To Nkwanda Jah, Gainesville’s proposed zoning changes disrespect property owners in the area, which she says has united many in the community.
“I don’t think it’s right to just ignore residents who have been in Gainesville for generations to get ready for students who are coming in here,” Jah said in a phone interview.
Jah serves as executive director of the Cultural Arts Coalition that has served the Fifth Avenue and Pleasant Street neighborhoods for 40 years. She said the city’s proposed Neighborhood Residential zoning will price out current residents.
“They’ve already put up apartments along southwest Sixth Street, and then they’re going into the community and building duplexes and quadruplexes inside of there,” Jah said. “Once more, the people who live in Porters are not able to afford the housing that they’re putting up over there now.”
The City of Gainesville has put forward a number of changes that would increase allowed density, change single-family zoning to allow duplexes, triplexes and quadruplexes, and remove city caps on occupancy. These changes are part of a larger city plan aimed at increasing affordable housing in Gainesville and decreasing racial and economic disparities in housing.
Gainesville’s proposed zoning changes sparked no small opposition this summer. The community packed a special meeting at the end of June and circulated petitions in advance of a scheduled meeting for July 13, which the city later canceled.
The city has rescheduled the zoning issues to return at the Aug. 4 commission meeting—19 days before an election that will bring four new commissioners to the seven-member body.
Commissioner David Arreola held a town hall meeting on June 30 to cover housing, and Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut plans to hold her own town hall titled, “Everything You Want to Know About Single-Family (Exclusionary) Zoning,” on August 8.
Jah said she realizes the city has housing needs but said the city should try to create affordable housing instead of helping developers build more of the same.
“I’d like to see them spend some energy on that, rather than trying to change neighborhoods that don’t want to be changed,” Jah said.
Kim Tanzer, a local housing advocate who owns a home along with her husband in the Golfview neighborhood near the UF law school, said the city’s push to change the zoning ordinances to allow small, multifamily development in existing single-family neighborhoods may not result in the type of development the city is hoping for.
“[The idea] is nationally untested,” Tanzer said in a phone interview. “And so no one knows what would happen, and that is part of the problem. I don’t think it will provide any affordable housing.”
She says that’s a matter of “simple math.” To be considered affordable in Gainesville, the monthly payments would need to be $1,000 or lower, but if the cost of construction is $110 (Florida average) to $150 a square foot (U.S. average), the builder/owner of a 1,000-square-foot unit would need to charge more than $1,000 a month just to cover the cost of construction—before other costs like taxes, insurance and maintenance are included.
Tanzer said she would like the city commission to “stop thinking that this will make any positive difference and quit working on it.”
Instead, the city should focus on researching the current housing supply and how it is working, she said.
“Nobody knows how many units short we are of that $1,000-a-dwelling-unit housing,” Tanzer said. “They don’t know if we need 100 units or 10,000 units. … So the first step would be to gather data and figure out what we need and then where we need it.”
Tanzer is an architect who worked at UF for 22 years before moving to become the dean of the school of architecture at the University of Virginia. She and her husband returned to Gainesville full-time in 2016 after she retired from UVA.
While at UF, Tanzer worked on several projects involving historically black neighborhoods in Gainesville, including Fifth Avenue and Pleasant Street. She says the proposed changes are more likely to negatively impact majority black neighborhoods because of the amount of existing vacant lots, the less expensive land prices, and the proximity of some of these neighborhoods to UF and to the desirable Depot Park area.
The land prices and the number of vacant lots make neighborhoods like Sugar Hill, Springhill and Duval more likely to be areas where the multifamily homes would be added initially, Tanzer said.
In contrast, neighborhoods in northwest Gainesville, which have been traditionally white neighborhoods, have fewer vacant lots and the cost of buying homes and tearing them down to build multifamily units would be too expensive, Tanzer said.
The impact of the revised zoning will be a “continuation of systemic racism” and not a fix for it, Tanzer said.
Proponents, led by Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, insist the opposite is true.
“Black areas of town shouldn’t have to have higher density than historically white neighborhoods,” Hayes-Santos said at the June 21 meeting. “That’s not fair. And that’s why you’re seeing more development in those neighborhoods. We need to change that incentive around by making it a level playing field.”
Opponents have also taken issue with the level of communication to residents about the changes. Casey Fitzgerald, who earned a master’s in public administration from Florida Atlantic University, is working with Tanzer and said the new zoning proposals shocked him.
“I’m a fairly high information user,” said Fitzgerald, who lives in Ridgewood in northwest Gainesville. “I was not aware of this sweeping proposal until, again, about a month ago. So the vast majority of the affected Gainesvillians were not aware of this effort until a few weeks ago, and many still are unaware.”
He called single-family zoning a standard category for American cities. To eliminate all of it at once surprised him.
As a housing solution, Fitzgerald said the biggest flaw lies in relying on market forces to create affordable units. With no guidelines in place, he said developers will center on the high value downtown areas, and more housing stock won’t guarantee cheaper prices.
Fitzgerald, Tanzer and others have joined up to create a nonprofit to advocate on housing issues. The organization could go live in the next few weeks.
“Given the fact that the citizens have not been reached out to, we felt it was necessary to pull together,” Fitzgerald said.
The purpose will be to educate affected citizens and coordinate efforts. Fitzgerald said many neighbors the group has reached out to remain unaware and City Hall ignores those who do oppose the change.
At the June 21 meeting, Kali Blount, who sits on Alachua County’s Planning Commission and frequently comments before the city, said much of the opposition is unfounded.
“It’s not going to change a neighborhood to have a few, sparse, scattered lots developed in this way,” Blount said. “It’s fear of much of nothing, I think.”
In-fill development would acquire the few openings that exist in neighborhoods, Blount said. And if regulation prevents developers from tearing down good housing stock just to create a high rent quadruplex, neighborhoods will remain intact.
However at a July 14 GPC meeting, Blount did point to the commission for poor communication on the zoning issues.
“I feel like the commission is becoming like dung beetles, rolling up this ball of confusion over the housing issue,” Blount said. “Worrying about single-family zoning when it’s the inclusionary zoning that we need to worry about. That would impel the actual creation of affordable units.”
He said the commission needs to keep its eye on the ball of inclusionary zoning, requiring companies to build affordable housing with each development.
Penny Wheat, a former county commissioner who lives near Bivens Arms, said she believes the city should stop focusing on changing existing zoning in already established single-family neighborhoods and refocus on new developments.
Residents in established neighborhoods have already chosen the type of development they want to live in, Wheat said. Instead, the city could set guidelines for new developments that allow potential residents to choose what type of neighborhood they want to live in.
“In the early 2000s, we on the Alachua County Commission made a conscious decision not to mess with existing single-family neighborhoods by changing what was allowed in them and therefore devaluing those homes,” Wheat said. “And that will happen.”
She said the changes passed through City Hall like a kingly decree. Only recently have citizens, busy with the pandemic and their lives, realized the potential housing shifts.
Carrie Parker Warren, who lives in Azalea Trails, told the commission at its June workshop that “we chose this city, we chose our communities because it is a family” but that she’s worried more multifamily development would change its character and decrease its property values.
She also told the commission that she fears her neighborhood and others on the east side of Gainesville will not be treated equally if this zoning ordinance change passes. Specifically, she asked the city to address existing infrastructure and city service issues.
“We also want you to put in your motion that you’re going to promise us better policing, better advantages, better fire protection, better sidewalks, better roads, traffic lights near our schools and just make our communities better,” Warren said. “This vision will not affect the city equally… We need to move forward without destroying the integrity of our communities.”
At the June 21 meeting, the Gainesville commissioners split on the zoning changes with commissioners Chestnut, Desmon Duncan-Walker and Harvey Ward expressing concerns. But Mayor Lauren Poe and commissioners Arreola, Hayes-Santos and Reina Saco all said they support the zoning changes.
Warren said in a phone interview after the meeting that the commission has already made up its mind about the zoning changes, but she said the proposal’s opponents will keep voicing their opinions.
Jah later echoed Warren’s call to speak up and protect the character of the city’s existing neighborhoods.
“There’s other areas that they can go and build these expensive apartments without coming into our neighborhoods like that,” she said.