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Unease arises over housing redevelopments despite opportunity for change
Residents concerned about future of community, affordable rent
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The Green Hunter Homes on Atlanta Street in Gainesville have been proposed for demolition, with new public, affordable and market-rate units to be constructed in its place. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Plans to redevelop several public and affordable apartment complexes in Gainesville underscore the city’s improving commercial and residential market, but the trend also causes a sense of unease for low-income individuals who call these places home.

“So many people here have nobody,” said Wanda Turpin, an elderly resident who has lived at the Church Street Manor community for the past three years. “They don’t know where to turn.”

The complex across Jesse Jewell Parkway from the Northeast Georgia Medical Center, will one day be no more.

Though nothing is immediate, Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency, a Gainesville-based real estate firm, said the property will be put to an “alternative” use in the coming years. Medical office space would be an obvious change.

From the outside, the apartments look a little ragged and worn. And they are. Residents report that wiring and plumbing issues, as well as frequent power surges, are a constant problem.

The same is true of Green Hunter Homes on Atlanta Street, where the Gainesville Housing Authority has partnered with a private
developer on plans to demolish and rebuild the public housing complex built in the early 1950s.

In the future, this property is likely to provide both affordable and market-rate units for a diverse group of residents, from seniors to working-class families, students and professionals.

“We’ve determined that they are physically obsolete, which means it’s going to cost us more to fix it up than it would be to tear it down and start over …” said Beth Brown, executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority.

Drugs, crime and poverty also plague residents here.

“What we really want is for it to be workforce housing,” Brown added. “This community has a huge need for affordable housing.”

Renovations are also coming or have already begun at other apartment complexes in the city that house low-income residents, including along Park Hill Drive and at the intersection of Bradford Street and Forrest Avenue.

For better or worse, these are communities with strong bonds and generations of family ties. And despite the sometimes squalid conditions, the prospect of change has been stressful for those connected to these places.

“I think it’s a bad idea,” said John White, a former resident of the Green Hunter Homes who regularly frequents friends at the complex next to Peppers Grocery & Market. “You’re taking away something that means something to the community.”

The potential loss or change to these complexes accentuates the need for additional affordable housing within the city limits.

Just last year, the nonprofit Atlanta-based developer Mercy Housing Southeast scrapped plans to build a 94,000-square-foot, 90-unit apartment complex for low-income residents on a 2.2-acre site off Queen City Parkway at Banks Street, across from the city’s Public Safety Complex. Mercy could not strike a deal on the purchase price of the property.

Norton conducted a study for the local Housing Authority that revealed the city could support about double the amount of affordable and government subsidized units than currently available.

Renters are a huge segment of the city’s resident population. For example, just 35 percent of homes in Gainesville are owner-occupied.

And in-town living is critical for low-income people who mostly rely on public transportation and other city services. Access to health care centers, grocery stores and jobs is also key.

“There is a need for that,” Norton said. “More and more people are going to be renting. And there is a demand for apartments in town.”

Councilwoman Myrtle Figueras said she hopes real estate investors and developers will commit to meeting the affordable, in-town housing needs of the the city’s growing population.

The Church Street Manor apartments are subsidized by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most residents are elderly and disabled, many of them women, and live on fixed-incomes supported by Social Security and disability checks.

Residents said they pay somewhere between $150 and $250 a month in rent out of their own pockets. Rents are similar at the Green Hunter Homes.

Church Street Manor residents received a notice last month that a contract with HUD to subsidize rents is set to expire next year. It’s not the first time the dreaded warning has been made.

Norton said HUD prefers that a five-year renewal agreement be signed, but owners want to go year-to-year as the market changes to provide flexibility on when to redevelop.

While it’s likely that the contract will be renewed beyond 2016, HUD requires that residents receive a notice of the expiration date one year out.

Owners then have 120 days prior to the expiration date to either renew the contract or opt out.

Meanwhile, an application to demolish the Green Hunter Homes, as well as an application for tax credits to help generate capital for the redevelopment, will likely be submitted to government agencies this month.

Moving forward hinges on receiving the tax credits, and Brown said she expects to have an answer by December, and likely sooner on a demolition permit.

If all goes to plan, the relocation of residents will begin early next year and take between 6 to 12 months. Construction of 252 units, which would increase capacity, over three phases could begin by 2017, with move-in dates in 2018.

The Housing Authority has partnered with Walton Communities LLC, which has developed similar housing projects in other Georgia cities, to build the new complex.

Many residents of these communities said the proposals leave them feeling left in limbo.

While HUD will provide vouchers to cover costs associated with relocating, Laura Haynes, a resident of Church Street Manor, said the uncertainty of waiting to hear about when and where she will have to move is stressful.

Haynes is also worried about being forced into a living situation that does not meet her health care needs.

Norton wants to help alleviate these concerns. He said he has pledged to help in the relocation process, and that his property management division will help residents find new housing.

“There’s no threat of immediate tearing down or kicking anyone out,” he added. “We certainly wouldn’t do that.”

At the Green Hunter Homes, White said he had discussed the possibility of relocation with residents who are worried about the prospect that more homelessness might result as people’s only connection to a social life is removed. 

Several black men expressed their belief that they were actively being pushed farther from the city’s core to the literal other side of the railroad tracks.

Brown said she understands the concerns residents have about being relocated.

“I don’t want it to sound like we want to kick everybody that’s living there out,” she said, but added that redevelopment can be a catalyst for positive change and remove the stigma sometimes associated with a public housing neighborhood whose identity can be associated with drugs and crime. “It’s almost lost a sense of community.”

Brown said the relocation process would be orderly and spread out over several months to ensure that equal or better housing can be found for all residents.

“Nothing gets torn down until everybody is relocated,” she added.

For all the concerns and fears about having to move, some residents believe change is not only inevitable, but also desirable.

Tim Aldridge, 40, a tall, broad-shouldered former Marine who lives with his wife at the Green Hunter Homes, said he can’t wait to receive a voucher to move, a benefit he described as “thin as paper, but heavier than I am.”

“(Redevelopment) should have been done a long time ago,” he added. “There’s no hiding the need.”

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