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  • Writer's pictureTom Reilly

County again rejects $25M affordable housing development funded w/ 'highly competitive' state grant

Alan Festo

The Gainesville Sun

The Alachua County Commission on Tuesday night during a highly contentious meeting voted to reaffirm its decision in December to pull support for an affordable housing project planned for east Gainesville.

In a 3-2 decision, commissioners Marihelen Wheeler, Ken Cornell and Chuck Chestnut again voted in the majority.

The county will now seek to negotiate with property owner Ability Housing to purchase the land and plan to engage with area neighbors and other interested stakeholders about the land's future use, though few alternatives were mentioned throughout the duration of the meeting.

Wheeler, who seemed to struggle with the decision, understood she was the swing vote, stating, "this vote will come down to me."

“I will vote tonight with my head and not my heart," she said. "My heart is with the people out there on the street who need housing. But my head tells me we’re going to have to listen to these people because if we put something there that’s hostile in their community," she said, seemingly at a loss for words.

The $25 million, 96-unit development, known as Dogwood Village, was planned for the corner of Southeast Eighth Avenue and Southeast 15th Street, across from Lincoln Park. The project was being spearheaded by the Jacksonville-based nonprofit Ability Housing, which purchased the roughly 13 acres next to the city of Gainesville's Heartwood homes development for about $1.8 million.

The Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC) program selected Ability Housing to receive a highly competitive $15 million grant, funded through low-income tax credits. Another $460,000 was to be evenly split through a local match from Alachua County government and the county's housing finance authority.

In a Dec. 28 letter to the commission, Ability Housing threatened to sue the county for roughly $15 million, which includes the cost of the property, planning, loss of revenue and the replacement of financing. That figure, however, would likely be contested even though the county has a contract with the organization. In another letter, the FHFC communicated that the location of the project could not be moved and that no deadlines would be changed.

More than 40 residents spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting that lasted nearly five hours, the majority of those vehemently opposed the project. Several people asked the commission to reverse its previous decision and support the project, including those with the Alachua County Labor Coalition.

Residents who oppose the project have asked commissioners why they would approve more low-income housing in an area that already lacks grocery stores, health care and reliable transportation. Residents also are upset with the lack of communication about the project and feel, with some saying it was being forced into their neighborhood despite their objections.

Ability Housing offered the option of a host of amenities that it has at other locations. Some of those features include a playground, fitness center, clubhouse, after-school programming, full security, fencing around the site, free Montessori-like preschooling, a health clinic, accessing benefits, tutoring, summer youth camps, career development, crime prevention and financial literacy.

By right, a developer could have built roughly 200 units on the site.

Many of those who showed up in opposition Tuesday were from the Azalea Trails neighborhood. The crowd featured people with familiar faces who also aggressively protested the city of Gainesville's elimination of exclusionary zoning that allowed multi-family homes to be built in single-family neighborhoods. Among those in attendance were Leanetta McNealy, City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker and former commission candidates Dejeon Cain and Gary Gordon.

"The data says that affordable housing, for anyone, be it the most vulnerable, be it workforce housing, should be placed in resource-rich neighborhoods," Duncan-Walker said. "And right now, District 1, which is where this project would be, my district, is not a resource-rich neighborhood."

Supporters of the project, however, have also argued that inserting workforce housing would, statistically, bump up the overall income of neighborhood residents, which could lead to further business development and job opportunities nearby.

East Gainesville development

Despite what some shared Tuesday, east Gainesville has already seen more subtle changes in recent years than the decades prior, with more development expected.

Gainesville and Alachua County officials recently struck an agreement with the University of Florida Health to build a neighborhood urgent care facility. Gainesville also approved a transfer of land from UF to the city so that it could build an already-funded transit station a few blocks away from where Dogwood Village would have been built. Mérieux NutriSciences has also opened its facility in front of the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC), nearby a newly constructed Wawa convenience store and gas station.

The location is also along several transit routes and, unlike most east Gainesville neighborhoods, is conveniently located within 2 miles of three different grocery chains, several banks and pharmacies.

Cornell, the Alachua County District 1 commissioner who represents the area where the project was planned, said the city and county's policies don't support the concentration of poverty in east Gainesville, adding that he wants to see affordable housing more fairly dispersed.

A majority of the previous City Commission, however, has previously expressed disappointment over the county rejecting the proposal. City officials have also argued that the county's rejection of Gainesville's elimination of exclusionary zoning contradicts its position on Dogwood Village, as the zoning change would have allowed more affordable housing to be dispersed citywide.

Cornell said in December that 85% of affordable housing was already located in east Gainesville, though that number was based on old information on the county's website, according to Chris Dawson, the county's transportation planning manager. Dawson said Tuesday night that the current number is closer to 78%.

Data submitted by Ability Housing and provided by the University of Florida’s Shimberg Center shows only 65% of affordable housing is located on the east side, with 35% on the west side.

Regardless of the figure, the data shows a majority of affordable housing is concentrated in east Gainesville, which is made up ⅓ of all city residents.

Still, Commissioner Anna Prizzia expressed her disappointment with the narrative expressed by some community members who she said inaccurately described what the project would ultimately become and who it was for. County officials have said the project would be for workforce housing for people who make roughly between $17,000 and $49,000 year, depending on family size, and have been priced out of the housing market.

"I think that when you go to Jacksonville and you walk the communities that Ability Housing has built, and you see the work that they're doing, they're changing the narrative about what affordable housing is," Prizzia said. "... I feel like that there's this narrative that's being spun about what this is going to be, that it's poverty, that it's concentrating poverty, that it's going to be drug addicts and homeless people."

With the rejection, it's unclear if Ability Housing will seek additional funding from the county following the purchase of the property. The county will have a lower rating when competing for additional funding from the FHFC for at least two years.

The $15 million grant that Ability Housing received for the project will be void on Jan. 27.

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