The Alachua County Commission elected a new chair and vice chair at its special meeting Tuesday before voting to use millions in federal aid on several initiatives, including a pilot program meant to help local landlords make their properties more energy efficient.
The Alachua County Commission selected incumbent Vice Chair Anna Prizzia to succeed Marihelen Wheeler as its chair and newly elected Commissioner Mary Alford to succeed Prizzia as vice chair.
The commission also voted unanimously to allocate $340,000 for a housing pilot program to help renters in unincorporated Alachua County and the county’s smaller municipalities with high energy and utility rates.
The Energy Efficiency and Weatherization of Affordable Housing program is meant to incentivize landlords to upgrade their properties to be more energy efficient, theoretically driving down utility costs and associated rent prices and saving money for renters in the long run.
The pilot program, which is expected to serve and upgrade 15 households, will begin in January and last until August. The county will subsequently evaluate the program’s performance and vote on whether to approve the full initiative, which combined with the pilot program allocates $3 million to landlords from January 2023 to December 2026.
Participating landlords will have to commit not to increase their rents above the rate of inflation for the duration of the program. The maximum amount a landlord can receive for a single property is $5,000 for an affordability commitment of three years, $10,000 for an affordability commitment of five years and $15,000 for an affordability commitment of seven years.
Community activist Kali Blount, who serves on the Gainesville Police Advisory Council, criticized the planned affordability commitment terms for landlords, calling them pitiful. Blount said the terms are not enough to support renters, and that terms of 10, 15 or 20 years would be better to properly support the families living in rental properties.
Blount criticized the commission for providing funds to landlords when those landlords haven’t adequately provided for their tenants in years. Blount said the initiative in its current form amounts to nothing.
The county’s report on the initiative, included in the meeting’s agenda, cited recent and projected energy price increases from the county’s major utility providers as evidence the project is needed. This includes data from Gainesville Regional Utilities, Clay Electric Cooperative and Duke Energy, the latter of which reported it projected its customers would see a 13% cost increase in 2023, according to the county report.
The funds are being directed primarily to properties in certain low-income communities across the county, in accordance with federal guidelines, particularly specific communities in designated Qualified Census Tracts established by the federal government. Communities in those tracts are automatically eligible to participate in the program. Municipalities in much of western Alachua County, including Archer, Newberry and High Springs, are not included in the census tracts.
Households not in the census tracts can still apply with the county for the initiative if they are recipients of any of 11 federal benefits programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Pell Grants.
Households located within Gainesville city limits are ineligible to participate in the initiative. Newly elected Commissioner Ken Cornell expressed interest in expanding the program into Gainesville, including in east Gainesville, to alleviate the city’s housing issues.
Tamara Robbins, a former City of Alachua commissioner, criticized the suggestion of Gainesville’s inclusion in the project. She said the county would once again be prioritizing the city instead of the county’s smaller municipalities, which she said have been routinely ignored in favor of programs primarily benefiting Gainesville.
Robbins also expressed concern over the county’s community engagement efforts for the project. Households not included in the Qualified Census Tracts would have to be aware of the initiative to apply for it instead of being automatically included as are the households located within the tracts, Robbins said.
The pilot program’s two measurable indicators of success, as listed in the report, are to reduce the energy burden for at least 15 energy-insecure rental households and to avoid negative health impacts and COVID-19 hospitalizations due to a lack of affordable housing.
The county is partnering with two local nonprofits with experience in housing issues, Rebuilding Together North Central Florida and the Community Weatherization Coalition, on the initiative. The two nonprofits currently have methods in place that can track participant demographics which will be key to the pilot program’s success metrics, according to the report.
Information about the initiative will be circulated through methods already practiced by the Community Weatherization Coalition, including attending public events in qualifying neighborhoods and relying on networks built by the coalition and other community partners using word-of-mouth, social media and websites, according to the county report.
The county is independently rolling out new energy efficiency standards for rental units in the unincorporated areas of the county and will work with code enforcement to provide informational material on the program directly to landlords whose units do not pass the initial energy efficiency inspection.
The county hopes to have the program running by Jan. 16.
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