by Naja and Arnaud Girard…….
It was not the Sistine Chapel, but the ceilings were painted with beautiful scenes of Florida Keys’ waters, with schooners and fishermen. The artists had been Cuban refugees who long ago paid for their stay at “The Kerr House” by redecorating the inside of the old conch house.
When we visited the house at 410 Simonton Street seven years ago there were seven apartments bursting with local residents. Today we read in a redevelopment plan that the house will soon become part of a guesthouse complex and only three long-term residential units will remain.
So what happened to the other four?
The profit in making such a transformation is obvious: In Key West a 1-bedroom longterm residential unit brings in around $1800/month whereas a guest-room can bring in $9000/month or more.
The developers purchased three adjoining properties, including a 6-room guesthouse at 411 Bahama Street, an 8-room guesthouse called “The Pilot House” at 414 Simonton and the 7-unit permanent residential property, The Kerr House, at 410 Simonton.
At The Kerr House, two of the units were, historically, rented without the legal ROGOs or occupational licenses, but the five others were legal and had been rented to the local workforce for years. According to Carolyn Walker of the City’s Licensing Department, none of them have been sold or transferred to other properties.
On October 15th, the Planning Board voted to recommend that the City Commission approve the application for Major Redevelopment. Two transient residential units and an office for the guesthouse operation will move over to the Kerr House and only three permanent residential units made it, anywhere, into the plans for the complex.
The result: A loss of two legal longterm housing rental units.
Yet under City code, Section 122-807, a commercial modification may not be permitted if it results in a reduction of permanent residential units. This is one of the few ordinances the City enacted over the years to protect permanent residential housing stock.
Here, it seems, transient rentals are being spread geographically through the capture of adjacent permanent residential property.
We contacted the Planning Department on Tuesday in an attempt to understand just what loophole might have been used to achieve such a result in a City in the midst of a critical workforce-housing crisis. As of press time we have not received our answer.
However, the loophole could be pure and simple misrepresentation.
The Kerr House was the first of the three properties purchased by this developer. Initial permit plans [shown below] called for the renovation of five legal permanent residential units. [click on the image to enlarge]
But after the developers purchased the adjacent Pilot House and Bahama Street guesthouses, the same architect, Tom Pope, appeared before the City’s Planning Board with the current plans, claiming there had only been three non-transient units located at 410 Simonton.
From the Staff Report for the Major Redevelopment:
Whatever the case may be, the developers seem to have made headway toward unloading their permanent residential units to make way for transient rentals.
According to former City Commissioner Teri Johnston, an overhaul of Key West’s workforce housing code is long overdue. “We have been working with legal and we have been working with Planning now for 7 years asking for that ordinance to be tightened up,” said the frustrated Commissioner earlier this year. She could never make it happen. [see video documentary at end of article]
”If we don’t get affordable housing, Key West is going to be a spot only for the wealthy and the indigent. There will be no in-between.” That was Wilhelmina Harvey, [“First Lady of the Island” ] as quoted in a New York Times article in December of 1986. That was nearly 30 years ago.
“This City has no credibility when it comes to affordable housing concerns,” says community advocate Christine Russell, “They refuse to do anything for years. Their laws are just a shroud of loopholes, all for developers’ profit, and all of a sudden they need to spend $55 Million to “save” Peary Court. I have to question that.”
The Planning Board’s decision is not the final answer. The City Commission will ultimately decide whether or not the Major Development Plan will move forward as planned.
UPDATE: How was it done? The City’s Building Official allowed the property owners to turn 2 of the long-term residential ROGO’s back over to the City. The Planning Department officials then claimed in their official staff report that the property “historically” contained only 3 long term residential units. And that folks is how, in the midst of a “workforce housing crisis”, the rule prohibiting renovations that result in a reduction in the number of permanent residential units is quite underhandedly cast aside.
What did the City Commission decide? Who are we kidding? Yes, of course they approved it (and with full knowledge – thanks to Blue Paper’s investigation – of how it was done).