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County commission puts workforce housing at risk in vote to move it west of Main Street

Commissioner Anna Prizzia, following the final vote

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At a Special Meeting before their Regular Meeting on December 13, the Alachua County Commission voted 3-2 to withdraw funding they had previously approved for a workforce housing project unless the developer finds a site west of Main Street and the state funding source allows the developer extra time to do that.     

The agenda originally included three items: an Ability Housing discussion, proposed by Commissioner Ken Cornell; an Employee Compensation item, proposed by Commissioners Cornell and Anna Prizzia; and a Behavior Health Diagnosis item, proposed by Commissioner Mary Alford. The two latter items were moved to the Regular Meeting after the first agenda item lasted an hour and 45 minutes, causing the meeting to end only 15 minutes before the next meeting was scheduled to begin.

History of the project

Ability Housing has proposed building the Dogwood Village Project on the corner of SE 15th Street and SE 8th Avenue; the project was approved by the County Commission in September 2020 on a consent agenda, and the State Housing Finance Authority (HFA) approved a loan award of $460,000 in August 2021. The County Commission voted in September to provide $230,000 to the HFA as a local match toward the project costs of about $25 million. The project is intended for families under 60% of adjusted median income, also known as “workforce housing.”

At the September meeting, the commission voted unanimously to approve the funds but also send a letter asking that the project be relocated to a different property in Alachua County. Cornell put the project on the December 13 agenda because he wanted to reconsider that vote, and Ability Housing had given the board a deadline of December 14 to make any changes.

While introducing the agenda item, Cornell said he had “learned an awful lot” in the past few months. “I learned that there is a significant concentration of poverty to the east of Main Street; that is not anybody’s fault, I think it’s everybody’s fault.” He said he “had the opportunity to read some books,” including The Color of Law, which “gives a very good overview of kind of the federal policies that have resulted in what we have in our community, which I don’t think is unique to us.” Cornell said that 85% of the 2,163 affordable housing units in Gainesville are east of Main Street. 

Cornell said he met with the staff of Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC), which is providing the bulk of the funding via low-income housing tax credit funds, and the response was that they agreed that if a request is made by Ability Housing to move to a different site and that if a specific site is identified and a justification is provided for the site change, they would review it but did not promise to approve it.

Cornell said he wanted to “make this really clear: I want to continue to work with Ability Housing, but I do not want to do it on this site… I think it’s really important that we give clear direction to staff that from this moment forward we want affordable housing, but we don’t want to concentrate it where we have historically and systematically concentrated it, which is specifically in the city of Gainesville, east of Main Street.”

The motion

Cornell proposed a three-part motion:

  • The board supports affordable housing projects but does not support projects that further concentrate poverty within the city of Gainesville. For all current and future projects, we will first seek to locate those projects west of Main Street and follow the guidelines passed at the September 13 meeting.
  • Staff should continue to work with Ability Housing and the City of Gainesville and inform Ability Housing that the board cannot support a local match at that particular site but supports this type of project at other locations within the city of Gainesville and the county that do not further concentrate systemic poverty and that follow the policies passed on September 13. Also, ask staff to work with City staff and Ability Housing to find an acceptable and fair price to acquire the property that Ability Housing purchased for $1.8 million.
  • Send another letter to FHFC that restates previous objections to this project at this site and further states that the specific justification for moving the project is to disperse affordable housing equitably throughout the city to change decades of systemic and intentional concentrations of poverty. The letter should also state that while this site is not acceptable for this type of project, there are other potential sites that require additional time to secure that would be supported by the board, so FHFC is asked to provide additional time to Ability Housing to secure a different parcel of land.

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut seconded the motion. Prizzia asked to split the motion into the first (policy) piece and the second two pieces about the project.

Board discussion

Cornell summed up by saying the newly-passed infrastructure sales tax will provide the board with a $4 million, 10-year funding source for affordable housing, and “We have to do this right. And the right project in the wrong location is not the right project. And I think we have to send a really strong signal to our community about what we’re doing today.”

Commissioner Mary Alford was concerned that the first part of the motion specified “current” projects, so she made a substitute motion to remove references to the current project and “talk about just the policy first.”

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler asked for clarification because she thought the board had decided not to take votes on “things like this” at policy meetings. Prizzia responded, “We don’t, typically. And in fact, Commissioner Cornell has been the one insisting these meetings be for policy discussions only, and action items get referred to our general meeting.” She said she was “allowing it because it’s not on an agenda and there’s a time frame associated with this conversation that’s very tight. This is the only time we have to discuss it, so I’m allowing it to move forward. But it isn’t typical.”

Cornell said the applicant gave the board until December 14 to respond. 

Alford said she was concerned that the County could be liable for costs that the developer may have already incurred in developing the site; she was also concerned that if the developer had to reapply for financing, they would likely face much higher interest rates. 

Cornell responded that he believed Ability Housing had spent $2.3 million and that he wanted to “[make] them whole. I don’t want Ability Housing to not be made whole at all. In fact, if they will work with us, I want to work with them on future projects.”

“I think the way you are perpetuating this dialogue is really undermining the potential we have to address affordable housing because you are basically saying affordable housing is about poverty, and that is not true. 54% of Alachua County qualifies for this project. 54%.” – Board Chair Anna Prizzia

Prizzia decided she didn’t want to take public comment separately on the separated motions, so she moved on to board discussion of the second and third parts of the motion. She told Cornell, “I think the way you are perpetuating this dialogue is really undermining the potential we have to address affordable housing because you are basically saying affordable housing is about poverty, and that is not true. 54% of Alachua County qualifies for this project. 54%… This is not low-income housing. This is not permanent supportive housing that requires massive amounts of wrap-around services. This is a highly competitive, really beautiful project for people who are working people… And you’re talking about giving up the opportunity to have 96 units… 400 people or so… [in] housing right now.”

“[The county commission] asked for this program, we put out an RFP for people to apply. Ability came forward and brought an amazing project forward. We agreed to support them. They went in good faith and got the funding… and now we’re going to kick them in the teeth and tell them to go away.” – Chair Prizzia

Prizzia said the project isn’t even about systemic issues: “The narrative has been spun to be about that because it’s convenient. But that is not in fact what’s happening here. This is really needed housing.” She pointed out that the value of the project is almost the entire amount the County will get over 10 years from the infrastructure tax. She said the county commission “asked for this program, we put out an RFP for people to apply. Ability came forward and brought an amazing project forward. We agreed to support them. They went in good faith and got the funding… and now we’re going to kick them in the teeth and tell them to go away.”

She said FHFC told her it’s “about as rare as hen’s teeth” for projects to get moved. She was also told that FHFC had previously denied a similar request to move a development site for the same reason, so they would deny this request: “He wasn’t inclined to move the project.” She also said that, based on her conversation, the board’s rejection of the project “could be jeopardizing the entire state, small and mid-sized counties from being able to access affordable housing program money out of that funding.”

“I think it’s crazy and it’s embarrassing and going to have a detriment on that $4 million a year we have. Because I can tell you developers like Ability and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation are not going to work with us if we’re going to do this kind of shenanigans.” – Chair Prizzia

Prizzia concluded, “I understand the community’s perspective. I respectfully disagree with this entire process of trying to withdraw support for something we’ve already approved twice… The City approved it, too… It’s been approved multiple times through multiple entities… I think it’s crazy and it’s embarrassing and going to have a detriment on that $4 million a year we have. Because I can tell you developers like Ability and the Florida Housing Finance Corporation are not going to work with us if we’re going to do this kind of shenanigans.”

Cornell responded that he considers the income range for the project to be low-income, and “if this isn’t objectionable, then it wouldn’t be objectionable west of Main Street.” He reiterated that he wanted to make Ability Housing whole by buying the property and reimbursing their expenses, and he wanted the City and County to “invest in this part of town… in a way that’s meaningful and changes outcomes.”

“To my staff: we are changing how we view affordable housing. Focus your efforts west of Main… And if this board doesn’t want to reaffirm that statement, I think we’ve got much bigger issues in our community than this project.” – Commissioner Ken Cornell

Cornell then said, ” Focus your efforts west of Main. Staff, hear me loud and clear. I want them to hear that. And I want this board to reaffirm that statement. And if this board doesn’t want to reaffirm that statement, I think we’ve got much bigger issues in our community than this project.”

Wheeler agreed with Prizzia that “it’s not affordable housing, it’s workforce housing. It’s those firefighters and police officers and teachers that are working on a very limited budget that need housing… Put the housing where the jobs are. Teachers teach all over the county. Firefighters, police officers work all over the county… We have schools on the east side.” She said this is a way to keep “our sons and daughters” in the community. 

“I don’t want to jeopardize our ability to put it everywhere by screwing up this project and this relationship, not only with Ability Housing but with the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, Florida Housing Corporation, all the other people that are going to be looking at this very carefully.” – Commissioner Mary Alford

Alford agreed, “I don’t call that affordable. I call that, you know, making sure that we have housing designated for these people and the people making more money don’t just come take it. Does that make sense? I don’t know, it’s like rent control as much as anything else… I think we need to put it everywhere we can… I don’t want to jeopardize our ability to put it everywhere by screwing up this project and this relationship, not only with Ability Housing but with the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, Florida Housing Corporation, all the other people that are going to be looking at this very carefully.”

“It’s going to cost money. Every big policy change does.” – Commissioner Ken Cornell

Cornell responded that this is an “opportunity to actually lead the state.” He added that it was “a false narrative” that developers and FHFC would not work with Alachua County in the future. “It’s going to cost money. Every big policy change does… I want to say [to Ability Housing]… work with us here and let’s figure out if we can extend this lottery ticket, and if not, let’s go win another lottery ticket. It’s that simple.”

Prizzia said they couldn’t even apply for the funding for two more years, and Cornell said, “I think in 10, 20, in 30 years, so if that’s the cost, let’s work with them on that.”

At this point, the board was an hour into a meeting that was scheduled for an hour and a half, with a Regular Meeting scheduled right after that, and Prizzia was clearly frustrated: “My concern about this situation is the fact that you’ve brought an action item at a policy meeting that ends at 11, is that we now have half an hour, so we have community that want to speak.” But first, she gave Ability Housing a chance to respond to the discussion.

A representative from Ability Housing said they “tried really hard with County staff” to find viable replacement sites in the allowed time frame, but “Florida Housing is very rigid because it’s a competitive process and candidly, it’s a very litigious process, so if they give advantage to one developer over another, then it just creates all sorts of problems in the system as a whole, which is part of the reason for their rigidity… Bending doesn’t help the overall process.” She said they also want to do other projects in Alachua County, but they believe this project will be a benefit to that neighborhood, that it will bring economic development and jobs to that community. She added, “We’re up against every deadline we can get” and said they are worried about putting $25 million in funding at risk. “The 96 families [who will live at the apartment complex] will have a place to live, every year for 50 years.”

The representative also pointed out that interest rates are going up, and because the complex is rent-restricted, they can’t increase rents to cover those additional costs. She said they haven’t been able to lock in interest rates “because of all this going on.”

Prizzia said they still had to take public comment, and she wanted to make sure they got to the other agenda items in the remaining 25 minutes; County Manager Michele Lieberman suggested moving the other two agenda items to their Regular Meeting, which started at 11:30, so Prizzia did that.

Public comment

During public comment, Carrie Parker Warren said that after listening to the discussion, “I think about my great-great-great-grandmother, who was forced to do something she didn’t want to do, and that was to get on a ship and be shackled in… We don’t want it there. The east side has been mistreated for centuries and centuries… We’ve been told from the beginning of time, for over 200 years, ‘Get on the ship, and we know where we want to put you. We know where you need to live.’… You don’t know what we need… You come from a different race of people, where you have always been in control… If you feel the way you do, you are telling us as a blonde, blue-eyed citizen in this country what black folk need… We do not want it in our community. I want people to have housing. Put it someplace else.”

Kali Blount said, “Some people say this is about NIMBY. It’s already enough in my backyard… People from this neighborhood were approached after the fact, and that is such a profound, destructive slap to this specific community.” 

Doris Edwards said the Lincoln Estates neighborhood originally heard that a developer was coming in to build housing for the homeless, and that created fear in the community. 

“I’m extremely disappointed that the state has a system that will allow this type of housing to be placed in this type of location, because that’s a huge part of this problem.” – Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker

Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said that African Americans living on the east side of Gainesville have been waiting for infrastructure, for hospitals and meaningful healthcare access, for reliable transportation, for “someone to bring relief from a food desert, and no, Walmart is not enough. We have been waiting for decades… And while I acknowledge the need for workforce housing, I agree… where housing goes matters… I’m extremely disappointed that the state has a system that will allow this type of housing to be placed in this type of location, because that’s a huge part of this problem.”

Board discussion

Prizzia and Cornell argued for a few minutes over whether the board could both pull support for the project and encourage FHFC to consider a new site. Prizzia thought that pulling the support for the local funding would cause the project to collapse, and Cornell thought it sent a signal that “we want to give a local match, but not at this site… You keep saying ‘project,’ I keep saying ‘site.'”

Cornell said he didn’t want to waste staff’s time, so if Ability Housing didn’t want them to send another letter and instead decided to withdraw the application, “I’m good with that, too.”

“And what this is, in essence, is you deciding that you wish you had applied a different policy to that than was in place at the time.” – County Attorney Sylvia Torres

Prizzia asked County Attorney Sylvia Torres what the County’s liability might be, and Torres said, “What we have is a situation where there was a program, you as a board adopted a program. The board said you wanted to be part of the program and that you would provide local support to whatever project the Alachua County Housing Finance Authority chose. They sent one over. Ministerially, the Chair signed that, and Ability Housing incurred costs based on that. And what this is, in essence, is you deciding that you wish you had applied a different policy to that than was in place at the time… How this plays out over time is how it plays out over time. I can’t tell you whether they will sue us… They certainly have damages at this point and certainly will have damages if the project does not go forward.”

Alford said, “When I’m talking about this project, I am not saying what the east side needs. I am not saying what black people need… we are potentially getting a lot of units of… workforce housing, which, while I would prefer it to be elsewhere, I just feel like we can’t lose that opportunity.”

Cornell wanted to respond, and Alford said, “If you truly believe a miracle is imminent, I want to hear that.”

“96 units is not worth the work that we need to do to change the direction of this community. Plain and simple… And… Florida Housing Corporation’s money, while I appreciate it, is not worth the damage that I believe this will cause.” – Commissioner Cornell

Cornell said he didn’t believe a miracle was imminent, but “96 units is not worth the work that we need to do to change the direction of this community. Plain and simple… And from this commission’s perspective, Florida Housing Corporation’s money, while I appreciate it, is not worth the damage that I believe this will cause.”

The vote to approve the substitute motion to locate all future affordable housing west of Main Street was unanimous.

The vote for the second and third parts of Cornell’s original motion, to withdraw support for the project at the current location, write a letter asking for more time to find a new location, and work to acquire the property and make Ability Housing whole, was 3-2 in favor of the motion, with Prizzia and Alford in dissent. Wheeler said to Cornell that she came in “prepared to oppose, but I hope you are right and that you know how to play this game.”

  • Build west of Main Street? Oh heck no. Build this jewel west of 34TH Street in the future (and soon to be thanks to Chuckie Clemmons) Springs County. Heck it must be built in downtown Newberry, to provide worker and student housing for the new regional jobs training facility the Springs County Slaughterhouse. That will serve the public good. Think west, Ms. Prizzia. Build everything in your district. $$$$$ for Newberry!

  • “Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said that African Americans living on the east side of Gainesville have been waiting for infrastructure, for hospitals and meaningful healthcare access, for reliable transportation, for “someone to bring relief from a food desert, and no, Walmart is not enough. We have been waiting for decades…”

    Walmart not enough? i wonder when they will close because of losses due to retail theft? i have been waiting for decades for a certain culture to change, but i am not holding my breath!

  • How about put it in Ken Cornell’s neighborhood and we can Have a free RTS jitney from there to downtown GNV every 30min?

  • Cornell screws up absolutely everything he touches, the exact opposite of the “Midas touch!” 💩

  • His “Wokeness” has spoken. Lil’ Kenny doesn’t want the hired help any closer to his plantation than they already are. Give Wheeler some credit, lil’ Kenny definitely knows how to play the game.

    Can’t wait to see how many millions this lawsuit is going to cost the taxpayers.

    • He must be getting more and more woke all the time (like a disease). No proposition will ever be woke enough, even his own proposition from a few months ago. I have a woke idea… waiving Bosshardt real estate transaction fees for people of color to make housing “more affordable” for them. I’m sure that idea would fly like a lead menorah.

  • The reason 85% is east of Main is because the property and land values are cheaper there. A Catch-22 perhaps, but it’s only gonna work if the new units are NOT section 8, NOT for couples or kids ruining surrounding areas, but single efficiency condo units, NOT rented. Plus they must be designed with HOA rules and security in mind, deed restrictions and self-governed both. To encourage being grownups.

  • I wonder how “in touch” Desmond Walker is with the businesses in Gainesville? Here’s something she’s probably aware of, as is Mr. Blount and many so-called community activists – there is a reason employers are hesitant to put businesses on the east side of Main St. Look no further than the Publix on North Main. The theft is higher than other locations and that is a quantifiable fact. You can’t have a business and have affordable prices if products are being stolen. (The only place that seems to be accepted is local government.)
    If the past couple years of what has been occuring in certain western cities hasn’t awaken you to that then you really are out of touch with reality.
    It’s not enough you want to control individual homeowners’ lives, you want to control businesses as well.

    • CVS recently closed the location on North Main, near the Main Steet Publix. I looked it up, and there are about 19 other CVS stores in town, but none of them are east of 13th Street since the closure of the Main Street store. People just don’t have standards for behavior. Not only should people not steal, they should try to be polite and act like they appreciate having a store to shop at or getting a pizza delivered to their home or whatever. Otherwise, more and more businesses will say “F this sh…” and focus on serving different markets where they don’t have an everyday uphill struggle.

  • I have no doubt Gainesville will deal with “affordable housing” as efficiently as they have dealt with the homeless, the biomass plant, crime, and road repair.

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