The city of Gainesville is considering imposing a moratorium on housing development to protect its historic Black communities from gentrification.
During a special meeting Thursday, Gainesville’s city commissioners discussed several topics, namely COVID-19 related measures and a proposal by commissioner Gail Johnson to cease what she called the displacement of Gainesville’s Black neighborhoods, such as Pleasant Street, Porters, and Spring Hill.
“I want us to ask ourselves, what is the plan for our community?” Johnson said. “I’ll tell you right now who does have some plans for us — the University of Florida.”
Johnson detailed her concerns about studentification — the process of residential and cultural displacement as an area is overtaken by student housing — which she said is having adverse effects on Gainesville’s Black communities as people are “targeted aggressively for the sale of their homes.”
She compared the moratorium to a pause button on development that would give the city time to address the housing problem in its comprehensive development plan, which isn’t scheduled to be completed until next year.
Her concern was that it might be too late to preserve the communities by that point because they might have already been overtaken by student housing and rising costs of living. =
And evidently, she said, it might already be too late for some areas.
Seminary Lane, a historically Black neighborhood, has been the subject of controversy this summer as development of a luxury apartment has been approved in the area despite former plans to construct affordable housing.
The Gainesville Alliance for Equitable Development has opposed developments like this one, organizing protests and appeals to the city to defend the vulnerable neighborhoods.
“You have people knocking on your doors… you have speculators coming and in trying to buy land, cheaply, to then turn it into something different,” Johnson said. “You have tactics that are really unsavory, used to have people give up their homes.”
Johnson requested a study on the effectiveness of development moratoriums, which recommended that it be in place for four months to a year.
The study also detailed the risks and benefits of a moratorium. As far as risks, it stated that development moratoriums “have been subject to lawsuits, and thus would need to be carefully crafted to ensure legality.”
Still, the study cited successful moratoriums that have been enacted around Florida “in a legal manner.” For example, there were moratoriums in Palmetto Bay and Cutler Bay to preserve neighborhoods and study the impact of rising sea levels, respectively.
In 2001, there was a successful moratorium in Gainesville when the city enacted a seven-month halt on issuing building and zoning permits for certain areas, and in 2007 the city issued a 10-month moratorium on erecting electronic and animated signs.
The study said a pause on development could cause some economic decline; however, to some of Gainesville’s commissioners, the benefits of the moratorium — protecting residents from being displaced and preventing the erasure of the city’s Black history — far outweigh the potential consequences.
“The status quo is untenable,” said Commissioner David Arreola, who advocated for the moratorium and for immediate housing reforms.
“For me, it doesn’t seem as though a moratorium is as scary as it sounds,” he said. “We are well within our governing ability to install non-permanent moratoriums in key areas of the city.”
But, other commissioners were more hesitant.
“I believe that we should stop taking actions that delay us solving the issues we’re having, and actually put in place those real reforms that are needed,” Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said.
Hayes-Santos suggested immediately starting work on reforms rather than imposing a moratorium to change next year’s comprehensive plan.
He suggested funding a community land trust, implementing laws that enact inclusionary zoning, mandate affordable housing and enact vacancy fees that would discourage speculators from buying land and leaving it vacant to allow it to appreciate.
“If we want to end the significant racial disparities in Gainesville, one of the things we must do is end the systemic racial zoning that we have in our city,” he said.
Commissioners Harvey Ward and Reina Saco were also supportive of reform but unsupportive of a moratorium because of the possibility of lawsuits against the city.
The commission ultimately decided to delay a final decision on the moratorium until the next meeting. Mayor Lauren Poe requested more research on the moratorium to further understand the potential benefits and consequences, because he was “not satisfied” with the research presented.
The commission decided to continue the moratorium and equitable development discussion during the first general policy meeting in August.
“We want to write and create our own narrative,” said commissioner Gigi Simmons, a fifth-generation resident of Porters, a predominantly African-American community between the university and downtown.
“We do not want the University of Florida to define who we are, we do not want the city of Gainesville to define who we are,” she said. “The people of the Porters community will control our own narrative.”