Ashley Burke stood elated, in disbelief, with her fiancé and daughter watching men breaking ground for her first home.
“It’s like Christmas morning for me,” Burke said.
Burke, 33, is a combat veteran from Gainesville and one of the first people to be chosen for the City of Gainesville Land Donation Pilot Project. The project, which was approved by the Gainesville City Commission in March 2021, aims to provide houses to 11 first-time homeowners in the Duval neighborhood of Northeast Gainesville.
Mayor Lauren Poe said the program is not only aspirational but practical.
“We were looking for new opportunities to leverage city assets and resources to bring more affordable housing, and at the same time, work with neighborhoods to help them achieve their goals,” Poe said. “So, this is sort of a realization of those two visions coming together.”
Helen Harris, the city’s housing and community development supervisor, said that she and her team decided to start the project in the Duval neighborhood because of the push for revitalization in the community.
The city wanted to create a process where it could equitably donate vacant lots of land to affordable housing builders. It set aside 11 months to establish criteria and create a request for proposal, or RFP, from nonprofit builders.
The bid was awarded to the Alachua Habitat for Humanity.
Scott Winzeler, the chief outreach and development officer for the nonprofit, said the organization’s goal was to build affordable homes for income-eligible residents within two years of the RFP’s acceptance.
Habitat for Humanity worked with the city’s guidelines to create a program that would give certain residents the opportunity to become homeowners for the first time while ensuring they’re successful in maintaining the new homes. This is possible through what’s called a sweat equity requirement, or a combination of working, completing community service, attending homeowner workshops or attending to someone else’s home.
Burke said the homeowner workshops and classes have helped her build confidence as a new homeowner.
“I was not sure I would ever be a homeowner, so programs like these that are not only helping me become a homeowner but teaching me…I feel like I can do this,” Burke said.
Poe said the program will bring stability and vibrancy to the Duval neighborhood. But he recognizes it’s not a quick fix for the affording housing crisis in Gainesville.
“While this is going to be an excellent opportunity for these 11 families,” he said, “it’s not going to really move the dial at all on our affordable housing crisis.”
To fix the affordable housing crisis, Poe said there needs to be a significant increase in housing supply as well as greater government support for low-income families.
Nonetheless, Burke hopes her story gives hope to the community, in places like Duval; even a small step forward is progress.
“I see in my future house a place to raise my daughter, a safe haven for something passed down generations, something that will make this area of the city more livable, more peaceful,” Burke said. “I’m hoping that when the city continues to build in this area, it gives hope to the community.”