Monroe County: “Affordable” Housing for the Rich

affordable housing protesters

by Naja and Arnaud Girard…….

A one-room efficiency for $1,836/month, a one-bedroom for $2,097, a two-bedroom for $2,358. Those are the “affordable” rates that will prevail for the rental of 70% of the 213 affordable residential units the County Commission has approved for a Big Coppitt Key waterfront development project. Those rents are defined in the code as “moderate-income affordable.”

According to Barton Smith, an attorney for developers Frank and Edward Toppino, the project is simply not feasible unless the developers serve the people in the moderate-income affordable category.  Unfortunately, the proformas that back up that statement were not shared with either the Commissioners or the general public.

By creating a moderate-affordable housing category, the County has basically allowed “affordable housing” rental rates to rise to the market rate level. Developers are now building homes for people who legally qualify for “affordable housing” while making up to $73,440 a year [for a single person].

The starting salary for a Monroe County school teacher can be as low as $45,300 a year. For local law enforcement it’s around $47,000. Under federal HUD [Housing and Urban Development] guidelines, workers, like those teachers, police officers, and other local government employees, are excessively cost burdened when rents are over $2000 a month.  They should be paying 30% of their salaries – for a new teacher that would be around $1,100/month.

Speaker after speaker at last Wednesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting in Key West told the story of losing employees who had come to the Keys, had good jobs and great expectations but who had to leave after just a few months due to the high cost of rent.  No question – everyone agrees – we have an affordable workforce housing crisis on our hands.

The affordable workforce housing issue could soon become especially dire on Big Coppitt Key.   The County is in the process of changing land use regulations on nearby Rockland Key to allow for big box stores, possibly a Walmart, to open on US 1. Walmart recently raised its employee wages nationwide to $9.00/hour; two-thirds of Walmart’s employees made less than $25,000 last year.

A review of the new zoning code that will allow the Big Coppitt affordable housing development to occur is perplexing. The new zoning is called “Mixed Use Commercial” – the most coveted category in the code. In this case the MU zone has been specially tailored just for this project and a list of prohibited uses aimed at diminishing the negative impacts on the adjacent neighborhood have been added. Transient rentals and non-residential uses are prohibited. The list initially included the words “no new marinas,” but that language was removed and a provision allowing for “accessory uses to the residential development” was added.

It appears there may be very little, if anything, that would keep the developers from adding docks as “accessory uses.” Could they end up with a development similar to Sunset Marina, or Pritam Singh’s development at Oceanside, both on Stock Island?

Nothing in the new zoning code compels the developers to offer the units for rent.  The County does have an affordable housing sub-category called “employee housing” that requires tenants (or purchasers) to be persons who are earning at least 70% of their income in Monroe County – but that requirement didn’t make its way into the new zoning law that governs this project. Legally, any of the units, including the other 30% that will be very low-income to median-income range, could be rented or sold to snowbirds or others who do not participate in the workforce, as long as they meet the income level requirements. The current sale price for an moderate-income affordable unit, under the County’s current rates, can be as high as $528,300.

big coppitt google earth

In the end the County will have authorized the development of an enormous shopping center and an [up to] 213 unit housing project that Big Coppitt residents say will turn their sleepy little waterfront neighborhood into an area with “quadruple” the density it once enjoyed.

Will this new development become a hot spot for wintering retirees? Will it be turned into condos with waterfront “accessory” docks and other structures such as a clubhouse/restaurant, and will the units, in fact, not be rented at all, whether low, median, or moderate-income – but rather sold?

So far, the pattern in Monroe County has been for private developers to sell the new residential units they build, not rent them.

The County has only 710 affordable housing ROGO units to allocate – and the state says that’ll be it -– forever – due to hurricane evacuation requirements. It seems that developers are now gobbling them up, building a lot of “moderate-income affordable” units which are, in fact, not affordable for most of the workforce and very few low and median-income units that would truly help to alleviate the current workforce housing crisis.

“Other developers are also going to want a high amount of moderate,” said Commissioner Sylvia Murphy, who along with the rest of the Commissioners, after 3 hours of debate, ultimately voted to allow the zoning change last Wednesday. “Stop and think,” she said, “We will have no more affordable housing allocations and yet we will have gained very little truly affordable housing. Moderate[-income] housing is not truly affordable.”


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29 thoughts on “Monroe County: “Affordable” Housing for the Rich

  1. Developers and Real Estate investors run the county, TDC, and almost all the boards. We just work for them. Stop fighting the system and enjoy your serfdom.

  2. Nice work. That is ALWAYS in my experience in 4 US cities what happens: The very rich make oodles of money lending, ‘developing,’ re-having, and managing “affordable” housing properties–usually at the cost of the ‘poor’ taxpayers, and then those in “affordable” housing are too rich to be there at a low-is rent for them and gobble up almost all of the rentals: the city breaks its promise to provide “affordable” housing. Thanks, Martha

  3. So why, Commissioner Murphy, did you vote for this development?

    What has happened in the county, and in Key West, demonstrated by the Peary Court workfarce housing referendum, is the definition of affordable housing has been changed to be housing affordable for middle income and more wealthy people, and the definition of workforce has been changed to exclude probably 90 percent of the poor working stiffs who cannot afford the Topino’s development, nor Peary Court even now, or in the future, regardless of how the referendum is decided.


    1. Murphy says what it takes to get elected. Then she does what serves her own narrow self interest. She feels no shame about lying and simply shrugs her shoulders when caught at it. She has been a disaster for Key Largo, and for the Keys as a whole.

      Hopefully she will decide not to run again.

  4. My husband and I have a rental property that is hard to keep affordable. We’re not trying to get rich off of it. We thought one day we would sell the house we now live (Monroe Co) and move in one side. We rent each side of this duplex for $1300 and that does not cover our costs. We pay over $1000 per month in taxes and insurance. That doesn’t include the mortgage or the maintenance, so it doesn’t turn into a slum. With this being an “investment” property we pay higher taxes and unfortunately that has to translate into higher rents because we can’t afford to subsidize those rents. And yes, eventually when it’s paid off that is some money in our pockets but there’s no guarantees that property values will go above the price we paid and we’ll still have taxes, insurance and maintenance to pay. Even at this rent, which is some of the lowest in the county, an entry-level teacher goes over that 30% rule according to your calculations. Unless taxes go down or wages go up there is no good answer. Taxes never go down so the answer has to be to increase wages. With the public sector jobs that means taxes going up unless the County figures out how to tighten their budget like the rest of us.

  5. This is a joke. This county and its leaders are a joke. $75,000 is low income? Ok, not jokers, insane people is more like it. Why don’t you advertise for millionaires only, and put an end to this farce? You want the year round residents/poor trash out of here, except to come down via mass transit/monorail and slave away for the rich each day and go back to wherever, because you are sure you can get just a little bit richer this way. Wake up citizens of the Keys, you are being pushed out. It is too damn late to reverse it, especially since out county leaders are behind the push.

  6. There is no way for an investor to buy or build housing in such a costly city as Key West and turn a profit. You can not spend over $300 K (very low) and rent it at $1500 a month. Simple math at even 10% equals $2500 a month. Then out of that $2500 pay taxes , insurance and manage and maintain it. And if it has a mortgage payment of about $1 k a month you will not make a dime till you sell it at an even higher price.

    So yes while I hate seeing government housing it is the only way you will ever have any.

    What remains are homes that were purchased 20 or more years ago at far lower values and they can rent rooms or the house at much lower price. They can only win if they sell to the rich or turn them into a bed and breakfast. Or when that owner dies the family sells it to the rich.

    At some point wages will need to go up and that means higher taxes for city and county workers to be paid. And yes that causes rents to go even higher.

    Unlike some rich cities you have nothing within 3 hours drive to even bus in workers. Maybe Key Largo could get workers from Homestead but nobody will drive 125 miles for a low paying job. Employers should have figured this out long ago. Only solution is for maybe 2 couples to all work and share the cost of a 2 bed 1 bath home or get into a section 8 home.

  7. Hangingonincudjoe is completely correct in my opinion. Most of the people who work on this island are not making $75,000 a year and it’s not even close to that figure. Those are the people who need an affordable place to live. Practically every service job on this island starts at $9 or $10 an hour and that hasn’t changed in the nearly five years I’ve been here. What are the rich going to do when there aren’t people available to work at those jobs and that day is coming.

  8. Actually there is a second major problem. Interest rates are at an all time low right now at 3.5% and when the market and if the market recovers the rate will be back to near 10% like it was 20 years ago. And that is part of the Peary Court problem. Banks will not lend that money at a fixed rate. So what happens if interest goes to even 7%.

    Taxpayers will be picking up the balance. Isn’t that a nice thought. You taxpayers get to pay for the low wages that employers profit from and along with it will be the return of the hand the house back to the bank game. Now how much is your property worth ? Think twice before buying a home anyplace right now. Are many predictions that we will see a collapse again in near future. And the rich will buy them up again.

    Is no cure for the mess Key West is in. Some will go bankrupt again while others get rich. And if the day comes that employers can’t find workers then tourism will fail. And that will fix the need for workforce housing because they will move away.

    1. The referendum specifies that property taxes will not be used to repay the loan. If they are unable to keep up with the debt they will need to find another way out. Selling the units for example. The issue is whether or not the housing that will be offered at Peary Court will alleviate the issue of the workforce being “cost burdened” when rents will need to be at the “moderate-income” level which, at the moment, is set at $2358 per month [not including utilities]. We don’t have the data and analysis needed to make informed decisions about what type of “affordable housing” is needed most. The most recent needs analysis dates back to 2009 and it states that we have a SURPLUS of rental units in the “moderate-income” category… Those in favor of the Peary Court purchase believe that it is clear we need all levels so let’s do what we can and “save” these. Members of the PAC tell us that the owners have expressed that their intentions, should the City not purchase Peary Court, is to renovate the apartments and up the rents to $2700/month which is the rate that some 2 bedroom apartments in New Town [with swimming pools and tennis courts] are now renting.

      1. It might not directly cost them taxes but the shortage would have to get paid some how such as a bond that then results in higher taxes. If they default on the loan then the bank goes after assets the city has. If no danger to tax payers then why should they vote on it ?

        I see no point in buying Peary Court if the rents will be the same or higher.
        And who in right mind would buy it as an investment if the city failed with it.
        You are not doing anything that will help the $10 an hour worker. They can not afford that kind of rent even if they are a couple and both working 60 hours.

        What percentage of couples make $74K

        Yes the city needs to help but they are helping the wrong workers.

        1. The referendum says the financing can not be based on the general obligation of the City. The only bank that gave an offer required the City to back up the loan with a general obligation. The City asked the bank to reconsider. The bank said no.

          Absentee voting has already begun. The City will discuss the financing issues at the next City Commission meeting – February 17th. The referendum is March 15th. Apparently, some City officials are saying, no problem, we will decide on the financing AFTER the referendum – the referendum language doesn’t oblige us to purchase Peary Court. Voters are already voting on this without having the information that the elected officials will need to make this important decision. When it was decided to put this out to referendum the people were told that we would have all of the necessary information before voting. And financing is not the only question: We don’t really know where the need is. The last needs analysis dates back to 2009 and says that we have a surplus of Peary Court type [moderate-income rentals]. My question: why a referendum at this point? The commissioners already have our authority to “figure things out” – we elected them. Our charter says they can’t sell, buy, or annex land unless the voters o.K. it. But we are being asked in this referendum to blindly give our O.K. without the benefit of having the essential information needed to make the decision. That is an insult to the intelligence of the voters and it is redundant – we have already given these elected officials the right to act on our behalf. Doesn’t that circumvent the power given to the people by the special charter provision? – The way I read it – it says ‘we the people’ get to decide whether or not to buy, sell or annex property. Right now we are not being asked to decide whether or not to buy Peary Court – because we don’t even know what the deal looks like yet and we are missing very essential information needed to make an intelligent decision. We are being asked to tell our commissioners they are allowed to decide for us – that’s not what the charter says. If that is what the charter provision meant we wouldn’t need the charter provision at all. The Commission should decide what to do and then put it out to referendum – at which point we – the not so dumb people – will look it ALL over and decide if we think it is best.

          1. Naja, as I pointed out in a Letter to the Editor that was published in today’s (February 13) Citizen, the referendum specifically addresses “affordable” and “workforce” housing. Those two terms have never been specifically defined. I personally don’t see a household earning six figures as being “workforce.” Nevertheless, that is how much a married couple with a child (the Peary Court target demographic) would need to make. Can the city leadership legally follow through on a referendum (assuming both are passed) when the people who it benefits are not the same people who the referendum identifies?

          2. Bizarre: the ballot question referencing the purchase says “workforce housing” – the ballot question referencing the revenue bond issuance says “affordable workforce housing”. The word “affordable” is defined in our code (we use the HUD definition – not more than 30% of household income.

  9. I’ve already cast my NO vote on buying Peary Court. These units will not be affordable housing for people who truly need it. I place the blame squarely on the bubbas who think the present rents truly reflect “affordable housing”. I saw the list of present occupants and most of the units are rented by people who are not in the service industry and they cannot afford those rents making $9 and $10 an hour. I’m sure if the bubbas had their way the purchase would already be completed.

  10. If I had $55 million to spend on affordable housing the last thing I would do with that money is buy Peary Court. We already know it is not really “affordable housing”….. not at the proposed rents. So let’s set that aside for a moment.
    If the city/county has land (which we know they do…) you could build more than 350 housing units.
    Here’s my math:
    If you assume $150 per sq foot for construction costs (which works if you stay away from granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances etc) then you could build more than 350,000 square feet of affordable housing. At an average of 1,000 square feet per unit you would get more than twice the number of affordable housing units vs. Peary Court.
    Oh, and here’s the icing on the cake:
    By letting Peary court redevelop it would enter the tax rolls allowing the city to easily collect close to $1 million per year in new property taxes.
    Sounds to me like a much bigger win over the long run.

  11. OK ,if the city and county does have land already then why buy more ? Use what you have and lets build cheap small 2 bedroom 1 bath maybe 800 sq feet. That is plenty big for a couple with a few kids. Trick here is nothing fancy at all but something that will be cheap to maintain. Sorry but that means no dish washers or garbage disposals and low end fixtures. And I am still thinking single wide trailers or prefab units and set up on min. size lots. That not only keeps rent down but very fast cure. Think of what could have been built on Simonton st. Or is the city more interested in the tax it will collect if they ever get finished. It can be done and keep rents near $1400. Just maybe a bank would take that risk.

    So if I got this right the city wants to not risk anything and get a bank to lend money. That will not happen. So with no loan the game is over.

    Walk , no RUN from the Peary Court deal. It has red flags waving saying bad deal.
    No point in it if already at fair market rent. Problem is that it is not affordable for $10 an hour workers. Use the land you already have and guess what happens when tenants move out of Peary Court. Yep the price will drop on the rents. You now have fixed the SUPPLY part of what I been saying. Just maybe then workers could live on 40 hour work weeks.

  12. The housing issue is mostly described as 1) Prices too high; 2) Wages too low.

    1) Price is supply / demand. Nothing else–cost, etc. does not factor in. Increase the supply, and price goes down. So, increase the SUPPLY of housing, at any level, and the prices will go down. We need to stop waiting to shoot for any particular “segment” of housing and just work to increase the supply. Key West seems to be REALLY good at waiting, i.e. Truman Waterfront, so just create a climate that increases the supply of housing at any price point. KW has spent years keeping the supply low, for various reasons, and this has to stop.

    2) In the meanwhile, since wages are too low, KW should work to raise them: Minimum wage increase, temporary subsidies to firms that exceed the customary wages, and other methods will allow workers to make more, and then afford housing.

    Gotta meet in the middle to make this problem more livable.

  13. Where in the USA can anyone live on $10 ? Maybe as a single rent a room out of a house. But the city will not be KW.
    Most of your workers in KW earn the low pay simply because they want to live in KW and will accept poor living conditions bad enough to stay. Do believe few stay long. Employers also are paying too much rent and we see a constant open and close if often less than a year. They either rent on Duval or fail. That will not change. Leaves them forced to offer $10 for help. Only chance workers have is if the job has tips and they provide great service and few do.

  14. Not sure if a city can legally create a min wage and that could create more problems than it fixes. Employers are finding workers just not happy ones. They are finding places to live such as Wisteria island , a couch , shelters, woods,sheds, vacant houses ,living in houses that are intended for 4 people and packing 10 in them. Some are living in cars and vans and finding places at night to hide.

    And yes KW likes to limit SUPPLY such as cabs. It all is done to keep property values up because that creates higher taxes. The big question is if you work all of your life in KW how will you ever be able to retire on a SS check ? Low wage people will never own anything and if they did can’t afford taxes.

    Only the rich can live here or the poor that live in section 8 housing. All others will spend 50% of what they earn just to stay. They cut costs by not having cars and insurance.

    1. Businesses offer what they have to offer. Wages are rarely a significant cost, but business owners hate to pay wages of any kind. Not sure why, but they think their employees are stealing, or freeloading, or something. I’ve run businesses for 40 years and owners (and rich people) would rather spend $100,000 on a thing than give somebody a little raise.

      I’ve also worked through numerous minimum wage increases–in the service industry–and it never makes a difference in the bottom line.

      Unhappy workers? Pay them more! they will be happier and want to keep the job! Work harder cause the job will be something to protect! And if they find a reasonable place they can afford, then they REALLY will want to protect the job.

      Short-sighted profiteering makes the owner a fast buck, and high turnover probably ends up costing them more (due to training costs and lower productivity) but they never seem to see it that way. If you love your employees and treat them well, then they will be loyal and hard working and make you more money.

      Rich guys never see it that way…

      1. I mostly agree. Every visit we make to KW we see the same problems and results. Always plenty of HELP WANTED signs and a few more stores closed and construction going on for the next tenant that will fail too. Always a store for rent or sale. Only the smart ones manage to stay open year after year. You will never keep good help by paying cheap because that help ends up leaving the island.

        Some places like Cowboy Bills are missed. When I asked as to why was told it could not make a go of it. Laughed our asses off seeing how few customers it had for Fantasy Fest and NYE. It dam sure is not working now. Place use to stay busy and we visited every night we were in KW.

        Employers will always find help if they pay and if pay is good then yes they stay. They still need a place to sleep at night and eat.

  15. JohnMiller hit the nail right on the head. I believe most business owners on this island actually despise their workers and offer too low of a starting pay and grudgingly give raises. Most workers I meet and talk to despise their jobs because of it. Happy workers do work harder and want to keep their jobs. Another thing I’ve seen here is people getting hired because they knew someone. They could be totally unqualified for the job but they knew the right people. The best boss I ever had told me when I was interviewed that he realized the best asset his business had was his employees. He believed in paying and treating them well and everyone there loved their jobs and turnover was almost nonexistent. I’ve been lucky here and have been at my present job for nearly three years. They give me regular raises and treat me well and as a result I work hard, am never late and miss work only when I’m too sick to go in. Most bosses however treat their employees like they’re the enemy and a necessary evil of doing business.

  16. Most of us ” Get paid in sunshine ” Stay too long and get burnt out. Working 2 or
    maybe. 3 jobs, unless you work for various government entities, doesn’t give you much of the good life here. There’s always another dreamer coming down US 1 willing to work a while for $ 10 an hour when you have nothing left and can’t sustain it anymore. Seen it for years and years.

    1. Same here – has been going on the entire 31 years we’ve been here. We were only able to make it because we were business owners and lived on boats. But now we are hearing that even those government workers you speak about aren’t sticking it out. Do so wish the government would put some energy into a serious needs analysis. We hear that population has declined. How many rental units have been converted to single family second homes over the past decade? How much growth in business has there been? Do we have far more workers? What is the need at each level of income? Our most recent needs analysis says for rentals we have a SURPLUS in the “moderate-income” level. That’s the level the City and County are approving the bulk of new “affordable” units at. Also the level that the proforma sent to banks for purchase of Peary Court outlined. 2 bedroom apartments for $2358. How many people at Peary Court would rather have a one-bedroom but just couldn’t find a decent one?

      1. Again, trying to create units at certain levels or price points is impossible. Just create units! If the local units of government would work to create an atmosphere that encouraged creation of residential rental housing units then the buyers would end up matching the sellers. When there is a glut or a lack of units vis a vis the number of renters, then the price and earnings ratio gets crazy out of balance.

        It ain’t rocket science–when the price rises or falls, you can easily spot the imbalance.

        Short term fix would be for government to encourage higher wages by giving modest tax breaks to employers who pay at a certain (higher) level. Employers jump at the chance to participate in such a program.

        1. Before a developer builds rentals they must first look at what the market needs. In the case of KW it is low priced units and that is 1 bedroom or even just 1 room studio units. Most of your workers are couples or singles. Lets not forget much of KW houses where single family homes to start with. Many are nearly 100 years old and some got turned into bed and breakfast or into homes that rented out bedrooms to help pay taxes and the high cost of living.
          Take a good look at the history of one of the largest single family homes just off Duval st . Yes the Curry mansion and are many others.

          So lets get a fix on the real needs of the low paid workers and they need priced based on 30% of income made on 40 hour work weeks at that $10 an hour rate. That is about $500 a month. They can’t even rent a couch in someones home for that.

          Many are even willing to work 60 hours just to enjoy 1 day a week in Paradise. How long would it take someone that comes to KW with the idea of getting a job and live here only to find they will need 2 jobs just to barely make it. They don’t get time and a half because employers learned how to beat that law years ago. Most jobs are created by the needs of tourists and they usually are able to pay some rather steep prices food , drinks and lodging. Is there not enough profit in that to pay a living wage ?

          Yes take a serious look at just who is living at Peary Court and how much they earn. They are not $10 an hour workers.

          And while we at this stop and think who picks up the tab for any housing that is not paying property tax. Yes it is the rest of them property owners that did not get that break. So if KW buys Peary Court the lost taxes will be made up by others.

  17. A couple really does not need a huge place to live. Many live in travel trailers or motor homes. Real shame that KW does not even offer cheap RV spots. As a frequent visitor what we have found is that it is just as cheap to rent a room at a bed and breakfast for our 5 or 6 weeks a year as it is to even rent a bedroom at a house in old town. We are basically retired and would love to find a room monthly to rent and at most live in it half of the time. Finding such a place that is not a fire trap is not likely. And to rent a 2 bedroom for $2500 is just foolish. We love KW but it has priced it self out of reason short of accepting something in the hoods.
    Not everyone wants a 2 bedroom place. A simple studio apartment with small kitchen is all many need. That could be 300 to 400 feet. Many workers would be plenty happy to rent such a thing and would be affordable.

    Employers seem to like what they have going for them. Someone saves up a few thousand and heads to KW , finds $10 job and can last a few months before going broke. On the north way out of the keys they pass the replacement headed south.

    They just want high profits and could care less about the workers. Are a few exceptions but not many.

  18. OK, I think most here agree the problem is low wages and nothing even close available based on 30% of income even if they work 60 hours at $10 hour. At best if 2 people both have 60 hour jobs and share a 2 bedroom place or a couple find a 1 bedroom apartment by the time they pay for utilities they still are far over 30%. Now add to this that everything else from gas and food to other basic needs will be about 10 to 20 % higher. So just how are they able to last long ? Are they living in cars ? Even if they live on Wisteria island it would not be easy. Does anyone even care about helping them ? Developers seem to know how to get approved to tear down and redevelop what little is left. The trailer park on Simonton st should never been allowed to be removed. Sure the rent was low and ran down. That was a smart developer that first allowed the tenants to let it look trashy so would be easy to get it voted to be torn down. Property values in last few years went crazy and simple fact is not affordable for any investor to build affordable workforce housing. What little is left is 1 by 1 going away because the building is too old to be repaired or bought up by the rich as either a second home or just turned back into a single family home that it was to begin with when built.

    Only cure I can see is the city building some very small units on property it already owns. But clearly nothing is even planned. They are only interested in helping with the moderate income workers that earn 75 K. They can find plenty now with no help from the city.

    Employers do not care enough to help create housing or willing to pay a living wage.

    So question is what will it be like in another 5 years ? Will KW reach a point where tourism fails for the lack of service ? The city itself will find a shortage of workers but at that point will raise pay by raising property tax.

    If nothing changes will it continue by simply finding new workers that come from the north and last a few months by living off of savings ? How much savings will they need ? My guess is about a thousand dollars per month to make up for what they can’t earn. That comes to about $5 an hour more pay is needed. Is that too much for employers to pay a worker ? Would $15 an hour break them ?

    It is too late to go back in time 30 years and fixed the problem. Does anyone even have a suggestion to fix the problem ? Can it continue the way it is now ? Will the day come that people from up north check the situation out before giving it a try ? Or is using savings just a way to enjoy a longer vacation in KW ? Maybe 5,000 will let them live here 6 months. Sunshine alone is not worth it if no time or money to enjoy it.

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