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Editorial: Apartment complex offers a blueprint to build on
Public-private plans like Walton Summit could chip away at local housing crunch
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One of the completed housing units at Walton Summit apartment complex on Thursday, May 10, 2018, in Gainesville, the new mixed-income development on EE Butler Parkway. - photo by David Barnes

It’s a well-worn notion that in dealing with public problems, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Few solutions can make difficulties go away overnight, but the better ones can begin to chip away at them.

Such is the case with the new Walton Summit apartments in Gainesville. The complex will include 200 units replacing the old Green Hunter Homes public housing development of 131 units built in the 1950s. The old site had become a crime-infested, run-down eyesore along one of the city’s main entry corridors, and is now replaced by an impressive new edifice that rose quickly from a sea of mud.

The project is an ambitious private-public cooperative that may  begin to ease Hall County’s shortage of affordable public housing. It won’t serve that purpose alone, but the perfect gives way to the good, in this case a good start.

In this venture, the Gainesville Housing Authority joined with Walton Communities LLC, which has developed similar housing projects elsewhere in the state. The complex includes a limited number of public housing units, along with lower-priced and market-rate apartments to appeal to different income levels. The first phase of the complex includes 13 public housing units open to residents; a second phase will be for residents ages 55 and older. 

The goal is to make the development profitable enough for its owners with full-rate units while offering options for those with lesser incomes, along with brings in millions in state tax credits to offset costs. Having all the folks intermingled in a live-work-play city setting could foster responsibility and neighborly cooperation. Those who achieve a nice home by earning it are more likely to care for it than those who get it for nothing.

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

The affordable housing issue has come to head in recent years amid stories of residents unable to find a place within their means. More than 50 percent of Gainesville renters are considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing, and in a town where more than 60 percent of households are renters. 

Even in a time of near full employment, incomes haven’t kept pace with the price of housing, which puts a burden not just on individuals but  also businesses recruiting workers for jobs at mid-level pay. Having the training, housing and other infrastructure in place to lure and keep such workers is a key facet to keeping the local economy moving ahead.

“We need an educated workforce and we need affordable housing,” state Rep. Matt Dubnik said. “We have to invest in projects like this.”

But while Walton Summit is a blessing to those who have qualified to move in, it does leave many others out. Some have complained the bulky application process and income requirements mandated by government regulations make it difficult to obtain one of the public units available, while the other apartments are well out of their price range. To qualify for a lower-cost unit, an applicant’s income must be at least 2.5 times the rent owed.

“It isn’t the solution for everyone,” admits Beth Brown, executive director of the Housing Authority.

Citywide, the housing crunch has worsened recently when many low-income families were hit with rent increases after complexes left a state tax credit program aimed at keeping prices below market rates.

Clearly it will take many more such efforts as Walton Summit to alleviate these housing issues and provide enough public and low-cost units for all who need them. That will occur only if the demand is great enough for the market-rate apartments to make it worth the developer’s investment.

For now, though, the people who have found a home at Walton Summit are basking in the glow of a place to call their own. 

“It’s hard to believe this is mine,” said Lauren Henderson, a single mother of two daughters, one with special needs, who recently moved into her unit.

Said Amber Jameson, who attended an open house this week with her son before moving into their apartment, “It’s beyond words. I can’t explain how I feel right now.”

Yes, public problems are too big to solve in one bite. But seeing these human success stories rise from a first-step solution offers hope that a big chip has been knocked off that rock, and more may follow.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a letter to the editor; you can use this form or send email to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.

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