Let’s check in with the Monroe County Land Authority…

Christine Hurley, executive director of the Monroe County Land Authority, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM this morning to talk about the ground under our feet.

The land authority had a pretty good year in 2023.

Hurley said, “Really, we had our best year ever as far as the amount of land that we purchased in dollars and acreage. We also really focused on affordable housing opportunities this past year. We’re pretty proud of that. We help our partners like Habitat for Humanity, or our housing authority by purchasing land for them to use for affordable housing development. So I think those were our two major accomplishments this past year.”

How is the land handled with Habitat for Humanity?

Hurley said, “Our preferred model is we buy the land, and then we lease it for no payments. That way, we always own it and then in 100 years from now, if the governing board decides they want to keep it as affordable forever, they’re always in control. So we like that model the best. We will sometimes turn land over to entities when the model they’re using for funding requires it. However, if we do that we keep what’s called a land use restriction agreement on the land so that it can’t be used for anything except affordable housing.”

Sugarloaf Landing on Sugarloaf Key is about to potentially get 55 units of affordable housing.

Hurley said, “That project has been a long, long time in the making. We have been asked to help bridge a gap between the funding that they’re going to get from various ways, mostly from the state of Florida, through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit project. Insurance as well as construction costs have been through the roof and every one of our partners that build affordable housing, besides the project that you just mentioned, have been asking for more money than usual because of those construction costs. So right now we have a request for a little over $2 million to go toward that project. Our board, will be discussing it again on January 31. I think everyone so far has looked favorably upon funding the project. It really is a nice location. A lot of our affordable housing is scattered throughout the Keys, but Sugarloaf is a beautiful island. It’ll really provide some new life in that area, we think, and some opportunities for people to live where they normally cannot. The good news is people that live in the Lower Keys often help their employees in Key West or throughout our other commercial areas. So we’re really looking forward to that workforce assistance.”

Is the funding for the projects loans or grants?

Hurley said, “They come into all kinds of forms, because it’s kind of cool to be in the land authority position with us. So federal programs give money toward housing, state programs give money, and even private entities can offer money towards affordable housing development. The really good thing about land authority money is we’re able to assist wherever the other programs are not. In other words, we have such flexibility with the way our money can be spent, our board if they deem it worthy and support the project and find a need for the money, then we can fund just about any possible scenario. I think that’s why the creation of our agency is so important to the Keys and gives us that flexibility. Our funding comes completely from bed tax.”

What about taking lands off the tax rolls?

Hurley said, “Throughout my travels around the Keys, when I talk to people, sometimes they’ll say, well, you’re buying up all the land, and that takes it off the tax rolls and that is accurate. Once land is in either the county, state or federal ownership, it no longer pays ad valorem taxes. But we’re very fortunate in Florida, because all the land that is bought for conservation, by the state of Florida, they have a program called payment in lieu of taxes, the acronym is PILT. Basically, what that enables us to do is we make a filing every year, normally around February, so we’re starting to prep for it now, and we do a whole inventory of all the land owned by the state or the land that we are purchasing for conservation and reselling to the state. Because that’s kind of become our new normal model for how we do conservation purchases. They then reimburse the county the lost taxes based on the previous three years average of value and the taxes that were previously collected. So it’s not a huge amount of money, but it does kind of refute that kind of coconut telegraph thing that I hear from people because it doesn’t take them completely off and we are still getting funds to go towards the services we provide to the community.”

Are rising insurance costs affecting the land authority?

Hurley said, “Not on our vacant land, but on all of our partners that do the affordable housing, it’s literally becoming I don’t want to say dire, because that makes it seem like there’s a fire and we need to get the extinguisher out. But I’m telling you, it’s really, really hitting them hard and I know for sure, they rent the units, and there’s these maximum rents that they can take for the projects in all the different regulations of Key West and Monroe County. What really is worrisome is, in reality, I don’t think when they built the project, they knew these escalating insurance costs. So I worry that they’re going to get to a point where the rent can’t cover the long term maintenance of the project, because it’s capped and that long term costs includes that insurance, which is going out of control. I know several of the partners we work with are very concerned because they’ve gotten their new insurance quotes during renewals, and it’s going out of the ballpark. So super worrisome.”

The hurricane evacuation modeling could have a direct impact on land development.

Hurley said, “The commissioners passed a resolution and they asked for two I’ll call them housekeeping issues that came out over the past couple years related to mobile home evacuees and Key West being in the evacuation model. So those two items they have asked the legislature to address now and I know for sure, because I’ve seen the draft, that our legislative director is working closely with our lobbying team on those two issues. The second part of that is that they asked for adequate time to consult the public on the public wishes, basically. So they, in that same resolution, asked the legislature to put off the decision on how many permits to give until they can get adequate public input. So assuming the legislature does what they’ve been asked, which you always have to keep an eye on that, it could be about a year or until next legislative session when they take up that issue.”