis attracts new players



A team effort between Key West, the U.S. Navy and at least two Congressional representatives has formed to help the city tackle its affordable housing crisis.

City Commissioner Sam Kaufman helped set up a meeting Jan. 15 with U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, Navy Air Station Key West commanding officer Capt. Steve McAlearney and city and county officials to tour the Navy-owned Sigsbee Park, an island about a half mile north of Key West where 166 mostly two-bedroom apartments have been vacant for approximately five years. While those apartments, if reopened, would be reserved for military personnel working for the Navy in Key West, it could move 300 or more people back onto the military base, taking them out of the competitive and expensive Key West housing market, Kaufman said.

“It would not cost the people of Key West one penny, not one penny,” Kaufman said in an earlier interview when he was trying to convince Curbelo to come to Key West to tour the vacant housing development in Sigsbee Park.

In addition to Kaufman and Curbelo, who represents the Lower Keys, Monroe County Mayor Heather Carruthers and Key West City Manager Jim Scholl also toured Sigsbee Park. And U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who represents Florida’s 25th District but who sits on the House Appropriations Committee – which writes legislation that allocates federal funds to numerous government agencies each year – also came to the meeting.

Kaufman said everyone seemed to come away wanting to reopen the Sigsbee Park units. Curbelo and Diaz-Balart said they would try to quickly introduce a bill that would allow Navy officials to give the go-ahead to Capt. McAlearney to solicit property management companies for bids to reopen the apartments, make any necessary repairs and then manage the rental operations of the 166 units, Kaufman said. And Key West City Commissioners will be asked to support a second resolution urging Navy commanders to reopen the apartments.

“I’m extremely optimistic that sooner rather than later there will be positive movement at making these units available,” Kaufman said.

Commissioners voted unanimously Jan. 5 to ask the Navy to consider making the Sigsbee Park apartments available to military personnel. The 166 units were originally set aside for unmarried sailors but were closed when the Navy hired Balfour Beatty, a property management company, to take over renting its housing stock.

“These folks,” Scholl said, referring to military personnel who would be eligible to live in Sigsbee Park, “would not be out in the local housing market competing for those units. It’s on my right track, in my opinion.”

There are approximately 1,500 active duty service employees stationed in Key West and about 55 percent of them live on base. That leaves about 675 personnel who live in non-military housing in Key West, for which they receive a housing subsidy paid by the Navy. Many of them might be interested in moving to Sigsbee Park, Kaufman said. The two-bedroom, two-story units have lots of storage space and a screened outdoor patio.

“These are going to be really nice places for families,” he said. “They’re pretty much in move-in condition as far as I can tell.”

While the demand from military personnel is not the cause of the housing squeeze in Key West – the rise in second home owners plus more housing being set aside for vacation rentals are the primary culprits – reopening the Sigsbee Park units could help relieve some of the housing demand pressure. And, as Kaufman said, Key West taxpayers would not have to foot the bill, like they are being asked to do in the March 15 referendum that would give city officials the go-ahead to purchase Peary Court, a 167-unit housing development that was originally used for Navy personnel but which was sold to a private developer in 2013 for $35 million. That developer, White Street Partners, has been stymied in its efforts to turn the moderate income rental property into luxury housing and has agreed to sell it to the city for $55 million.

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