Alachua County unanimously approved a $2.9 settlement agreement with Ability Housing on Tuesday, closing the chapter on the company’s affordable housing project and starting a new chapter for the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) who now own the 13.4-acre property.
The settlement frees Alachua County from any future lawsuits from Ability Housing after the BOCC backed out of a $460,000 grant it approved for the company in August 2021.
Residents from Lincoln Estates and Azalea Trails spoke in support of accepting the settlement in order to put an end to the project. The residents opposed Ability Housing’s project last year when the county commission considered whether to rescind the grant or continue with it.
Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker also endorsed the county’s action and called on the BOCC to listen to residents before deciding how to use the land. She said not listening to the community caused the BOCC’s situation with Ability Housing.
“The ideas for this community have existed,” Duncan-Walker said about the surrounding communities and general Eastside. “The fact that we are now listening, ready to dedicate resources, ready to hear the hearts and the plans of the community is really what gives me hope.”
The BOCC had two options for the settlement agreement centering on what funds it used to purchase the property—general fund reserves that allow any future development the county decided on or Wild Spaces Public Places funding that would limit development options.
However, Deputy County Manager Tommy Crosby noted that the county could reverse course later if it used Wild Spaces Public Places funds, purchasing the property from itself with general funds.
The BOCC opted to use general funds to pay for the 13.4 acres, roughly $1.8 million, along with the other $1.1 million in the settlement. Those other funds cover costs Ability Housing incurred while moving forward with the project, like surveys, designs and staff time.
Ability Housing, a nonprofit that provides affordable and workforce housing around Florida, applied for the Alachua County grant after the BOCC opened up a bid process. The company proposed 96 units of workforce and affordable housing across the road from Lincoln Middle School on SE 8th Avenue and next to Lincoln Estates.
After receiving the BOCC funding, Ability Housing applied for state funds through the Florida Housing Finance Coalition, who awarded the company $15 million for the project. In order to qualify for the state funds, Ability Housing needed the BOCC grant.
Shannon Nazworth, president of Ability Housing, told the BOCC in September 2022 that the state valued the county’s support for the project in its criteria. Pulling the county’s funds would mean losing the $15 million in state funding as well.
At that meeting, the county began to pivot on the project, citing concerns about the location brought up by neighbors.
Commissioner Ken Cornell said at the meeting that the county has failed to diversify the location of its affordable housing projects, clustering them on the east side of Gainesville. He said 1,800 units fell on the eastern side compared with 335 in western Gainesville.
Cornell tried to strike a balance. He made a motion for the county to ask the Florida Housing Finance Coalition to allow Ability Housing to relocate the project. Nazworth said she had asked and received a ‘no.’
In December, the BOCC officially pulled support for the project in a 3-2 vote. Cornell said the $15 million from the state would not be worth the damage of the 96-unit development. The BOCC received a letter less than two weeks later from the Florida Housing Finance Coalition saying the project could not be moved.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Cornell said the county now has the opportunity to listen to surrounding residents about what they want on the land, potentially spurring economic development.
“I just couldn’t be more excited that we are here,” Cornell said. “With today’s action, we have an opportunity to rebuild trust in east Gainesville.”
While the vote was unanimous and citizens rejoiced at the decision, Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said she’d wait to join in the dancing until the county breaks ground on the site. BOCC Chair Anna Prizzia also pushed back against the notion that Ability Housing had been the problem.
“This was not Ability Housing’s fault,” Prizzia said. “This was the county commission’s fault. We put out a [request for proposals]. We solicited people to do this project. We asked them to come to us.”
A clause in the agreement states that the BOCC and Ability Housing will use good faith efforts to continue searching for joint housing projects in the future.