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Gainesville cracks down on shoddy housing
Tenants scramble to find affordable homes during code enforcement push
0521Slumlord
Given short notice to move out from a house on Banks Street tagged for demolition, Raymond Rochell said he’s having trouble finding a place to rent he can afford. - photo by Carlos Galarza

A crackdown on poor living conditions by the city of Gainesville has an untold number of tenants scrambling to find another affordable place to live.

Since the beginning of the year, the city’s Code Enforcement Division has identified 63 properties, mostly in midtown neighborhoods, with code violations.

Some of the houses inspected have been deemed by the City Building Official “to be dangerous and to threaten the safety of any occupants of the houses,” according to a formal letter sent last month to one of the property owners.

In the letter obtained by The Times, the city, through a private law firm, warned the owner that if the violations are not remedied by June 5, and residents continue to occupy the houses, “the city will issue citations for the violations.”

The crackdown on squalid and dangerous living conditions at these targeted properties, however, have put some tenants in a bind. Some already have been told they must find somewhere else to go on short notice.

Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, said steps are being taken to address the supply of adequate and affordable housing through the United Way One Hall United Against Poverty initiative. Brown said she heads a committee that is meeting regularly to address these issues.

“One of the things my board did adopt was we’ve added those families being displaced due to the city’s code enforcement effort as a priority on our tenant selection plan,” Brown said. “So that those who are being displaced can also receive a preference along with other preference categories. Building additional housing is going to take a while, but what we can do in the immediate future is to try to help get these families housed.”

Through a public records request to the city, The Times learned that 41 of the 63 properties tagged with code violations are owned individually or collectively by members of the Pierce family. Since 1948, the Pierce family has owned and operated Pierce Wholesale, 1021 Jesse Jewell Parkway.

Stan Pierce, a principal with Pierce Family LP, said the city has given him and his brothers, Charles and David, the option to make repairs on their properties or demolish them.

“It’s costing tens of thousands of dollars,” Pierce said of the renovations underway at some of the properties. “We’ve done some of them, but not all. Those that are not financially feasible to repair will be demolished. We have discussed this with the tenants and they are aware of the city’s demands.”

Raymond Rochell, a 56-year-old laborer, is one of those tenants. He recently told The Times his landlord had given him two weeks to leave the premises at 514 Banks St., across the street from the city’s public safety complex.

Rochell said he and a buddy split the $550 rent for the two-bedroom house tagged with a yellow Gainesville Building Inspection poster indicating the property will be demolished.

“We made full rent payment in April, but we’re not paying rent this month,” Rochell said, adding that the landlord had the power at house turned off May 11.

Rochell said finding another place to rent on the $9.50 an hour he makes working at a poultry processing plant in Pendergrass won’t be easy.

“Rent is too high in the city,” he said. “Even splitting rent with someone, it’s hard to make ends meet.”

The Times later called on Rochell last week to see if he had found a place to live. He was gone. There was a keypad lock on the door.

On a recent afternoon, a vehicle marked City of Gainesville Code Enforcement was stopped at 937 Myrtle St. A city employee posted a warning on the front door.

“This is to notify you that the property you occupy must be clean and maintained in clean and sanitary conditions at all times,” the poster stated in part. “Failure to correct these infractions could result in fines of up to $1,000 and/or six months of jail time.”

After the Code Enforcement vehicle drove away, a young Mexican woman came out to see the poster taped to the front of her door. Speaking in Spanish, the woman said she and her husband live in the three-bedroom house with their young child. She said they pay $700 a month for rent.

“We’ve been told we have to move out,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “We might have to move in with relatives until we find another place to live.”

Brown said code enforcement officers are participating on the Adequate and Affordable Housing Committee she heads. She said the group put together a comprehensive listing with contact information on how to apply at affordable housing apartment complexes throughout the county.

“The code enforcement officers have been giving those to the families as they move through this process so they have somewhere to start looking,” Brown said.

Although there’s a waiting list at the Gainesville Housing Authority, and likely at other affordable apartment complexes in the county, Brown encourages anybody to get on the list.

“Go ahead and apply wherever you can, get on the waiting list and you might be surprised at how quickly you could move through the list,” Brown said. “We’re trying to make a thoughtful and concerted effort to understand the need and come up with short and long-term goals to address the needs throughout the city and county.”

Pierce said approximately 12 of his family’s properties will be demolished. He said the lots will be marketed for sale.

Some of the Pierce properties on Myrtle Street are undergoing repairs, including new wiring, fixes to the roof, siding, windows and paint. He said it’s going to take time to get to all the properties that need repairs.

“We’re giving the existing tenants the option to re-rent once the properties are brought up to code,” Pierce said. “It’s expensive, but in the end the tenants and city will be better off.”

Pierce said rent will go up as well because of the renovations being made. However, he anticipated rents would stay under $1,000 a month and below market rate.

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