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New voices raise alarm about housing needs
The Enclave, a cluster of two-story townhouses in midtown Gainesville, stands over construction fencing along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in June. Steve McKibbon and business partner Robbie Robison plan to build 45 townhouses by investing more than $6 million to redevelop what they and others call one of the most blighted areas in Gainesville.

A young woman recently contacted the Newtown Florist Club about the difficulties she was having trying to find a place to live for her and her four children with a state-issued Section 8 rental assistance voucher.

The frustrated young mother told Newtown Florist Club Executive Director Rose Johnson that nobody would accept her voucher.

“Almost daily people call our office wanting to know whether or not we know where they can find a place to live,” Johnson said. “People come through the community looking for low rent. I mean they come day after day.”

Since its founding in 1950, the Newtown Florist Club, located at 1064 Desota St. in Gainesville, has been front and center in meeting the needs of its surrounding community made up mostly of African-Americans and Latinos. The organization built its reputation of activism in the 1970s when it brought to light the lethal health problems being created by neighboring industries.

Johnson sees the shortage of housing for Gainesville’s working class as a real and pressing problem that needs special attention. She said the problem is one that transcends the issue of affordable housing.

“You can only push poor people to the edge so far,” Johnson said. “More and more we’re going to hear and we’re going to have their voices rising up … I know that all of the agencies are trying to solve the problem, but right now it is critical. It is absolutely critical. If it is not made a top priority, we’re going to have some serious problems far beyond what we already have.”

Arturo Adame is a 26-year-old Mexican American who is the political outreach director at Young Democrats of Hall County. Adame has been spearheading discussions about the housing crunch with like-minded activists.

The group is paying attention to what it calls the gentrification of Gainesville. For example, the activists point to the displacement of working-class tenants from homes razed because of a crackdown by Gainesville Code Enforcement against dilapidated rental homes deemed to be unsafe and uninhabitable.

Likewise, they see midtown projects — such as a mix of new affordable housing, market-rate housing and public housing under construction where the Atlanta Street public housing complex once stood for 60 years — as pricing out of reach workers scratching out a living on jobs paying at or below minimum wage.

“We’ve been brainstorming ideas,” Adame said of the meetings taking place. “One of the ideas we’d like to pursue is to hold a town-hall-type meeting.”

Personally, Adame recently brought the issue to the attention of elected officials during public comments at a Hall County Board of Commissioners meeting.

“I talked about the housing situation,” Adame said. “They gave me two minutes. I don’t know what impact my words had. Maybe they listened. Maybe they didn’t. I spoke a little faster than I wanted to. I was really nervous.”

Whatever solutions are to be found, Johnson said it is important that the very people who are being pushed to the margins are given a forum where they can present their own recommendations.

“They do have thoughts and ideas that could help remedy the problem,” Johnson said. “I’m not even suggesting there is not work being done to remedy the problem, but when you continue to hear people every day looking for a place to live that they can afford it stretches the fault to the limit … We shouldn’t live in a city where only the well-to-do can afford a place to call home or call their own.”

For her part, Johnson is glad to see young people, such as Adame, taking a lead role on the issue.

“I’m really happy about that, and I hope we all do more to support their work,” Johnson said.  

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