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Gainesville council agrees city needs solutions to affordable housing crunch
11172017 BUILDING 4.jpg
The new Walton Communities project at the corner of E.E. Butler Parkway and Atlanta Street begins to take shape as construction continues Thursday afternoon, Nov. 16, 2017, at the site of the former Atlanta Street apartments. - photo by Scott Rogers

Local government has taken steps in recent years to address the affordable housing crunch in Gainesville, but just how far should that assistance extend?

Some local governments across the country require developers to pay into a fund to support affordable housing development, for example.

And others require that all new multifamily developments set aside a certain percentage of units for affordable housing based on federal income guidelines.

“We do need to have a role,” Councilman Sam Couvillon said. “I know there’s a dire need for it.”

Couvillon offered several caveats.

“I’m also a free-market economics guy,” he said. “In general, I’m for less government.”

Affordable housing crunch

This is the final part of a two-part series on affordable housing issues in the city of Gainesville. In Sunday’s edition, The Times explored rising rent costs at complexes exiting a state tax credit program that had kept costs below market rates.

Gainesville has applied for grant funding, for example, which has helped develop a few single-family homes, most notably on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

And Mayor Danny Dunagan said city officials have played a critical role in delivering state tax credits for the new mixed-income development that will replace the former public housing complex on Atlanta Street.

City officials have also rewritten some zoning and development ordinances to reduce costs on homebuilders.

Councilman George Wangemann said there is no question more affordable housing is needed. He’s experienced the need and value of affordable housing firsthand.

When he first moved to Gainesville nearly 40 years ago, Wangemann said he and his family lived at the Linwood Apartments off Thompson Bridge Road, a largely subsidized housing complex.

And today, his daughter lives at home because she cannot find affordable housing for her and her son, Wangemann said.

“I believe government has some role,” he added. “We should probably be encouraging (affordable housing developers) to come here.”

Councilwoman Barbara Brooks said the city can do very little affordable housing development on its own even with grant funding from the federal or state government.

“That’s not going to put a dent in the need for housing,” she added.

Brooks said she would like to see more engagement on the issue from the private sector, including developers and employers, but acknowledges some difficulty in this regard.

“I don’t know how we’re going to entice people to invest” in affordable housing, she said.

For now, Brooks said she is focused on making homeownership available for young, working families, including hosting and supporting local classes that help individuals improve their credit.  

Councilwoman Ruth Bruner said she’d like to see the city develop a “land bank” to redevelop abandoned and foreclosed properties into affordable housing.

Bruner also supports requirements that developers set aside new units for lower-income families.

She said such an ordinance would be useful as several new high-end, mixed-use developments are in the works for the downtown and midtown areas of Gainesville.

Couvillon, however, sees a downside to this idea.

“I would not be in favor of that because I don’t want to deter people from development,” he said. “Too much of Big Brother trying to do for others.”

Bruner and Wangemann said they would also consider the prospect of imposing an impact fee on all new commercial and residential development to fund affordable housing development.

Impact fees are already collected for the purposes of supporting local libraries and parks as they manage new growth and demand.

The city also operates tax allocation districts, which provide tax relief for commercial redevelopment projects in defined areas of the city.

Wangemann said just about all options should be on the table for consideration, even if such a proposal goes nowhere or he doesn’t support it.

For example, providing local tax credits and incentives to spur affordable housing could be part of developing more public-private partnerships.

And it’s these partnerships that Wangemann said will be critical to addressing housing needs in the years to come.

“I think we need input from the community on these issues,” Wangemann said. “We’ve got to provide housing if we want to support the labor market and local (universities).”