Some community leaders say the lack of affordable housing that plagues Gainesville is compounded by possible discrimination.
A series of meetings and training workshops are being held, with the goal of educating residents and galvanizing the city into action.
“It’s important for us, the Newtown Florist Club, to carve out a piece that we felt was significant enough for us to move on in many different ways,” Rose Johnson, the club’s executive director, said to open the first of three meetings on the subject Thursday, March 22.
The longtime civil rights organization focused on promoting youth development and organizing for social, economic and environmental justice has now established a housing committee to address the rental landscape in Gainesville.
Their work includes developing a training module so residents can learn about forms of housing discrimination, teaching how to file complaints if residents think they’ve been victims of such discrimination and providing a stronger understanding of how the Section 8 housing voucher program works.
The meeting on Thursday included representatives from the Georgia Legal Services Program, which provides pro bono support for low-income families, as well as the Gainesville Housing Authority and local residents who say they have been affected by the affordable housing shortage.
“We are here to stand for the cause of decent, affordable and fair housing,” said Irene Lipscomb, who facilitated the first forum.
Lipscomb explained that the Section 8 voucher program serves millions of lower-income families nationwide by subsidizing a portion of their rent and utility costs. It’s designed to assist these families in moving up the economic ladder and out of dilapidated urban environments.
Tenants in the program pay about 30 percent of their income on rent, which is a baseline the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to gauge what is affordable and what is not.
But there is a significant stigma about the program, participants said, that has limited availability of where recipients can use their vouchers in Gainesville.
What: Series of conversations about housing discrimination in Gainesville, hosted by the Newtown Florist Club
6 p.m. April 26: Housing discrimination against families with children
6 p.m. May 24: Why some landlords deny Section 8 housing vouchers
Where: Fair Street Neighborhood Center, 715 Fair St., Gainesville
More info: 770-718-1343 or firstname.lastname@example.org
And many investors have entered the multifamily apartment market in Gainesville since the Great Recession struck, and several of these properties have exited or plan to exit a tax credit program that had kept rents low.
Additionally, these complexes are no longer accepting Section 8 housing subsidies.
Jackie Lipscomb, Irene’s daughter, explained that there are federal prohibitions in place for discriminating in housing based on race or color, religion, gender, national origin, family status such as a single mother, and disability.
But Jackie Lipscomb said that doesn’t necessarily mean landlords don’t discriminate and get away with it, adding that she believes it happened to her family when they could not get accepted into an apartment or home and instead bounced between living with friends and relatives.
“My grades began to drop,” she said. “I believe that no one should ever go through a situation like this.”
The Rev. Antoine Harris, the co-chairman of the Newtown Florist Club Housing Committee, said discrimination is an ugly weapon that “puts you in a box and strips you of your pride and character.”
He said people can also be denied housing based on their sexual orientation, and that immigrants, such as the particularly large Latino population in Gainesville, are often discriminated against.
But discrimination could also include stigmas about single mothers, individuals who are obese or those with minor criminal histories.
“Discrimination is very, very ugly,” Harris said. “This is something we can’t just sweep under the rug.”
Ron Sheats, also a co-chairman of the Newtown Florist Club Housing Committee, said he spent 13 years living at the former Atlanta Street public housing complex in Gainesville, which is being redeveloped into a mixed-income property called Walton Summit.
Beyond facing discrimination, many lower-income families, particularly minorities, face an obstacle that Sheats calls “discouragement.”
“It’s another awful word just like discrimination,” he added, and it manifests when families with a poor rental history or minor criminal history are told not to even bother to apply for housing.
Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, which manages public housing units at scattered sites across the city, said it’s important to know that as a government agency the authority has strict regulations against discrimination and discouragement.
For example, Brown said, certain criminal offenders, such as those who have successfully completed a drug court program, are actually given preference when applying for a subsidized apartment.
Moreover, the authority does not review or consider credit scores when determining an applicant’s eligibility for public housing.
“The larger problem is affordable housing, in general, and the amount of it,” Brown said.
The authority’s waiting list is currently closed because there are more than 1,000 names on it, which means it could be years for those at the bottom of the list to receive a home.
There isn’t enough affordable housing to meet the demand for it, Brown said.
“It is the next crisis that is facing our country,” Brown said. “I strongly believe that.”
The problem was exemplified when residents of the former Atlanta Street public housing complex were given vouchers but had trouble finding a place to live locally.
“We know that when Atlanta Street closed that people got vouchers, but in our community, they couldn’t find enough landlords to rent to them,” said Wendy Glasbrenner, managing attorney for the Gainesville regional office of the Georgia Legal Services Program.
Glasbrenner added that developments that receive tax credits are required to accept vouchers, and if they are not, then residents need to contact GLSP for support.
Brown suggested reaching out to landlords to educate them and gauge their interest in accepting Section 8 vouchers as a small way to try to alleviate the shortage of affordable housing locally.
One bright spot is the opening this spring of the first units at Walton Summit, the redeveloped Atlanta Street public housing complex.
Only 40 of the 252 total units that will be available when all three phases are complete will be set at market-rate rental prices, while 39 will be public housing, and the remaining made affordable, typically for residents earning 60 percent of the area median income.
Brown said having mixed-income units at Walton Summit is what made the project affordable to build because the market rates offset the lower costs on other units.
Additionally, Section 8 vouchers will be accepted at the complex.
“(Affordable housing) is critical for communities, to build them and sustain them,” Brown said.