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Norton trying to start affordable rental trend with cottages
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New home construction at the intersection of Enota Avenue and Longview Drive continues Friday afternoon with four homes taking shape. When completed, the homes will become rental property.

“Hold on, I’m walking into my office now,” Frank Norton Jr., president and CEO of The Norton Agency real estate firm in Gainesville, said over the phone last Friday.

He wanted to sit down and really think the problem through before going on.

Norton said he’s been “knee-deep” navigating the city’s building codes as he develops a cottage home community off Enota Avenue, which he hopes will be a start in addressing the city’s need for in-town rental housing at affordable rates.  

Land-use ordinances, zoning restrictions and code enforcement play an important role in protecting the environment and quality of life for all residents in Gainesville.

But as the workforce demands of the county and region grow, reconsidering how neighborhoods are integrated will require input from all sectors: residents, government, business and nonprofits.

When Gainesville officials changed an ordinance this year to allow for pervious surface parking lots, Norton took advantage. He’ll be using them at the cottage development.

“I'm really pleased about character,” Norton said, adding that construction of the three-bedroom, two-bath homes for rent (1,300-1,400 square feet) has taken longer than initially planned because of attention to detail.

This includes antique concrete blocks for curbing, fireplaces and energy-efficient appliances, as well as steps taken to preserve old magnolias and a broad tree canopy at the site.

It’s a development that Norton believes can attract millennials and retirees, and he wants to replicate the model elsewhere in-town.

“This product is a really cool product,” Norton said. “It can be done in lots of places.”

Whether that proves true remains to be seen. But the need for rental homes is evident.

For example, of the 450 single-family rental houses Norton’s agency manages, most of which of located in Hall County, only four are currently available.

And, Norton said, for every call he gets asking about a rental, there are 15 calls asking to buy.

According to Chris Davis, Gainesville’s housing manager, about 65 percent of all homes in Gainesville are renter-occupied.

And with major new hiring expected in the next year as Kubota Manufacturing and Amazon expand their businesses in the region, more housing will be needed quickly.

“The problem is going to magnify over the next six to 12 months as inventory continues to drop,” for both rentals and sales, Norton said.

The need for affordability is even more striking.

Half of all renters spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, a federally defined baseline for affordability, according to census figures.

Homeowners are cost-burdened, too.

Nearly 30 percent in Gainesville (about 16,000 units) exceed the 30 percent threshold.

Amending construction and building codes could expedite things and lower housing costs for tenants, Norton said, but that will be a challenge.

Norton said that about 36 percent of the costs to build a house priced in the $150,000 range are directly influenced by construction codes, many of which he questions as outdated or unnecessary.

For example, codes require electrical outlets every six feet in a home, Norton said, as a way to limit extension cord fires.
And the Public Service Commission allows a $750 surcharge when running underground power, Norton said, which is a must to preserve the aesthetic character of his cottages.

“Those type of things are adding up on the cost of the house,” he added.

Site plans have grown more expensive, too, and rezoning issues are likely to spur new costs as he tries to build within the city limits, Norton said.

For now, he’s betting on the cottage homes to be the beginning of a larger push. The first tenants will move in next month. The clock is ticking.

“We’re out to show everybody what can be done,” Norton said.

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