Monroe County Land Authority is working to help with housing

Christine Hurley, executive director of the Monroe County Land Authority, joined Good Morning Keys on KeysTalk 96.9/102.5FM Friday morning to talk about what’s been going on in the county.

The primary funding source for the land authority is from a half penny bed tax from resorts or vacation rentals and the authority acquires property for conservation use and they partner with a number of organizations to provide affordable housing, including Habitat for Humanity.

Hurley said, “That’s something we’re very proud of. Habitat in the Keys has been a great partner through the years, probably going on about three decades really. So we help in different ways. But normally, what we do is we find vacant, privately owned lots that are appropriate for affordable housing, because we have a pretty strict rule. We can’t buy conservation-type land and then use it for affordable housing. We buy lots that are appropriate for development, and then we partner with Habitat through the local government. So if it’s up in Key Largo, for example, the Board of County Commissioners will work with the land authority. We usually convey the property to the county and then the county normally leases it to each Habitat, and then they build a house on it, and the house is what they sell. But when we maintain ownership of the vacant lot, it’s really good because that means it’ll be affordable forever, which is an important thing when you’re putting public money into housing development.”

Providing the land is an important part of that partnership.

Hurley said, “We have a lot of better opportunities in the Lower Keys. I don’t know why exactly, but the markets are different. The Upper Keys, they have kind of created a goal that they will build 10 new housing unit, and they were able to secure the ROGO allocations for that. So we are really out trying to find appropriate vacant land in the Upper Keys, the Key Largo, Tavernier area for that partnership.”

The Middle Keys is about to open the Bell Haven project.

Hurley said, “Now they’re looking to potentially build a duplex. So little by little people find where these opportunities exist. It’s hard these days to find good, vacant land that people want to sell for this purpose. But when we do we try to jump on it. Following Hurricane Irma, a lot of folks wanted to sell out and so we were able to work with them to purchase their properties, and then reuse them for affordable housing.”

A lot of the land that is vacant in Tavernier is environmentally sensitive.

Hurley said, “We can’t buy that type of land and then clear the native vegetation and build a house. So we are always looking for land that might help them with their goal.”

There are advantages to selling land to the land authority.

Hurley said, “Occasionally, we do have even people that want to donate land. The Lower Keys Habitat has been very fortunate in that aspect. If they have land that’s donated to them that might be environmentally sensitive, we’ve even bought that land from Habitat, fair market value, we go and get appraisals. So we try to figure out ways to either, help them with the land purchase, or if it’s not appropriate for development, then maybe we’ll buy it for conservation, but then that gives the Habitat, the money to go out and work on their own projects. What we’re really looking for is land that’s not vegetated, and there’s not a lot of that left. Sometimes, we will have a unique opportunity and I’ve seen one or two pop up recently where maybe there was a mobile home on the property or something like that, that we could try to go and buy that type of land.”

Are there tax benefits to the seller?

Hurley said, “If they do a donation, there are these forms that we sign based on appraised value and that they can take that as a tax write off. The other advantage is we are a cash buyer. So our process takes about two months, but that’s not too bad in this in this kind of environment. We’re not working with any banks and we have the cash so that helps I think a lot of times when we make our offers.”

Anyone interested in helping with land is asked to call 305-295-5180.

The voluntary homebuyer program is still in existence, but no new applications are being accepted.

Hurley said, “So far, we’ve probably acquired about 13 home sites. That land is not being rebuilt on because of the way that the grant works. It basically, when we buy that land, it’s returned to the natural state in hopes that that will help with flood issues in the future. So we’re still winding down on spending that $15 million, but we’re not taking new applications anymore.”

Municipalities also work with the land authority for affordable housing.

Hurley explained, “We’re working with the city of Key West now, it’s called the Loft, the 3.2 acre site. Key West has a separate pot of money in our agency. So they will submit a request, and then we bring it to our governing board for approval. We’re always looking to partner on those types of projects. I just met with the Housing Authority recently, they’re planning a really exciting addition, in Key West over on Flagler. It’s a really great concept that Randy Sterling has come up with. He wants to build, let’s say, 40, 50 units, and then he can relocate the existing tenants so that they can start rehabbing the older public housing that’s in Key West. So kind of like a cycle that they’ll go through and it’s really important that we do something like that, because he does need to rehab the older unit.”

One issue is how much the market changes between the beginning of a project and breaking ground.

Hurley said, “They’re now getting closer to knowing real construction costs and real numbers. I think they’re going to reevaluate that around October. And so we look to see what they come up with, and then we’ll start moving on that project.”

There are some stipulations for residents needing to qualify each year for the project.

Hurley said, “That’s our main rule. Someone cannot earn more than 160 percent of area median income. So what happens with ownership is it makes it more difficult, because you want people to succeed and earn more money, and they buy a house using our funding. But in reality, their income can’t go above that level. So we’re going to work on a legislative change to that to kind of quantify that that can be at the time of purchase. But we also want to make sure that we protect the amount of money that we put into any deal. In other words, let a new buyer that meets the income assume the mortgage as time goes on, but never really let that unit convert to where someone takes out the equity that they get, when we, for example, put in $300,000 to a housing unit. So we’ve got to be careful on that and we’re working on language right now to propose.”