Heather Bushman Correspondent, Gainesville Sun
Despite citywide strides toward securing affordable and accessible living, additional steps toward easing Gainesville’s housing crisis will have to wait a bit longer.
A split 4-3 City Commission voted down a proposal Thursday that would have paved the way for smaller starter homes to be built citywide while still keeping single-family zoning intact, aligning with a desire to reinstate exclusionary zoning.
The failed proposal was built on the idea that lot size requirements around Gainesville restrict new entry-level homes (sub-1,400 square feet) from being built in most parts of the city, despite many already being constructed decades prior. Though no elected city official disagreed with the merits of the proposal, four refused to send it to the city's planning board for further review.
Commissioner Bryan Eastman, who made the pitch, argues the rejection is a contradictory move by his colleagues who have promised to help residents find affordable housing options.
"This commission needs to make a decision," he said. "Are we going to take action on this housing crisis or not? My proposal was a common-sense middle-ground solution ... Finding solutions is what we were elected to do and it's disappointing that they won't even consider it."
Eastman argues that his Gainesville home, which he considers to be common-size for first-time owners, would be restricted in nearly 97% of the city’s single-family zoned areas. Changing lot sizes, he said, allows people who have been priced out of the housing market the flexibility of purchasing a home at an affordable price. It also helps avoid them having to pay soaring rent costs to investors.
A major reason for the rejection appears to be tied to the argument around exclusionary zoning.
Last October, under the previous commission, city leaders voted 4-3 to eliminate single-family zoning citywide, meaning that more duplexes, triplexes and − on rarer occasions − quadplexes could be built anywhere in city limits if the development met the lot size requirements. The conversation on the topic was met with strong pushback from the community, as well as county officials and state lawmakers.
Last month, however, on the first day four members took office, the commission reversed that decision. The city is now awaiting the state's approval before holding a final vote.
Those who fought against the elimination of single-family zoning from the start include commissioners Cynthia Chestnut and Desmon Duncan-Walker, who argue it would change the character of historic neighborhoods. However, much of District 1's east Gainesville, which Duncan-Walker represents, would have been unchanged because the region already allows multi-family housing. Additionally, the Duckpond neighborhood, where Chestnut lives, also has a number of entry-level homes already built.
Eastman, who also vowed to reverse the single-family zoning change on the campaign trail, argues that some aspects of the plan should still be considered to help residents find affordable housing.
“There are some egregious issues with our current zoning that is stopping a lot of the things that we’ve talked about,” he said at the meeting.
The New York Times reported that starter homes − like Eastman's − made up approximately 70% of the housing market in the 1940s. Today, that figure teeters around 8%.
Still, Mayor Harvey Ward said Eastman's proposal was too much, too soon. While the recommendations were of interest, Ward said the commission should first focus on reinstating exclusionary zoning before expanding upon it.
“If this had been before us last year when the conversation first came to us, this would be the law right now,” Ward said.
But Eastman did bring up a less-thorough discussion on the topic last month, during his first day in office. His plan then called for a halt on all multi-family developments in affected historic single-family zoned neighborhoods − something the majority of the commission supported in its reversal vote.
That suggestion was largely ignored. Instead, the commission moved forward with a full reversal to reinstate exclusionary zoning that, until formally adopted in the coming months, continues to allow the development of multi-family homes citywide.
Commissioners Reina Saco, Casey Willits and Eastman, like Thursday, were in the minority of that vote, too.
Other housing progress
The city meeting Thursday featured a host of other housing-related topics led by a quarterly update that outlined significant progress in citywide affordable housing, though the commission couldn’t commit to heightened zoning criteria before fully restoring exclusionary zoning.
Officials said Gainesville's Housing and Community Development Division will move forward with a housing work plan that’s proven fruitful in its first months. Andrew Persons, director of Gainesville’s Department of Sustainable Development, reported the program has already seen success and will continue to facilitate affordable development through varied areas of funding.
The housing work plan, which the commission approved last July, hinges on a combination of local, state and federal funding to promote local affordable housing. Programs like the Community Development Block Grant, the State Housing Initiatives Partnership Program and the Community Land Trust will finance citywide housing projects in the coming months.
The debate regarding how to best allocate the funds dominated commissioner questions and public comment. Several commenters implored the commission to allocate the majority of funding to local developers. Chestnut proposed doing just that before withdrawing and siding with recommendations from City Manager Cynthia Curry.
In 2021, Gainesville also received $32 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). At least $8 million has been allocated for housing initiatives.
The coming projects will add to other proposals from the city's housing division, which include the construction of 10 accessory dwelling units, or “mother-in-law units,” that would sit alongside five new single-family homes.
Projects like these are proof that the city is moving in the right direction, Curry said.
“Today, I can say the housing footprint is tangible,” Curry said. “Things are happening for families in need of affordable housing in Gainesville.”
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