BOCC pivots on affordable housing project

County Commissioner Charles Chestnut
Commissioner Charles Chestnut seconded a motion on Tuesday that would request the Florida Housing Finance Coalition to allow a workforce housing development to proceed on a different piece of property in Alachua County. (file photo by Suzette Cook)

The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) decided to pivot on a project that would bring a 96-unit workforce housing development next to the Abraham Lincoln Middle School off SE 8th Avenue.  

The commission passed a motion that would request the Florida Housing Finance Coalition to allow the project to proceed on a different piece of property in Alachua County. However, Shannon Nazworth, president of Ability Housing who is doing the project, said she made that request last week and received a no.   

The Florida Housing Finance Coalition gave the county-backed project a $15 million grant to fund the $21.5 million development. 

Commissioner Ken Cornell said it’s important the project has local support not just for the grant application but all the way through.  

“I understand you asked them, but if this board would like to ask, I would be in favor of us asking them,” Cornell said.  

Nazworth said Ability Housing would be willing to move the location but admitted the project has already spent money on civil engineering that would be lost.  

Cornell said he examined the county’s affordable housing projects to see how evenly they were spread. Countywide, the dispersion of projects from east to west is fairly consistent. But within Gainesville, he said most of the projects fall on the eastern side—1,800 compared with 335 in west Gainesville.  

The county opened the grant opportunity along with the Alachua County Housing Finance Authority in 2020, providing a potential of $460,000 split between the entities. Ability Housing applied for the grant, and Alachua County gave its stamp of approval in August 2021 on the consent agenda.  

With local backing, Nazworth said the Florida Housing Finance Coalition selected and ultimately approved the project for $15 million in state funds.  

However, neighbors in the Lincoln Estates neighborhood began questioning the project over the summer—unaware of county approval.  

Commissioner Anna Prizzia asked county attorney Sylvia Torres if any legal action could be taken if the county pulled support. Torres said Ability Housing could seek damages. She said other similar lawsuits have landed against the local governments.  

If the county pulled support because the project couldn’t change locations, Nazworth said the state funding would fall through as well.  

Prizzia added parts to Cornell’s motion to place more guidelines on county supported projects and to increase communication between the commission and the Alachua County Housing Finance Authority. 

Ability Housing plans to close on the 6.3-acre property next month, Nazworth said, and begin construction in the second quarter of 2023. The nonprofit would dialogue with the community to tailor the design and even the name of the development through completion.  

Nazworth said the organization has changed the name of another property in Jacksonville because residents didn’t like it. Ability Housing has selected Dogwood Village for this project but has heard discontent on the choice.  

Dogwood Village would include 1-, 2- and 3-room apartments for working class families living below the area median income. Nazworth said the development looks to target those working in fields like office support, food prep and sales who can’t afford market rate apartments.  

Nazworth said Ability Housing seeks to tailor programs for what the residents want for a happy life. That could mean job help so a family can move to their own single-family home or tax help for a resident who is happy to stay at Dogwood Village.  

Cornell asked how the development would provide a lift to the community, a requirement in the county program.  

Nazworth said Ability Housing works with local law enforcement to address any crime concerns, takes care of its properties and offers programs for people outside its property.  

“We are always a benefit to the community, and any community we’ve worked in has asked us to come back—every single time,” Nazworth said.  

However, during lengthy public comment, citizens spoke against the project at the current location.  

Commissioner Raemi Eagle-Glenn noted before the vote that during her three months on the board, three separate affordable housing projects had come forward. Each had been criticized by the community.  

“Three affordable housing initiatives that have been, essentially, forced upon the community and wholly rejected by the community,” Eagle-Glen said. “I’m in support of the motion because I don’t see any other way forward today.” 

She said the reactions make her question whether the communities actually want what their elected officials say the constituents want.  

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, who seconded the motion, said when he became a city commissioner people told him to question every item on consent agendas. Over the years, Chestnut said you begin to trust the staff and get relaxed.  

He said Tuesday’s meeting comes as a result of that trust and relaxation.  

“I’ve learned a lesson, so I just wanted to say that I’m human and I make mistakes,” Chestnut said.  

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