ISLAMORADA, Florida — Stephenie Matejcik bought an old trailer on Craigslist, sold everything she owned, and drove from Ohio to the Florida Keys with two suitcases to start a new life.
Now Matejcik’s home is one of the handful still standing at Sea Breeze Resort, a poster child of post-Hurricane Irma wreckage whose 120 residents worry they’ll have no place to go — whether their trailers survived or not.
“I knew when I bought this home and saw how close it was to the ocean that it could get blown away at any moment,” said the server and personal trainer as she loaded her car to stay with her boyfriend until power and sewer service returns. “But you live every moment, and you love what you do.”
For decades, Sea Breeze and other vintage Keys trailer parks have offered affordable housing to workers like Matejcik who keep the islands’ tourism-dependent economy humming. Mobile homes that didn't meet building standards were allowed to continue until they had to be replaced.
Now Irma has swept away their protected status. Residents wonder not only “Where now?” but also whether they can stay in the Keys at all.
Darren Iorio, a construction worker who invested about $25,000 in a trailer, was about to install new storm windows and floor tiles when Irma struck. He has a different worry.
“There's a lot of good people in these small parks who will probably have to leave the island," he said. "I'm capable. I can fix this. But I don't think they're going to let me."
Increasingly since 2000, developers have been buying up Keys trailer park lands for upscale housing that meets the appetites of snow birds and the hurricane codes of Monroe County.
"They never gave us a lease,” Matejcik recalls when multi-billion-dollar real estate investment trust Sun Communities bought Sea Breeze. “I would just drop a check in the slot every month, with no real person to talk to.”
Iorio fears Irma will give Sun Communities a reason to declare all of Sea Breeze’s circa 1970s trailers uninhabitable so the land can be re-developed.
“For some of us, Irma is a tragedy. For others, it’s an opportunity to claim damages and move in the people they want,” he said.
At the center of Sea Breeze, a blue, perfectly unruffled Sun spec home stood amidst the wreckage signaling the future — a planned community of contemporary, manufactured homes with footings buried in three feet of concrete to federal flood zone standards, homes Iorio's family probably won’t be able to afford.
“There is no thought of bulldozing or removing homes that are in good shape,” said Sun Communities CEO Gary Shiffman, whose management team is hustling to assess extensive damages at three of the company's seven Keys communities and over 100 across Florida.
“Any cleanup of debris is meant for the common areas and the roads,” sid Shiffman, dispelling a rumor from residents that bulldozers would scoop up the personal effects strewn over the grounds with the trailers' remains. “We do not presume to interfere with the residents’ sites.”
Sun Communities, he said, offers an annual lease to renters if they want one.
Either way, Keys development trends spell an approaching end to the islands’ funky old trailer parks. From a flyover after the hurricane, Monroe County Commissioner David Rice estimates a third of all Keys housing from Seven Mile Bridge to Stock Island east of Key West has been destroyed.
“There is no question the trailers were most heavily damaged, and most didn’t survive the storm,” Rice said.
Rice said the county decides whether a building is habitable on a dwelling-by-dwelling basis, and trailers will be treated the same as regular homes.
The fear that Keys trailer parks will continue to be bought and converted into less affordable housing is well-founded.
“Developers are naturally drawn to providing the higher end of affordable housing,” county planners wrote in 2006 after five luxury Keys housing projects had replaced affordable properties in as many years.
An effort began to protect the old trailer parks on Stock and Key Haven islands that house workers serving Key West. More affordable units were planned.
Despite the county's efforts, workers and others said there aren't enough options.
“There’s already a housing shortage,” said Robbie McClung, a Keys tourism promoter and event producer who was at the park helping his father collect his effects from his totaled Sea Breeze trailer. “Irma worsens it. It’ll be hard to replace.”
While Islamorada rents have gone through the roof, servers still make the same amount of money, McClung said.
“Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous,” security guard Nelson Adrade shook his head as he watched over the site of a former trailer park of Sea Breeze's vintage that is now a new gated community on stilts. Irma had tossed the sign for Key Largo Ocean Resort across the Overseas Highway, but its brochures advertising beachfront amenities still clung to the construction fence.
To Rice, the immediate Irma crisis is dealing with an estimated 40,000 residents who have not been able to return to their homes. There’s no answer now to worker housing needs specifically, he said.
“You know, servers, bartenders, my friends in the local businesses, even construction and fishing, all of us rely on tourism,” McClung held back tears. “And now there’s no people to eat in the restaurants.”
Tom Neville, a musician and fix-it man, expected he would have work starting Monday — a construction job at a Publix supermarket. But he and others are looking for a place to stay.
“We’ve got nowhere to go," he said. "We talked to FEMA, Red Cross, the police – everyone says ‘We don’t have anything for you.’”
At least that problem will be solved with temporary housing. A tweet Friday from Florida Gov. Rick Scott said help is on its way:
After days of media visits featuring Sea Breeze’s destruction, McClung reached a breaking point.
“Yes, this neighborhood looks really bad, but there’s still some nice places,” he said. “A lot of people here aren’t going to give up. We will rebuild. They will come back.”
The name Islamorada means something to those who live here, "island home from the (Spanish) word morada for dwelling,” McClung said. “This is a lot of people’s island home.”
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