Case Study: Florida Keys Community Land Trust

The Florida Keys Community Land Trust (CLT) demonstrates how land trusts can deliver resilient affordable housing options in disaster-affected areas. The Florida Keys, a 125-mile long chain of islands off the southern tip of Florida in Monroe County, were devastated in 2017 by Hurricane Irma. Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 hurricane and its sustained winds of 132 mph and 8-foot storm surge devastated homes, businesses, and infrastructure in the Lower and Middle Keys. Twenty-five percent of the homes in the Florida Keys were damaged or destroyed by the storm, with disproportionate impacts on manufactured homes that made up the bulk of affordable housing in the County. In the aftermath of the storm, the Florida Keys CLT was established to acquire disaster-affected properties and build resilient workforce housing for middle- and lower-income renters in the Keys. The CLT has acquired almost thirty lots and completed construction of 4 homes, with 5 additional homes in development and another 22 homes planned. The CLT is building energy efficient and resilient 2- and 3-bedroom cottages for families earning 80 percent or less of area median income and earning at least 70 percent of their income from work in Monroe County. The Cottages are built to withstand 200 mph winds and are elevated 12 feet, exceeding flood design standards required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).


Hurricane Irma destroyed homes and businesses throughout the Florida Keys, causing an affordable housing crisis and displacing many residents and local workers. The storm’s 132 mph winds and 8-foot storm surge destroyed 1,800 homes and severely damaged another 3,000 throughout the Keys. The storm made landfall at Cudjoe Key and devastated Big Pine Key, two communities that supported much of the region’s workforce housing.1 The housing stock in these areas was mostly older ground-level homes or manufactured homes that were wiped out by the storm. As a result, many workers were displaced by the storm -- including teachers, nurses, police officers, and restaurant workers -- which is causing broader repercussions for the local economy and community resilience in the Keys. The County estimated a loss of between 15 to 25 percent of its population as a consequence of the storm and the slow recovery.2 

Even before the storm, the region faced challenges with affordable housing. As a chain of islands with high land values and a tourist-dependent economy, maintaining affordable workforce housing has been difficult. The storm only exacerbated these challenges. The Florida Housing Coalition estimates that 49 percent of residents in Monroe County are rent-burdened (spending more than 30% of income on housing) and 26 percent severely rent-burdened (spending more than 50% of income on housing). Additionally, higher building standards and the post-Irma labor shortage made rebuilding efforts even more challenging and expensive. Even several years after the storm, the region is still struggling to rebuild.

CLT Projects & Activities

In the aftermath of the storm, seasonal residents -- Maggie and Richard Whitcomb -- contributed $1 million to establish the CLT in 2017 to support disaster recovery efforts and construction of resilient affordable rental housing. Their goal was to acquire storm-damaged properties, rebuild cost-efficient homes for working families, and prevent disaster-affected affordable properties from being lost to post-disaster speculation.

As of 2019, the Florida Keys CLT had acquired approximately 30 lots in the Middle Keys around Big Pine Key and had completed four homes and had two other development projects underway. The first project involved construction of four “Katrina Cottages” on scattered lots in Big Pine Key. Katrina Cottage are “kit houses,”  designed to support disaster recovery efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They are built using prefabricated structural insulated panels (SIPs), which helps to keep construction costs down and increases the energy efficiency and storm resilience of the homes. The 2-bedroom, 760 sq. foot cottages exceed local building codes and are designed to withstand 200 mph winds and are raised 12 feet on stilts, one foot above FEMA height requirements. High ceilings and window ventilation also help to reduce cooling costs. The CLT offered the cottages for rent to families earning 80 percent AMI and 70 percent of their income through work in the Keys. The first four cottages rented to some families who will pay approximately $1000/month for rent, as compared to a market rate rentals in the County which average $2500/month for one- and two-bedroom apartments after Irma.

The CLT also has 27 more units in the pipeline. The CLT has broken ground on five more Keys Cottages (including both 2-bedroom and 3-bedroom homes up to 1100 sq. feet) on scattered lots throughout Big Pine Key. The CLT is also working on a larger scale redevelopment of the former site of the “Seahorse RV park,” which will deliver 26 units of affordable, hurricane-resistant rental housing on Big Pine Key and will include community amenities and green space that will be developed in collaboration with the community (called the “Seahorse Cottages”).3  

State & Local Support

The County has helped support the CLT’s redevelopment efforts by purchasing and leasing lots to the CLT and by providing grants and other funding. The first phase of CLT cottages were supported by the County that purchased the lots for $100,000 each and leased the lots to the CLT for redevelopment. This helped the CLT raise the needed financial resources to fund construction of the first Keys Cottages. The CLT constructed the homes, and will manage the lands, and rent the homes subject to the County’s affordable housing requirements. The second phase of projects will be constructed on lands owned and held in trust by the CLT. The County has supported redevelopment of these projects, including the Seahorse Cottages, by providing $5 million in Community Development Block Grant funding. 

Funding & Financing

The CLT was started with $1 million in seed funding from the Whitcomb family, seasonal residents of the Keys. The family has contributed additional resources and helped to bring in other funding from local nonprofits and foundations, including the Florida Keys Hurricane Recovery Foundation, Ocean Reef Community Foundation, United Way of the Florida Keys, and the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys. The CLT has also been approved for funding from Florida’s allocation of Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which will be used to support the Seahorse Cottages project. 


Publication Date: July 25, 2020

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