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New clubhouse sets example for affordable housing communities
New owner invested $2 million in renovations
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Markel Anderson, 12, and Jordan Alexander Bryant Jr., 12, play with building blocks Wednesday at the grand opening for the Park Hill Community Center in Gainesville. Several local churches and volunteers helped make the community center come to fruition. - photo by Erin O. Smith

The opening of a clubhouse at the Park Hill Apartments in Gainesville on Wednesday shows what can be accomplished when investments in affordable housing and working-class neighborhoods are made.

Angeles Apolinar, a mother of four children from elementary to high school age, said she was grateful to have a safe place for her children to learn, play and stay out of trouble.

Speaking through a Spanish-language interpreter, she said that her youngest kids were anxious and excited for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The clubhouse also reveals how lower-income and immigrant families can be connected to the wider community through the assistance of dedicated church groups, ministries and nonprofits.

“I had a real heart for these apartments and the people who live here,” said Jennie Ortega, a member of the Westminster Presbyterian Church who now teaches ballet to girls from the neighborhood.

In fact, those girls kicked off the dedication on Wednesday with a performance that delighted adults and children alike.

Ortega said the clubhouse would empower residents to better their lives and connect as a community.

Stephanie Robinson, regional manager for Greenleaf Management, said what is now a veritable community center was once basically a storage unit, with old appliances, mowers and trash discarded within.

Renovations began in February after she witnessed children cold and red-faced while meeting for events in an outdoor pavilion at the complex.

After a roughly $10,000 investment, and a commitment to also building a pedestrian path to connect the apartments with nearby retail services, Greenleaf has made the clubhouse ready to host tutoring sessions, arts and crafts classes, story time, English-language instruction and other educational opportunities for the residents.

“Whoever wants it, it’s here,” Robinson said.

Church groups, including Westminster, First Baptist Church of Gainesville and In His Name ministry have been devoted to these families for years.

For example, Marcelo Arteaga, a 25-year resident of Gainesville, organizes youth soccer for dozens of children living here.

Many of these families lack transportation and other resources to get their kids involved in local recreational sports, but Arteaga has solved that problem by busing them to the Westminster church for practices and games.

“I want the parents to be involved,” he said, adding that soccer reaches and impassions kids in a unifying way.

The Park Hill Apartments, which is really three complexes, primarily houses lower-income minorities and immigrants.

When Greenleaf purchased the properties last year, they immediately embarked on a better than $2 million investment to renovate the homes then known as Brentwood, Norwood and Versailles along Park Hill Drive near Clarks Bridge Road.

Renovations included window replacements, sidewalk installation, landscaping, parking lot repairs, new security lights in parking lots and building hallways, sport court improvements at Norwood, new paint trim at Versailles and mail kiosk upgrades at Versailles and Brentwood.

It also included rehabbing some 30 previously uninhabitable units that had been long abandoned, boarded up and sprayed with gang graffiti.

According to Robinson, Park Hill is now 89 percent full, and has had a 73 percent retention rate since the renovations began.

It has also welcomed in 11 families from the Atlanta Street public housing units, which is now about vacant as it awaits demolition and redevelopment into a mixed-income complex.

One of the biggest challenges for the former residents of Atlanta Street was finding affordable housing within the Gainesville city limits.

And what was available was often found to be substandard.

The mix of poor conditions and expensive rents pushed some families as far as Athens.

With a large renting population in Gainesville — 65 percent of all single-family homes are renter-occupied, for example — the need to improve both the conditions of units and keep them at or below market rates is critical.

More than half of all renters in Gainesville, for example, and about 30 percent of homeowners, are considered cost-burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to census figures.

The new clubhouse, coupled with the earlier renovations, has made Park Hill an example for other developers and property managers, according to those who volunteer and invest in this community.

But the families living here are not the only beneficiaries of a better quality of life.

“We’re equals,” Ortega said. “We have a lot to learn from each other. The blessings work both ways.”

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