Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, remembers the exact moment in September 2017 that she connected with Maggie Whitcomb, who was soon to become the founder of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust.
Hurricane Irma’s 140 mph winds and 5-foot storm surge had just destroyed 25 percent of the homes in the Florida Keys.
“I’m driving in my car — you know how you remember where you are when something big happens?” says Ross, recalling when Whitcomb reached her on her cell phone to describe the damage in the Keys. Irma destroyed 473 homes and damaged 1,538 on the island of Big Pine Key alone.
“She’s so distraught over what’s happened in the Keys, and I’m wondering why she’s called me,” Ross says. “Then she asks if I can help her start a community land trust, so we can get some housing for people in the Keys.”
The two have coordinated since last fall to establish a new community land trust (CLT) for middle- and low-income renters in the Keys. (A land trust is an increasingly popular solution in cities where home prices and rents are out of reach for many residents. A nonprofit develops and manages permanently affordable housing for rental or ownership). The new Florida Keys CLT, started with $1 million, has already finished one of nine planned affordable “Keys Cottages.”
Whitcomb, who is a part-time Keys resident, wasn’t associated with any housing or relief organization when she called Whitcomb. In fact, she had no background in either. She is a self-described “tennis player and mom to four kids.” However, she was willing to spend her own money to get the land trust started. Maggie and her husband, Rich Whitcomb, own a bait and tackle shop in the Keys.
Whitcomb, in her telling, felt moved to action as soon as Irma’s devastation became clear. The hurricane struck while she was in New York attending the U.S. Open, and she found herself on a two-way radio phone app “with 15 to 20 strangers formulating a vigilante disaster relief team,” she says.
In ensuing weeks, Whitcomb realized the Florida Keys didn’t have adequate resources to rebuild in an equitable way. The string of islands is popular with vacationers and second homeowners — not the ideal ingredients for sufficient affordable housing for year-round, middle- and low-income residents. The islands stretch roughly 120 miles off the southern tip of Florida, making a nearly impossible commute for those who work there but can’t afford to live there.
After Hurricane Irma, many Keys residents lived in tents. Whitcomb notes that many remain in them, a year after the storm. As part of her impromptu recovery work, “I was scouring the internet looking for solutions in affordable housing,” Whitcomb says. She eventually stumbled upon the concept of a community land trust: “It made so much sense to me.”
That’s when Whitcomb made the call to Ross with a proposition: She would kick-start funding for a community land trust, if Ross would help her to build it.
“You can’t help but be a little skeptical,” Ross says. “But there’s nothing to be skeptical about with Maggie.” Eleven months later, they were both celebrating the ribbon-cutting of the first Keys Cottage. All the cottages will be deed-restricted affordable rental homes under stewardship of the Florida Keys Community Land Trust.
Ross has significant experience with land trusts. The Florida Housing Coalition launched the Florida Community Land Trust Institute in 2000. The model isn’t touted as a radical alternative to traditional homeownership, says Ross, given Florida’s conservative-leaning government. “The people in Florida tend to look at it as a fiscally conservative way of producing much-needed workforce housing,” she says.
In the Florida Keys, the newly formed trust had a difficult time selling the idea to local homeowners and politicians. “People didn’t feel like it would make a difference,” Ross says.
But she recognized the potential of a land trust’s formation post hurricane. “Whenever land becomes available, community land trusts need to be there,” Ross says. “Speculative investors have been doing this for years, buying after disasters or in recessions, and it’s not for the public good. We see an opportunity for community good.”
Though the Florida Keys CLT originally envisioned the traditional homeownership model, in which a homeowner leases the land from the trust, Monroe County government felt there was a higher need for affordable rentals.
The trust and Monroe County also came to a unique agreement to get the project started after Whitcomb purchased the land under the trust. In Spring 2018, county commissioners approved the trust’s request for the county to purchase the trust’s first four lots at $99,999 each, in order to put nearly $400,000 toward construction of cottages.
The county is leasing back the parcels to the trust for a 99-year period, with the requirement that units go to households that derive at least 70 percent of their income from employment within the county. Renters cannot make more than 80 percent of the area median income, and will not be charged more than 30 percent of their overall household income on rent.
The Keys Cottages are elevated 12 feet, a foot above the required base flood elevation, and can withstand 200 mph winds. They were designed by Marianne Cusato, who led a similar building project after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “The cottage concept is an alternative to the FEMA trailer — looking at how you can build for temporary and long-term, using the same resources you would for the trailers,” Cusato says. “It’s looking at disaster housing as a long-term investment.”
Building the Keys Cottages required a balancing act of “speed, budget, look and feel,” according to Cusato. The homes range from 760 to 1,094 square feet. “We designed something affordable to maintain, and something that people will want to live in,” she says.
Four cottages are expected to wrap construction this fall, with another five finished by early 2019. Whitcomb sees the land trust as a long-term investment for the community, and has started seeking additional funding to continue its work.
“People can’t believe how much we’ve done in 11 months,” Whitcomb says. “Well, it’s still not fast enough for me.”