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Gainesville poised to become first Florida city to end exclusionary zoning, despite community outcry

Gainesville is set to become the first city in Florida to end exclusionary zoning in all residential neighborhoods after a contentious first vote by the city commission.

A second vote, typically a formality, is to be scheduled.

The change replaces the current single-family zoning with a new “neighborhood residential” category that allows property owners to build up to four units in a building, no more than two stories tall.

Currently, most neighborhoods in the predominantly white northwest area are exclusively single-family zoned, while the historically Black east side has a mix of zoning.

The city commission’s Thursday night vote goes against the recommendation of the affordable housing advisory committee – whose members said they were not consulted by the city about the proposal – the opinion of the county commission and substantial public opposition.

Advocates argue eliminating exclusionary single-family zoning could increase the supply of lower-cost housing, diversify neighborhoods and make Gainesville a denser, more walkable and environmentally sustainable city.

About 16,000 Gainesville households are currently in need of affordable housing, and Mayor Lauren Poe said Gainesville’s population is projected to increase by 60,000 over the next decade.

Other places in the country, like California and Minneapolis, have eliminated exclusionary zoning in an effort to combat chronic housing shortages.

“I am now competing for housing with people with UF faculty stickers on their cars who drive Teslas,” said Ann Atwater, who said she makes $20,000 annually as a research assistant and is in favor of the change. “We cannot afford to keep up with these constant rent increases when our wages are stagnant.”

Attendance at the meeting was limited to 30 people inside. The rest waited outside in the summer heat for their three-minute turn to speak during public comment, which lasted five hours.

Proponents – who tended to be younger and renters, including University of Florida students – were overwhelmingly outnumbered by opponents – nearly all homeowners from a variety of neighborhoods across the city.

An online petition to stop the change garnered more than 2,500 signatures ahead of the vote. Opponents also presented to the commission what they said were more than 1,500 combined signatures from Gainesville residents.

Critics said the change will decrease property values by changing the character of their neighborhoods and introducing transient residents.

“This is my family wealth,” an anonymous opposing caller said of her home.

This change only benefits developers, opponents said; it’s being rushed without proper study or community involvement; it will create parking issues, strain infrastructure and result in the loss of trees; the new housing created will not be affordable for those who need it most.

Both sides said their argument supports Black residents.

Black and brown residents are more likely to be severely cost burdened by housing. According to the presentation prepared for the city by development consulting firm HR&A, Gainesville’s Black population occupies at a higher rate buildings with two to four units, which tend to be more affordable.

Mayor Lauren Poe, who is white and voted in support of the zoning change, said exclusionary zoning has its roots in Jim Crow era racism. The change will apply the denser zoning that already exists in some Black neighborhoods to all of Gainesville’s neighborhoods.

Former mayor Aaron Green, who is Black, called Poe’s framing a “gross misrepresentation” and the proposed zoning change “a form of modern-day racism.”

Public commenters reprimanded non-Black members of the commission for arguing that their support of the zoning change was about racial equity.

Many, including community organizers from historically Black neighborhoods, argued the proposed change will speed up gentrification and displace Black and low-income residents.

“You’re taking away so much from the Black and brown community,” Pastor Earnestine Butler of the Duval Heights area said. “When it comes down to developers, what do you think that they’re going to buy first?

"They’re going to buy what is cheaper. And what is cheaper is in the east side of town.”

Along with Poe, commissioners Adrian Hayes-Santos, Reina Saco and David Arreola voted in favor of the change, and requested a staff analysis of what it would look like to add a “sunset provision” requiring the zoning change to be voted on again after a set number of years.

Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker, Cynthia Chestnut and Harvey Ward voted against it, saying it won’t work without community support.

Poe will leave the mayoral office this year as his term limit arrives. Arreola and Ward are both running to replace him in the Aug. 23 election.

Three district seats on the city commission are also up for grabs.

Resident Carol Lippincott said she asked 14 commission candidates if they would work to reverse this zoning change if elected, and the 12 who responded signed or provided statements saying they would: James Ingle, Ed Book, Michael Raburn, Jo Lee Beaty, Dejeon Lamar Cain, Patrick Ingle, Christian Newman, Bryan Eastman, Harvey Ward, Gary Gordon, Ed Bielarski and Ansaun Fisher.

East Gainesville resident Carrie Parker-Warren warned the city commission: “You might forget us today, but we will not forget you tomorrow.”

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.