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Walton Summit giving some chance at affordable housing
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Amber Jameson, a Walton Summit resident, speaks on Wednesday, May 9, 2018, in Gainesville during a tour of her home. - photo by David Barnes

Having their own place to put their feet up and lay their heads at night is something Amber Jameson and her 13-year-old son, Ty, won’t ever take for granted again.

“It’s beyond words,” she said during an open house event at the new Walton Summit apartments in Gainesville on Wednesday, May 9. “I can’t explain how I feel right now.”

Jameson and her son are among about 35 families that have now moved into the new mixed-income development on EE Butler Parkway.

The Gainesville Housing Authority partnered with Walton Communities LLC, which has developed similar housing projects in other Georgia cities, to build the mixed-income property over three phases with millions of dollars in state tax credits.

More than 200 units — from public housing to income-restricted to senior housing and market-rate apartments — will ultimately replace the Green Hunter Homes on Atlanta Street, a 131-unit public housing development built in the 1950s.

It’s a silver lining in a city that lacks an adequate supply of affordable housing.

State Rep. Matt Dubnik, R-Gainesville, said Walton Summit provides a needed anchor for a midtown area that is quickly changing as new residential and commercial development comes into a historically industrial and low-income neighborhood.

But the new homes also speak to an ongoing need. Dubnik said Georgia is considered the best place in the nation to do business, but for private enterprise to succeed, the state must address two things.

“You hear common two themes: We need an educated workforce and we need affordable housing,” Dubnik said. “We have to invest in projects like this.”

The public-private partnership that got Walton Summit built is also a buttress against the loss of similar affordable, tax-credit-assisted properties in the city.

For example, hundreds of lower-income families in Gainesville are facing significant rent increases as apartment complexes like the former Lenox Park exit a state tax credit program that kept costs below market rates.

Already, more than 50 percent of all renters in Gainesville are considered “cost-burdened,” according to census figures, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. And more than 60 percent of all households in the city limits are renter-occupied.

Beth Brown, the executive director of the Housing Authority, said the opening of Walton Summit was years in the making.

The Green Hunter Homes had become “physically obsolete” and more costly to renovate than demolish and rebuild, she said, and the prevalence of crime along Atlanta Street had turned the homes from a place of hope to “housing of last resort.”

“I just want to say a little advocacy note for affordable housing,” Brown said, adding that support for legislation that promotes affordable and public housing development is critical.

“I think the benefits to the community are going to be widespread and continue for many years,” she added of Walton Summit. “It isn’t for those people. It’s for your sisters and brothers and colleagues and co-workers and friends.”

Mary Sue Brown, a member of the Housing Authority board, has lived in public housing at the Harrison Square complex in Gainesville for 42 years, shortly after first arriving in the city.

She has raised children there and worked as a community activist to limit crime, from violence to drug dealing, which had plagued the Green Hunter Homes by the time they were demolished.

Brown described Walton Summit as “very important” for low-income and minority families struggling with housing costs.

Gainesville Mayor Danny Dunagan said Walton Summit brings a “breath of fresh air to midtown.”

“Wow, what a change,” he added. “It just shows how working together as a group … can make something like this happen.”

As a sign of the new hope Walton Summit may offer lower-income families, Joanne Capies, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville, said the Holy Spirit was in action on Wednesday at the property.

“As we were leaving, we talked to a single mom with three children,” Capies said. “She told us they did not have any beds, they were sleeping on a blow-up mattress. Tomorrow, we are taking her a king mattress and box spring. She is on the third floor, so we will hire two young guys to deliver this one.”

The opportunity for Jameson and her son to have a fresh start at Walton Summit hits home, literally, for Gainesville Councilman George Wangemann.

Amber is his daughter, Ty his grandson, and they have all lived together for several years.

“To me, it helps both of us,” Wangemann said. “My wife and I moved into a new home recently with the idea that we’d be there ourselves. But sometimes, as family circumstances dictate, things change a little bit.”

Wangemann said he hopes his daughter and grandson will benefit from having their own space and new responsibilities, allowing them to live more independently, “which we feel is a very good thing to learn.”