Gainesville commissioners approve elimination of single-family zoning

By and

Despite an appearance of enormous public opposition, the Gainesville City Commission on Monday voted in favor of eliminating single-family zoning throughout the city. This means Gainesville is the first Florida city to approve this type of zoning change.

The final 4-3 commissioner vote did not change from the first meeting held on Aug. 4, even with the passionate public protesting against the policy since the conversation came to fruition.

According to the policy’s opposers, the new zoning laws pose a significant threat to East Gainesville and the city’s historic African American community.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker set the scene of her family history in Gainesville at the end of the commission meeting to drive this point further.

A grandmother’s vision: a pink house with a front yard and a backyard for her granddaughters to play. A nice kitchen where she could prepare meals for her husband.

Duncan-Walker was one of those granddaughters. She said her family migrated from South Carolina to Haile Plantation when it was still an enslaved area.

“They did not come here by choice,” Duncan-Walker said.

And yet, her grandmother’s vision propelled generational wealth within her family. She said her family had the opportunity to build their home and livelihood based on the American Dream. She said she fears this is what will be lost with the new policy in place.

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut shared similar sentiments.

“This is a very sad day for East Gainesville because it has opened the floodgates for gentrification,” Chestnut said.

Chestnut said one of her first acts with a new commission in January would be to reverse this policy, and she said she would put up a good fight.

“To the attorney, I hope you’re not planning a Christmas vacation,” she said.

On the other hand, the commissioners in favor of eliminating single-family zoning had drastically opposing perspectives.

At the end of the three-hour meeting, Mayor Lauren Poe said he felt more confident than ever that this change is precisely what Gainesville needs. He said there had been a sincere effort since the beginning of this conversation in 2016 to repair the damages from 1958; referring to the single-family zoning that made areas more exclusive, a move that some say helped to maintain racial segregation.

Poe prefaced his enthusiasm for the policy changes by saying, “I love you all deeply,” to which audience member Faye Williams replied, “Oh, God!” Alongside her, other members in the chamber murmured similarly in discontent.

However, despite public scrutiny, some audience members openly supported the new policy and applauded the commissioners who have stood firmly by it.

Gainesville city commissioners express their comments after over two hours of public comment at a meeting on Monday. “Tonight we did not take care of existing communities, and that’s my problem,” Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said. (Jensen Young/WUFT News)

Joshua Ney, founder of Gainesville is for People, a chapter of YIMBY Action, a pro-housing development advocacy group across Florida, was the first public member at the meeting to speak in favor of the zoning changes.

“It’s time to make housing legal again,” he said.

Vishnu Malhotra, a University of Florida student studying economics and a member of the same organization, also publicly commented in support of the commission’s decision.

“It’s basic economics,” he said. “Students and residents are in a bind because there is more demand than there is supply.”

Several attendees also used economics to support their case against the new policy. For example, David Hastings said the zoning change is a developer’s dream, and Kristina Fields referred to Gainesville as “a developer’s paradise.” Others argued that the commission was handing the city off to investors, wasting taxpayers’ dollars, subjecting Gainesville to corporatization and even resorting to “Trumpism” by not listening to its constituents.

Monica Frazier, a member of the audience, said she was disheartened by the commission’s attitude because it seemed like they did not care.

“You’re supposed to be public servants,” she said. “You’re supposed to hear us and act accordingly.”

Frazier said she elected her commissioners to do the business of the people. She said she is disappointed because the commissioners know their constituents oppose this, and yet they voted against the majority of the public’s wishes.

“It’s a slap in the face,” she said.

Jean Chalmers, who served as a Gainesville commissioner for six years in the 1980s, publicly advised the commission not to move forward with this decision. Chalmers said she has lived in Gainesville for 33 years and has witnessed the ongoing development in the community.

She said while she was on the city commission, the commissioners never made a profound decision so close to an election. Chalmers urged the commissioners to leave the verdict up to the upcoming commission, as there are open seats in the November election.

One of the commissioners she was addressing, Adrian Hayes-Santos, did not change his vote. Hayes-Santos said he believes that eliminating single-family zoning will benefit Gainesville socially, economically and politically.

“Today was a win for making our city more affordable,” he said.

At the beginning of the meeting, he said this policy would help reduce climate change and Gainesville’s carbon footprint, to which the crowd responded in objective laughter.

Hayes-Santos emphasized the importance of this policy for the future of Gainesville. He claimed that single-family housing is a restrictive status quo that is robbing our future generations of their opportunity to choose where they want to live and become homeowners.

His comments, along with those from Commissioner Reina Saco and Mayor Poe, received intense public backlash for most of the meeting. Several public commenters reiterated concerns about the false narrative behind the commissioners’ intent to solve the city’s affordable housing crisis.

One woman said in frustration on the mic, “I could be your poster child for affordable housing, and you’re taking my home.” Clearly, most of the public was begging the commissioners to listen to their genuine concerns and fears about implementing this new policy.

An additional point of frustration for audience members was the meeting’s time slot of 3 p.m. on a Monday, during regular working hours. Multiple people said they believed the meeting was held at this inconvenient time on purpose, in hopes of limiting people from attending the meeting in person to lessen the public’s disapproval. The first vote for the proposal in August took place after over 5 hours of public comment.

“You’re forcing us to leave our workday to defend our town,” said Monica Cooper, another public commenter.

Chestnut and Duncan-Walker said they look forward to the November election when a new commission is elected, hoping it will be on their side and work to reverse this decision. During the meeting, members of the public and the commission mentioned that many candidates running for the open seats oppose this decision and are even using it as a campaign platform.

About Jensen Young

Jensen is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

Check Also

Lawmakers propose making it easier to impose death penalty in Florida

After a jury couldn’t agree on the death penalty in Florida’s deadliest school shooting, Republican …