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Alachua County Focuses In On Affordable Housing Solution

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Alachua County commissioners voted Tuesday to draft plans to use a new development fee to alleviate the county’s affordable housing problem.

The motion calls for county staff to draft a comprehensive plan that would require new developments to include a percentage of affordable workforce housing when constructing a new development, or pay a linkage fee instead. The money from that fee would be used to fund the building of sufficient low-cost housing in another location in cooperation with local housing providers.

Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson said county staff will define “affordable workforce housing.”

Commissioner Ken Cornell said staff will provide a range of options for the board to consider based on Alachua County workforce housing income data. The county will also utilize talk with Gary Hankins, president of the Communities That Care Land Trust, for insight on land expenses.

The cost of land makes building affordable housing difficult, Cornell said. The county will work with Hankins’ land trust to understand how other communities have been successful in developing affordable housing.

For the plan to be effective the county will need to work with the city of Gainesville, Cornell said, so he and his fellow commissioners will reach out to Gainesville city officials soon.

Ivy Bell, the senior planner at the Alachua County Office of Planning and Development, provided commissioners with an overview of linkage fees and discussed the steps necessary in implementing such fees. First, local governments charge commercial and residential developments by square footage, Bell said. Local governments then place them into a trust fund that supports the development of low-cost housing.

Alachua County must prove there is a correlation between developments and affordable housing to mandate linkage fees, she said. A nexus study, or “link” study, is required by state law to prove such a correlation. Nexus consultants help administer the study by compiling development impact statistics and formulating plans to fix the issue, and consulting costs range from $40,000 to $100,000.

The motion commissioners approved requires staff to prepare a nexus study using consultants only when necessary. Hutchinson said he is confident the county can acquire enough information internally to avoid high consulting fees.

Other Florida communities have already established linkage fees to help them provide affordable housing, Bell said. Coconut Creek, Jupiter, and Winter Park have used such programs, and Broward County is currently considering one.

Coconut Creek adopted its ordinance in March 2006, Bell said. Fees there range from $0.15 to $2.42 per square foot of solely commercial construction. Coconut Creek’s affordable housing trust fund has collected $2.6 million since 2006, she said. It has expended $1.6 million to provide home-buyer assistance to 24 households and rehabilitation assistance to 19 households.

Members of the public attending the meeting expressed mixed feelings about implementing linkage fees in Alachua County.

“There’s a storm coming, and we are not prepared,” said Sheldon Packer, chairman of the Alachua County Housing Authority Board. “We need to have money flowing into the housing authorities, who are your housing experts.”

Land trust owner Gary Hankins said the county will either have to implement higher linkage fees than implemented in these other cities or find additional sources of funding to resolve the affordable housing problem.

Scott Winzeler, executive director of Alachua County Habitat for Humanity, said he supports the concept of linkage fees, but he believes the county must be careful to make sure the program does not backfire.

If the county raises the cost of building housing for all individuals, it also increases the costs for affordable housing, he said. But if the linkage fee ordinance is carefully worded, so that linkage fees are applied only to luxury and student dwellings, Winzeler said, it could work.

Linkage fees seem likely to generate only a small amount of the money Alachua County will need to provide affordable housing throughout the county, he said. For that reason, the county needs a comprehensive plan for affordable housing.

Hutchinson said it is time for the county to take action on affordable housing.

“I am just really tired about talking about affordable housing without doing something concrete,” he said.

About Charles Fenwick

Charles Fenwick is a reporter for WUFT News. You can reach him at 201-400-2730.

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