BOCC reconsiders but doesn’t change housing vote 

BOCC Commissioners Marihelen Wheeler and Anna Prizzia.
BOCC Commissioners Marihelen Wheeler and Anna Prizzia speak at a recent meeting.
File photo by Seth Johnson

For more than four and half hours Tuesday, the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) debated, discussed and reconsidered their December decision to withdraw their endorsement of a workforce housing development in East Gainesville. 

But in the end, they reaffirmed with another 3-2 vote that they cannot support it. 

Ability Housing, a not-for-profit that builds affordable housing, had gotten more than $15 million through the Florida Housing Finance Corporation to help build a $25 million workforce housing project. Initially, the BOCC had signed on to the project and offered, along with the Alachua County Housing Authority, a local match of $460,000.  

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The proposed Dogwood Village project would have built 96 units of workforce housing on the corner of SE 8th Avenue and SE 15th Street. 

Mary Alford
Courtesy of Mary Alford Mary Alford

A split BOCC in December voted 3-2 to pull their support from the development in the face of strong objections from East Gainesville residents. 

In removing their support, the BOCC cited the opposition of the surrounding neighbors, and the current concentration of affordable housing projects on the east side of Gainesville. 

The county had earlier asked to move the project to another site, but the Florida Housing Finance Corporation told Ability Housing it would not allow the Dogwood Village project to be relocated and would not approve any deadline extensions, County Attorney Sylvia Torres said. 

At the outset of the meeting, it looked like the BOCC could reverse course again when Commissioner Mary Alford offered a motion to have the county recommit to the Dogwood Village project and notify the Florida Housing Finance Corporation that they would provide their local match. 

Alford said while she wasn’t initially in favor of putting the workforce housing development in East Gainesville, she said she felt the need for affordable housing in the county was pressing. 

“We can’t take away our opportunity to provide desperately needed housing across the city,” Alford said. “I feel strongly about putting walls and roofs over people’s heads. And doing that in a way that provides them with dignity and a way to move forward with their lives when they don’t have that now.” 

Commissioner Anna Prizzia said she would support Alford’s motion, but in the end the other three commissioners Ken Cornell, Chuck Chestnut and Marihelen Wheeler did not. 

The three instead voted for a substitute motion from Cornell that reaffirmed the county removing their support from the project and directed staff to negotiate with Ability Housing to buy the property where Dogwood Village was going to be built as well as an adjacent Ability-owned parcel. 

Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, who represents District 1 where the Dogwood Village would have been built, was among more than 40 people who spoke at the meeting with more than 25 in opposition to the project. 

“I heard a few people say we need affordable housing wherever and everywhere,” Duncan-Walker said. “I can definitely understand that. The issue is that the data says affordable housing… should be placed in resource-rich neighborhoods. And right now District 1… is not a resource-rich neighborhood.” 

Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker
Courtesy City of Gainesville Desmon Duncan-Walker

At the December meeting, Duncan-Walker pointed out the area around the proposed Dogwood Village doesn’t have the services or the infrastructure needed to support existing residents or additional development. 

County Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said the opposition from the neighborhoods surrounding the site was rooted in a long history of new places that have been built then left to decline. He described the creation and decline of the former Kennedy Homes. 

“When it initially was built, it was wonderful,” Chestnut said. “It lasted for 20 years as pretty decent. After that, investors started buying and not doing the proper maintenance [and] 30 years later it’s slum and blight. … And then we had to condemn Kennedy Homes.” 

Chestnut encouraged his fellow commissioners to listen to the experiences of the people from the surrounding areas. 

“Earlier tonight a citizen said we never listen,” Chestnut said. “And I think that’s true… We don’t listen. And I believe the people have stated their case. They have said to us, we don’t want this.” 

Wheeler, who described herself as the swing vote in the December decision, once again played the role of the swing vote on Tuesday. She said more than once that the decision was a difficult one for her. 

“I appreciate the opportunity to have this revisited because this has been a tough one,” Wheeler said at the beginning of the evening meeting. “It’s kept me awake since our last meeting.” 

Wheeler said she had both walked the property in question with neighbors and had visited Ability Housing’s other properties in Jacksonville since the commission had last discussed the project. 

As she prepared to make her choice at the end of the meeting, Wheeler said the objections of the nearby residents had been convincing. 

“I will vote tonight with my head and not my heart. My heart is with the people there in the street who need houses. But my head tells me also, that we’re going to have to listen to these people because if we put something there that’s hostile in their community…,” Wheeler said before trailing off. 

After the 3-2 vote for Cornell’s substitute motion, Wheeler asked the audience not to applaud. 

“This is really hard… This is not a cause for celebration,” Wheeler said. 

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So, going back on a deal is better?

It appears this vote will lead to a lawsuit for damages. Quoting a previous article: “County Attorney Sylvia Torres said Ability Housing has incurred costs based on the BOCC’s approval last year. She said if Alachua County drops out of the project, Ability Housing has sustained damages that could lead to a lawsuit.”

I understand diversifying where we place mixed-income workforce housing. We do need to ensure the longevity of these projects and put them in resource-sufficient areas. Yet, the county and other stakeholders should’ve thought about this before signing in initially. The BOCC even voted unanimously on this: “The commission also passed a motion that confirms a new policy on affordable housing, looking to diversify its stock across the county. That motion received unanimous support.” I heard that 78% of these projects are on the East side of Gainesville. Why?

But, because the county is going back on this and the state already declined to extend a deadline for a location change, we have probably lost out on this opportunity and partnership with Ability Housing.