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Anita McGee works seven days a week as a parking attendant in downtown Key West, Fla. She’s lived here for three decades. But since her landlady died this past year, she has been unable to find a new apartment that she can afford. “I don’t want to be pushed out,” she says. “This is home.”
Finding housing is becoming increasingly difficult for many of the people who live and work in this island paradise. The finances of living with hurricanes has played a large role in the rising cost of living. And with storms intensifying and sea levels rising, those expenses are only soaring higher, pushing housing out of reach for many.
Key Westers are proud of their ability to adapt. They see their low-lying island as a sort of measuring stick for resilience. If they can weather the storm of climate change, perhaps there’s a path for other vulnerable coastal areas. The question is whether it can be done in a way that doesn’t squeeze out the cashiers, waiters, and parking attendants like Ms. McGee who help make this place paradise.
On a map, Key West is just a speck of land surrounded by water. Tourists from the mainland drive for hours over the aptly-named Overseas Highway to reach this vacation paradise at the tip of the Florida Keys. The island’s remoteness and sparkling waters entice more than 3 million visitors a year, and buoy residents’ fierce love for the place.
But being out in the middle of the ocean is as much a danger as it is a draw. With an average elevation of 4.7 feet above sea level, Key West is particularly vulnerable to threats from the ocean. That isn’t lost on homeowners, as many know the flood risk of their homes down to the inch.
Key West is on the front line of climate change. The island serves as a sort of measuring stick for resilience. Islands and low-lying coastal areas around the world face looming displacement as seas rise and storms intensify. If the community there can weather the storm of climate change, perhaps there’s a path for other vulnerable coastal areas, too.
“We should do what we can to make our time on this beautiful little rock last as long as possible,” says Alison Higgins, sustainability coordinator for Key West. “As the canary in the coal mine, if we’re not willing to make changes, why should anyone?”
City officials and homeowners have already been adapting infrastructure to keep flooding at bay, with an eye toward Key West’s long-term habitability. But such changes come at a price. And with an already high cost of living driving demographic changes in the Keys, that raises questions about who gets to stay.
Living with water
Waters are already creeping higher in the Florida Keys. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tidal gauge in Key West has logged about 9 inches of sea-level rise over the past century. As a result, flooding has slowly become more of a norm.
A few times a year, some residents awake to find seawater in the street. That happens during the highest tides. These so-called king tides now rise high enough to bubble up through low-elevation storm drains. Businesses near those low spots keep sandbags at the ready to keep this nuisance flooding at bay. One CVS store relocated after the merchandise on its lowest racks got wet too many times.
The city has invested in infrastructure designed to alleviate nuisance flooding. One-way valves on storm drains block seawater’s easiest path into the streets. Injection wells divert water underground when rains exacerbate flooding during a king tide.
These measures have made a difference, but projections for sea-level rise suggest that the problem could continue to swell. Today’s king tides reach nearly 2-1/2 feet. Scientists estimate that waters could rise 6 to 10 inches above 1992 levels by 2030. Higher seas means bigger king tides and higher storm surge during hurricanes – another source of flooding.
The city has taken steps to elevate portions of Key West, including a community park, a fire station, and some roads. Last year Monroe County, which includes all of the Florida Keys, made plans to raise more roads in anticipation of future sea-level rise – a project that could cost more than $3 million per mile.
But these city and county infrastructure projects can only do so much, says Ms. Higgins. “You raise a road, and that just pushes more water somewhere else, which is usually into the private properties.”
Price of a slice of paradise
The cost of adapting a home to keep flooding out isn’t pocket change. Just ask Peter Batty.
Mr. Batty elevated his Key West home last year. It cost him about $175,000, “part of the price of living in paradise,” he says.
That’s the high end of what raising a home here could cost, as Batty's four-bedroom house is heavy concrete and was resting directly on the ground. Frame houses that already have a crawl space beneath them for leverage could cost between $20,000 to $30,000 to raise because it’s a simpler job.
Batty didn’t plan to raise his home when he bought it in January 2017. But building codes, renovations, and hurricane Irma conspired to give him that nudge.
In Key West, any home built before Dec. 31, 1974, doesn’t have to be brought up to code unless the owner spends more than 50 percent of the house’s value on renovations. Batty had already planned some alterations to the home before Irma ripped the roof off in September 2017, pushing his costs over that threshold.
Batty had raised his house an additional 2 feet 2 inches to surpass the base flood elevation established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Key West Mayor Teri Johnston sees these building codes as helping build resilience into the community, a natural extension of the hurricane abatement efforts that have always been a part of the city’s planning efforts.
“We have had [some of] the strongest building codes in the United States for years,” she says. “So I see this it is an extension of that. We've gone from wind to water now.”
Raising their houses isn’t the only price Key West homeowners pay for living surrounded by water. If they have a mortgage and are at a high risk of flooding, they usually are required to purchase flood insurance. And, with most of the island at a low base flood elevation, that can get expensive.
On top of flood insurance, mortgage-holding homeowners are also often required to carry separate homeowners and wind insurance policies. The three can add up.
“It is not unheard of that those bills, cumulatively, exceed your mortgage,” says Steve Russ, who is vice president of the board of directors for the grass-roots organization Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe County. “The impact of insurance costs have driven people that I know out of the Keys.”
Elite escape or Key West for all?
Renters are faced with their own set of challenges.
Anita McGee works seven days a week as a parking attendant in downtown Key West. She’s lived here for three decades. But since her landlady died this past year, she has been unable to find a new apartment that she can afford and that will accommodate her two dogs, Tetris and Taffy.
“I should be able to have a place to live and all that,” says Ms. McGee. “Most people should that work hard and are responsible and try to stay with everything and keep everything together in their lives.”
Owning a home is out of the question for McGee and many other service or hourly workers in Key West. Rents are also perilously high. The majority of renters are classified as overburdened, spending more than a third of their paychecks on rent.
That financial challenge is putting the squeeze on the city’s workforce. Some hotel workers are provided living quarters, but many of the cashiers, waiters, and parking attendants who keep the vibrant tourist economy going in Key West struggle to find affordable housing. Teachers, police officers, firefighters, and others in the community also struggle to make ends meet, creating staffing challenges.
Some people filling those gaps commute from other parts of the Keys or even make the three-hour-plus drive from the mainland. In 2016, about 38 percent of firefighters throughout the Keys lived on the mainland.
Hurricanes further threaten the tenuous housing situation for Lower Keys residents. Many low-income workers own or rent trailer homes that are particularly vulnerable to high winds, heavy rains, and storm surge. In the wake of a destructive hurricane, the cost of rebuilding can make its way into rental rates, deter some from rebuilding, and prompt some property owners to sell.
Many buyers coming into Key West are looking for vacation homes. This further squeezes the housing market by driving up home prices and reducing the housing stock.
In the past year, Key West home prices have risen 12.2 percent, according to Zillow. And as wealthier buyers of vacation homes supplant permanent residents, the demographic makeup of the island has shifted. United States Census data from 2000 shows that 8.3 percent of the city’s housing units were vacant for seasonal or recreational use. In 2010, that number rose to 13.7 percent.
Local government agencies are exploring the possibility of building resilient affordable housing complexes. But there’s a major roadblock: The state has a cap on development in the Keys to ensure efficient evacuation along the single highway in the event of a hurricane. The Keys are on track to hit that limit by 2023.
There is already workforce and affordable housing, and more in development, but with high demand, there’s a wait. McGee says she’s been on a waiting list for about a year.
Rising waters, rising costs
The cost of living in the Keys is likely to continue to rise with the changing climate. By midcentury, about 2,300 Lower Keys homes could start to see high-tide related property damage, according to calculations published by Florida International University researchers in 2011. By the end of the century that figure could triple.
To compound the economics, FEMA is set to release a draft of new flood maps for the area later this year. The revision will be based on updated elevation data, recent storm data, and improved modeling technology. FEMA does not include sea-level projections in its mapping, but recent storm intensification and sea-level increases will likely be incorporated. The new maps are expected to rezone many properties to lower base flood elevations, increasing flood insurance costs and requiring new buildings to be elevated even more than current codes.
Sea-level rise may already be happening in Key West, but city officials say that it’s happening slowly enough that there’s still time to adapt.
It remains to be seen what the true cost of adaptation will turn out to be long term.
“Even with no climate change issues, we would still have higher cost of living and affordability issues,” Higgins says. “We just have the extra layer on top.”
But the culture in Key West could also add an extra layer of resiliency for the community.
“Being at the end of the earth, we’re very self-sufficient,” says Mayor Johnston. “We’re a very independent, hardy lot. We rally around each other, we take care of each other, we make sure everybody’s OK. And that’s how we make it. You’ve got to be that kind of person to fit in here, too.”
This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.