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Gainesville Commissioners And Residents Discuss Affordable Housing Solutions

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A group of Gainesville citizens, including Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos and mayoral candidate Marlon Bruce, express concerns about affordable housing during group brain-storming sessions. (Ashley Lazarski/WUFT News)

After facing resistance to the GNV RISE Development Code in November 2018, which would have provided developers with incentive to construct more affordable housing, the Gainesville City Commission is beginning to strategize new ways to provide affordable housing for Gainesville residents.

About 100 people joined city commissioners Wednesday evening at an affordable housing engagement strategy workshop at the Thelma A. Boltin Center at 516 NE Second Ave. The workshop gave commissioners the chance to hear concerns from citizens and discuss various ways to make housing more affordable throughout the city.

GNV RISE was an attempt to address this issue, but its vague wording left it open to criticism. The plan involved splitting land into sections and requiring that developers allocate a portion of each plot to affordable housing units. Yet, concerned citizens said this would give developers too much power. In November 2018,  Gainesville citizens spoke out against the code because they said that it would not adequately protect their neighborhoods from gentrification and environmental hazards. The commission has since removed GNV RISE from the table.

According to the City Commission’s presentation, the median amount of money Gainesville workers need to make to afford housing was $17.19 per hour in 2017 — the median wage for workers was $15.95 per hour.

Meanwhile, according to the Shimberg Center at UF, the median single-family home price increased 79% from 2000 to 2006 and, though it fell again in 2011, it rose significantly again in 2013. One factor that may cause a rise housing costs is the influx of people moving to Alachua County, Commissioner Helen Warren said.

“Eighteen thousand people move here every year. That’s a high demand for new housing, and there’s not that many people who are leaving,” she said.

Warren said one of the best ways to approach this issue is by learning from other cities that have faced similar hardships. In particular, she cites California’s populous coast as an area Gainesville’s leaders should examine.

“Thankfully we are not the only city having to deal with these issues. We are not just being hypothetical. There is data and evidence out there that can help,” Warren said.

However, within Gainesville, she said, change cannot occur until landlords approach their relationship with tenants empathetically.

“We need landlords and investors to put a face on the dollar bills they are taking in. That is a person,” Warren said. “We want this to be a win-win situation for both of them.”

Helen Harris presents her table’s ideas after a brief introductory activity. (Ashley Lazarski/WUFT News)

Gainesville resident George Braun remained skeptical any concrete solutions will come from the meeting.

“I don’t know whether any of these ideas will come to fruition and actually be heard, or whether this was a valuable use of everyone’s time here,” said Braun.

Mayoral candidate Jenn Powell also said that, while the meeting was necessary, the city commission will need to continue this momentum to solve the affordable housing issue.

“They should canvas year-round, not just during election season,” she said. “But I’m glad they’re doing something.”

Some attendees, like Darlene Pifalo, are realtors and landlords who are trying keep up with any potential changes that may affect their businesses. Pifalo said she believes government regulations can account for as much as 25% of the rising housing costs, but added that other local organizations should be involved in the problem-solving process.

“This is just the beginning, and there’s going to have to be a lot more meetings. The Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors are going to have to get involved,” Pifalo said.

Shelia Payne, a member of the Alachua Count Labor Coalition, emphasized that not only should housing be affordable, it should be safe and weatherized.

“Lower income households spend as much on utilities as they do on their rent, but often the appliances themselves are in poor condition, which causes even more safety issues,” Payne said. “If their HVAC doesn’t work, for instance, there will be a lot of mold, and both children and adults are at risk for getting sick.”

To remedy this, Payne proposed that Gainesville use some of its healthcare funding to bring these at-risk homes up to code.

The ideas generated during the workshop will be presented again at an upcoming city commission meeting as commissioners decide which avenues the city should pursue. City Commissioner David Arreola said sessions like these are crucial to this process.

“We are keeping that conversation going, but doing so not just with data-gathering and expert advising in mind,” Arreola said before the meeting. “We are hearing directly from citizens, and we want to craft a citizen collaborative affordable housing plan to tackle the issue.”

Even as the city turns to the future, Arreola noted, city officials must not forget the past. For many residents, affordable housing is not a new problem, and city officials must continue their efforts to put an end to their struggles.

“Each generation has tried to address it with their own style. This is our effort. But this issue is not easily solvable,” Arreola said.

“Problems aren’t solved with magic wands or throwing money at it,” he said. “This is our earnest effort to avoid turning a blind eye to those who need help.”

About Ashley Lazarski

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