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“Well, so much for that” – Alachua County Commission votes 3-2 to withdraw local match funding from Ability Housing

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut speaks during January 10 meeting

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Alachua County Commission voted 3-2 on Tuesday night to affirm their earlier decision to withdraw local match funding from an affordable housing project proposed for the corner of SE 15th Street and SE 8th Avenue.  

After receiving a letter from Ability Housing, the project’s developer, stating that the County could be on the hook for $15 million if sued by the developer, the County put the project on Tuesday’s agenda, and over 40 people showed up to speak to the board.

History of the project

The Dogwood Village 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.” The bulk of the funding for the project came from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC) through housing tax credit funds. 

At the September meeting, the commission voted unanimously to approve the funds but also voted to 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.

The board voted 3-2, with Commission Chair Anna Prizzia and Commissioner Mary Alford in dissent, to withdraw the funds. Ability Housing sent an email to Prizzia on December 29, stating that FHFC would not permit the relocation of the Dogwood Village development and would not grant any extensions. Ability Housing said they will need to return the award before January 27, leading to the loss of the project, unless the board reverses its decision. Ability Housing said in the letter that if the board does not reverse course, the company will have “no choice but to return the award and seek damages from the County for its decision to breach its commitment”; those damages were estimated at $15 million. 

Concentration of affordable housing on the east side 

Commissioner Ken Cornell’s reason for opposing the project is that he says a large percentage of “affordable housing” in the city of Gainesville is east of Main Street, but the exact numbers have been difficult to nail down. Different estimates have been provided by Cornell in December (85%), by Ability Housing in an email to Prizzia (65%), and at Tuesday’s meeting (78%).

County is now on “Low Funding Preference List”

While going through the history of the project at Tuesday night’s meeting, County Attorney Sylvia Torres said, “Regardless of whether Ability returns the funds or does not return the funds, the County is now on a list called the “Low Funding Preference List” for the next two years, which makes the likelihood of another project in the next two years low.”

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said she supported Cornell in the December meeting to “make sure we had every opportunity to discover… and since then, I’ve been able to walk with the neighbors in the area to understand the property.” She said she had also been to Ability Housing projects in Jacksonville “to try to understand what’s possible in that area.” She said not all families eligible for workforce housing are black: “They’re black and brown and white families, and they all need homes. They all need places to live, but they also need safe places to live… and that means reinventing the way we provide housing for them. We’ve made mistakes by not engaging with the community that we didn’t even know cared… It’s a whole new time, guys. I love the word zeitgeist, I think it’s highly appropriate right now.”

Wheeler told Cornell she voted with him in December “because I believe in you and I know the power of your persuasion… but I feel like today I’m ready to make a decision solidly and firmly based on what I know.”

Alford makes motion to proceed with the development, with conditions

Alford said the county needs housing where the jobs are, “and I wasn’t in favor of putting this in east Gainesville, but we’re now at a point where we’re at risk of being sued, we’re at a risk of not being able to fund future affordable housing, which we desperately need.”

She made a motion that the county commission “recommit and reverify local government support contribution for Dogwood Village and notify Florida Housing Finance Corporation via a letter from the Chair and direct the clerk to assign general fund balance to secure that commitment. I also move to direct staff to investigate the potential use and purchase of [the southern parcel owned by Ability Housing]… and engage the neighbors and other interested stakeholders about future use of that parcel. Also, I’d like to move to direct staff to approach Ability Housing, neighbors, and other interested stakeholders about negotiating a Community Benefits Agreement, an enforceable one. And I also move that we direct staff to look for parcels appropriate for future projects that are close to jobs and services and suggest mechanisms for acquisition and incentivizing construction of future affordable housing outside of east Gainesville.”

Prizzia suggested adding a request to staff to negotiate a right of first refusal for the County in the event that the property is sold in the future, and Alford agreed to add that to the motion.

Cornell makes his case

Cornell asked the other commissioners to “reserve a decision on that motion until you hear all the information tonight… I may put a substitute motion on the floor; I may not.” He said he would need about 20-30 minutes to present some data and articles.

A staff member said the different percentages of affordable housing in east Gainesville are not “apples to apples” and also pull from different data sets; the data on the County’s site is from the Shimberg Center but is “older.” He added, “It’s not fair to say that Commissioner Cornell’s analysis was incorrect, and it’s not necessarily fair to say that the two don’t agree.” The staff member said that about 78% of the affordable housing in the city of Gainesville is east of Main Street. 

Cornell said about 33% of the city’s population lives east of Main Street, and that “actually amplifies the issue… We know when we concentrate poverty, or affordable housing, that other issues happen. We’re not saying those other people that live there are bad, not at all. We’re saying that when we concentrate it, other things occur that the public needs to address… further concentrating poverty creates, in my mind, a new crisis.”

In response to a question from Cornell about whether it’s important to disperse affordable housing, a representative from Ability Housing said, “I have a problem with equating affordable housing with poverty. The people we’re serving with this property would not meet the definition of poverty.”

Cornell said, “Ok, that’s an opinion.”

Cornell said that when he promised to “make Ability Housing whole,” he just meant the cost of the land. However, at the December 13 meeting, he included costs that the developer had already incurred in developing the site. As Alachua Chronicle reported on December 14, “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.'” Cornell later said at the same meeting that he wanted to make Ability Housing whole by buying the property and reimbursing their expenses.

Cornell asked the Ability Housing representative if, at the time the County signed the local match agreement, she considered  Alachua County to be “on the hook” if they withdrew that commitment. She replied, “Candidly, it never occurred to me that you would do that… You issued a public RFP, we went through a public process, we were selected. You selected us per your process, and you made a commitment.”

Cornell responded, “So this is where I have a big rub, commissioners, because I don’t feel that’s what we were committing to at that time, and if staff thought that, I think they would have told us.” Commissioner Chuck Chestnut asked if they could hear from staff on that, and Cornell agreed to ask them later, but that never happened.

Decision could impact the entire program for small- and mid-sized counties

Prizzia said she was told by FHFC that if this project were withdrawn, they would reconsider having a small- and mid-sized counties program “because they felt like this was an indication that one of the small- or mid-sized counties that needs affordable housing the most is rejecting this kind of offer.”

The Ability Housing representative responded that she didn’t want to speak for FHFC, but she didn’t think they would “do away with allocating resources to small and medium counties, but they would do away with the local government process and therefore, no counties would have that opportunity.”

Prizzia also said, “I appreciate the point you’re making about poverty… this isn’t poverty. These are working families. This is $40,000 a year… I’m not saying that the community’s voice is not important… I’m saying that’s our fault; we messed up… When it went through the first time around, we made the mistake, as a County, of not requiring community engagement during that RFP. We made that mistake, we made the commitment, we moved forward… Voters told us twice, first with the affordable housing trust fund, then again with Wild Spaces Public Places, that affordable housing is a priority, and we made the commitment to move forward with this development in this place because we knew we needed affordable housing for our workforce… then we’re the ones who went back on it.”

Prizzia continued, “No one would have ever expected that we were gonna pull our support, so this idea that they had us on the hook for $15.3 million from the get-go and somehow they were tricking us into a liability, I think that’s not accurate… You might say that… you don’t have a problem with these people, but that’s not the message being portrayed… ‘We don’t want homeless people, we don’t want drug addicts, we don’t want crime.’ They’re making the assumption that because it’s affordable housing, there’s going to be drugs and crime and homelessness.”

Prizzia said that when you walk through Ability Housing’s projects in Jacksonville, “you see the work that they’re doing, they’re changing the narrative about what affordable housing is… It has a community feel. It’s well-maintained. There’s not a bunch of crime.”  Prizzia also pointed out that both properties are zoned “by right” (meaning no approvals are required before developing the property) for 200 units each: “That’s 400 units that can go on that property by right… they could have built anything… and we would have had zero say.”

Cornell responded that was why he wanted the County to buy the land, “because then we and the City can control what gets programmed there.”

Public comment 63% against proceeding with the project

Public comment lasted two and a quarter hours, with over 40 people speaking. Fifteen people spoke in favor of the project; most of them were with the Alachua County Labor Coalition and spoke about the need for housing that people like teachers, police officers, firefighters, and GRU workers can afford. 

26 people spoke against the project, most of whom live in east Gainesville, and several made the point that those who spoke in favor of the project “do not look like us.” Several implied that a decision to approve the project would be racist, and one woman said she didn’t like “bullies, racists, and backstabbers.” School Board Member Leanetta McNealy and Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker both spoke against the project.

“We have a long way to go”

After public comment, Cornell asked a board member of Ability Housing whether they would sue the County. The man replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t answer that… We have 12 or 13 board members… That would be a decision we would make as a body. It’s not just the cost of the land; it’s pre-development work. We’re not doing it for the money. It’s for the housing, it’s for the people that will live there.”

Cornell replied, “I hope you bring back to your board that Alachua County would like to work with Ability Housing, but we would not like to be sued… I want to reaffirm our decision that 96 units being built in that location would cause too much damage to the work that we’ve done over the last eight years while I’ve been on the commission.”

Alford described a number of places where she’s lived, adding, “I don’t look like you, but I’ve had holes in my bathroom floor where I had to block a raccoon from coming in, and I’ve had refrigerators that didn’t work for four months because I couldn’t afford to buy another one… so I apologize for all the people that I’m going to make angry, but I am still in support of the motion I made.”

Chestnut spoke about “what African Americans in this country has gone through, fighting for freedom, freedom to vote, freedom to have decent housing, freedom to have a chance at education, and Alachua County has embarked on truth and reconciliation. Wow, we have a long way to go, from what I’ve heard tonight… When you don’t understand a particular race of people and what they’ve been through, you could never understand.”

Chestnut said his neighbor’s house was appraised at $300,000, “but because I live next door to them and I’m African American, my house gets appraised at a lower value. Those are the experiences that African Americans have had, and when we talk about it, people say, ‘Oh, that’s not true. You don’t go through that.’ Yes, we do, and when we talk about truth and reconciliation, to me, it’s to get a better understanding of each other and to move forward as a community. Tonight, I don’t see that. I see that we’re still divided.”

Wheeler said, “This vote has come down to me… You’ve told me to vote my heart. My heart tells me to take care of people who need homes.” She said her thought was to let Ability Housing develop the northern lot, and “let us buy the other piece… We could put anything in there. We could put businesses in there… My whole holiday was spent trying to figure out how to bridge this… Who is going to build over there? I want to know what is the plan that you all see for having somebody build by Carver [Gardens]? Who’s going to come in there to do that? These people were willing.”

As people in the audience called out, she said, “Don’t scoff, guys. This is not a joke to me. You got me in your crosshairs, and so do my people who supported me. I represent Springs County. We’ve gone to single-member districts now. Those people over there are expecting me to make decisions that include their concerns, as well… I don’t know how I’m going to vote.”

Cornell’s substitute motion

Cornell made a substitute motion to “reaffirm our direction on December 13, 2022, and direct staff to attempt to negotiate with Ability Housing on the purchase of [the two parcels], that’s the 13 acres… and engage neighbors and other interested stakeholders about future uses of these parcels.” Chestnut seconded the motion.

Wheeler asked Prizzia to slow down before voting, and Prizzia offered to let her take a break. Wheeler said, “I don’t have anybody I can discuss this with except our staff that’s worked really hard trying to get this done.” When Prizzia again tried to move to a vote, Wheeler said, “Don’t push, don’t push. This is really major.”

Alford pointed out that even if they approved the project, they could still do a lot with the corridor on 15th Street and in east Gainesville: “We need to do all the things… We’re not saying we don’t want to do any of that stuff. We’re just saying we need housing, and we need quality housing. We believe that’s what we found, and I’m sorry that some of you disagree that this isn’t quality housing.”

Prizzia said there had been “a lot of sort of underlying accusations” during public comment, but “there’s been very little opportunity to have a dialogue. When I tried to have a conversation about what a Plan B would look like… the neighbors that are here tonight would not have that conversation. They refuse to have a conversation about the possibility of a Community Benefits Agreement, so that we could actually negotiate on your behalf… I’m not trying to argue with the neighbors about what you want in your backyard. I heard you loud and clear, and I understand what you want. I honestly also know that there are a lot of people–black, white, brown–that all want this project to go forward… We need this affordable housing… Every point that you all have brought up, we have tried to add and incorporate into this motion.”

Wheeler concluded, “I will vote tonight with my head and not my heart. My heart is with the people out there on the street who need houses. But my head tells me also that we’re going to have to listen to these people because if we put something there that’s hostile in their community…” She trailed off.

Cornell’s substitute motion was approved 3-2, with Prizzia and Alford in dissent. After a brief silence, Wheeler said, “It gives me heartburn and great–don’t applaud. This is really hard. Don’t applaud, please. This is not a cause for celebration.”

Alford sighed audibly and said, “Well, so much for that.” Prizzia adjourned the meeting.

  • The east Gainesville residents who fought it did so because they knew that the nice title for the development was woke garbage, and that their neighborhood would suffer even more if it went in. Now the County is going to find some other neighborhood to sacrifice that isn’t as effective at fighting “something there that’s hostile in their community.”

  • Cornell should start by making himself “whole.” I’m surprised the Dogwood name didn’t find more favor among all three witches.

  • The local commsioners both county and city excel at one thing, Leading from behind. Mini Kenny may get another lesson on losing lawsuits. If the Commision thinks you can treat a valid development company like they do the taxpayers , and apparently so,they may have made a $15million dollar mistake. It would not be the first time ,but this one wont be out of the sunshine.

  • District 1 homeowners do NOT want more subsidized crime breeding complexes in their neighborhoods. Chestnut should ask them, but is afraid for some reason. Hmm

  • Lil Kenny, one of the sitting commissioners who have never ran from filing a lawsuit if it served his best interests.

    He may be the smallest commissioner but he cries the loudest. He’s also the biggest hypocrite. Claims he’s listening to the voters but given his push to have the single member district results rescinded, it’s becoming quite clear – he’s becoming more like Harvey “two face.”

    Remember, those knuckleheads voted for him. He’s sure got them fooled.

  • This is the kind of BS that happens when Government feels it is their responsibility to house people. That only makes people dependent on the government. Look at the wasted/lost taxpayer dollars that would never have happened had they just stayed in their lane.

  • “And just like that…” Sound familiar?

    We see which way the wind was blowing for Wheeler don’t we? She’s just another pawn for Cornell, one can’t help but wonder what backroom deals the two of them made.

    Chestnut has sure starting playing the race card of late. He claims his property is appraised less than his neighbor because he’s black. He does realize the Property Appraiser is black doesn’t he? Maybe it’s helping him because he is of the same ethnicity? Then again, maybe it’s a correct appraisal. He gets a nice tax reprieve since he’s instrumental in Alachua County’s high tax rates.
    Just playing devil’s advocate rather than race card.

    • Our community partners, that have never been seen again after their lets us do what ever we want, where ever we want plan was rejected?

  • If you read this ,you can begin to get an insight on how a totally disfunctional group of Commsissioners can create damage locally and state wide. Several racist comments and one commisissioner serving office by fraud and keeping the compensation doesn’t even know where she lives. Deciding where people should live and wasting taxpayer money?? Well so much for that.

  • The main reason District 1 declined is gov’t subsidized housing. First, it reduces the demand to renovate old, cheaper housing, which then turns to tear downs decades later. 2nd, gov’t housing is designed to encourage and reward a declining family culture, which fosters school decline and neighborhood crime — a downward spiral.
    Their “solution” today is cosmetic. The new gov’t housing looks pretty but still omits key features like security, HOA and crimewatch volunteerism — self-governance, not more ACLU-approved bureaucracy.

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