Sunday, November 14, 2004

Key West Workers Growing Scarce

The Sunday paper arrived and along with it's news, the feeling of unease about my future in Key West. It usually stems from the real estate section, now the thickest of the paper. A one bedroom one bath conch cottage, about 750 square feet, is no less than $750,000. A local realtor, Regina Corcoran, writes the most arrogant column about the local market, completely ignoring the fact that the product she is selling is in big trouble. The Key West real estate boom is a disaster for the tiny island. Where are the people supposed to live that work here? This is not a place you can truck them in everyday. We are an island, ninety miles from mainland Florida and all of the Keys are facing the same problem.
I was attracted to Key West because it seemed to be an island of independents, certainly not all of them honorable, but definitely writing the script according to their experiences. Maybe I'm naive, but it seemed many Key Westers had come to the island by shrugging off the work & consumer mentality. Consumerism was the last thing on people's minds. Yes, there were many hard working families trying to make a better life for themselves. But they were not so driven that they couldn't enjoy life in the process. And they still lived at island speed. They lived here because island life made sense to them, maybe in their blood. The manana attitude was the norm.
I bought my bike, a Conch Cruiser with fat tires and a basket assembled from many other bike's parts, for thirty dollars on the beach and have had it for six years. In my neighborhood, parking was abundant since most people didn't have a car. With an island 2 miles by 4 miles, and no need to rush, why not ride the bike. But today is different. There is no parking spots open nearly every day and Elizabeth Street looks like a new car showroom. These are the cars of the snowbirds and those that sold some of their real estate. There is a project being built called Watermark. It promises a "decadent" and "luxurious" Key West residence with concierge service and "splendid" service. Ridiculous. Enjoying island life shouldn't require a servant. You need a t-shirt and flip flops. Wear some buttons if you want to dress up, but if Key West attracted you because of it's funky laid back attitude then how does a decadent and luxurious experience help. Just ask the Bahamians that have lived here for two hundred years.
My old apartment down the street, on of four in a large house, was bought by a speculator two years ago and renovated into a one-family McMansion. It was bought for 1.2 million, and is on the market for 2.75 million. Across the street, the same realtor is advertising a five apartment building that is "ripe for condo conversion". Rest well tonight tenants.
So, the Sunday morning depression sets in. Where will we live? Clearly we can't afford to buy a place. The clock on our Key West days is ticking. Just another working couple forced to leave. All the while, the mayor Jimmy Weakly, is oblivious to the magnitude of the problem. Or maybe he thinks that the Czech workforce that lives eight to a bedroom can replace all of us. But they can't. Some jobs actually require an education and mastery of the english language. Police, nurses, teachers, are finding it impossible to afford to live here. The police dept. operates with a double digit shortage of cops. They blame housing as the issue.
This rant of mine was sparked by the morning headline of a hotel conversion. Developers have bought another hotel and are converting it into .58 units of luxury condominiums. Tourist businesses are worried about their future. But in me, it reminds me of the rental apartments in Key West that are being bought to evict, renovate, and re-sell as a condominium for +$500,000. Or some four-apartment houses are being bought up and converted to single-family mansions. The process is rampant causing the housing shortage for the workers to increase.
An announcement to those that think you can buy your way into an interesting community: You can't. The currency you should spend is good personality and island sensibility. That is the barrier to entry. When the Key West housing bubble bursts or one hurricane hit's, you should remember that.


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4 comments:

Demon King said...

"Pave paradise, and put up a parking lot." Sad. And KW was on my list to get back to [went there in college almost thirty years ago], not for the decadence, but the island pace you described.

Don Gutowski said...

I understand your frustration with the over-development of Key West. Who will serve the dinners and drinks and perform the music and cater to the needs of the "snowbirds" when everyone has left the Keys because of unaffordable housing? Sounds similar to what has happened in Aspen and is slowly happening in Ellicotville NY, a small, quaint ski village in the Southerntier of New York. High real estate prices and subsequent high taxes have driven most of the local inhabitants away, some having ancestors who founded the town.

Anonymous said...

Huh? What about the people who work in the grocery stores, deliver the mail, and other mundane jobs, nevermind the "servant" jobs

Cayo Dave said...

Anonymous - you commented 8 years after that post was published. Since then, the realestate market has crashed and the speculative mania has been halted. Some working locals have managed to buy a place.