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The end is near for Church Street Manor. 12 residents remain in property slated for redevelopment
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Church Street Manor apartment resident Charles Lawson isn't sure where he'll be able to move when he has to leave his unit. He said he has not been able to secure affordable housing that can meet his needs. - photo by Scott Rogers

About a dozen residents at Church Street Manor still have no place to go, months after being notified that the property will be transformed into an affordable housing complex at the start of next year. 

“I don't think so,” said 62-year-old Charles Lawson when asked if he thinks he’ll find a new home before Christmas. “I mean, that would be nice, but I wish we had more time. I think we need more time.” 

Lawson was born with cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair. Affordable housing in the area is generally hard to come by, but it is especially difficult for folks such as Lawson who require handicap accessibility. 

“The problem is that there are just not enough one-bedroom apartments available, and particularly not enough one-bedroom handicap-accessible apartments,” said Beth Oropeza, the relocation specialist hired by the Gainesville Housing Authority, which manages the property. 

“It weighs on me greatly,” she said. “When I wake up in the middle of the night worrying, I'm worried about these folks.” 

Oropeza added, though, that residents who began searching in the spring, and who have family members advocating for them, have been able to find apartments that are handicap accessible. The property initially had 39 residents.  

“I don’t believe anybody is going to be on the street,” said Beth Brown, executive director of the GHA. “I have never been involved in anything like this, so I have no idea, legally, what can and cannot be done. But I would not anticipate there's going to be people put out on the street by Christmas.” 

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A man in a wheelchair travels along the second-story breezeway Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021, at Church Street Manor apartments. There are still 12 residents living there, though they have been told the complex is undergoing major renovations and they must vacate. - photo by Scott Rogers

Frank Norton Jr., president of The Norton Agency, the real estate firm that oversees the property, has said that renovations will begin at the start of next year, but he indicated that the end-of-year deadline may be flexible. 

“That is our target date, and we recognize that it may shift,” Norton said. “We’re being sensitive to the time of year. We’re being sensitive to the apartment availability market, but these folks have had — and while some people got notified in February, we’ve been telling people for a year or two that this was going to happen.” 

Norton attempted to sell the property to someone who appeared willing to retain the contract from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would have continued government rental assistance, but an inspection in the summer revealed that the costs — roughly $3 million — were too steep relative to the benefits. 

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An apartment unit at Church Street Manor has been gutted Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. - photo by Scott Rogers

“HUD says, ’In order for us to approve the transfer of this (rental-assistance) contract to the new owner, you have to do these repairs, and they have to be done within like the first 12 months,’” Brown said. “That just was not possible given the age and the physical condition of the property. It would have been cost prohibitive.” 

“A lot was done to try to make that work,” Brown said. 

For the residents who have moved out, Norton has paid for a number of their expenses. 

“Those who have left, he has paid all moving expenses, first month’s rent, those kinds of things,” Oropeza said. “He has gone over and beyond.” 

“I think it was the right thing to do, and we will continue to do that and continue to assist these folks in finding a better home,” Norton said. “I’m trying to do good by the tenants in a difficult situation.” 

But some of the residents who remain are not happy about having to find a new home. 

“We’re being treated like we really don’t count,” said 74-year-old Jimmy Wilmont. “Why should I look for something and they’re the ones putting us out? They should be wanting to place us.”

Many residents, however, regularly complained about the living conditions, and Brown suspects that many are happier in their new homes. 

The property has been plagued by bed bugs, subject to gas leaks and the elevator was in a near-constant state of disrepair. Crime is common on the property, Brown said, and it is not unusual to find homeless people sleeping in the lobby outside the elevator. In recent days, she said, homeless people have been sleeping on the elevator itself, one of whom apparently posted a makeshift sign saying the elevator was out of order. 

Norton said minor demolition has begun in order to determine the structural integrity of the building. Some of the units have been stripped to studs, and a construction dumpster is on site. 

The project will cost about $1.4 million, and while it will still be categorized as affordable housing, it will not be government subsidized. Units will likely range from $800 to $1,400. 

A team has been assembled, with Jack Bailey as the architect and Carroll Daniel Construction as the contractor. Norton said the name of the new complex will probably be revealed early next year. 

“I’m excited about the future of this project, probably as excited as any project I've been involved with,” Norton said. “But we need to temper that enthusiasm during this time of relocation.” 

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Jimmy Wilmont said he has been unable to find an affordable place to live. Demolition crews have already gutted some units of Church Street Manor apartments in Gainesville. - photo by Scott Rogers
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