GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Today the Alachua County Commission voted unanimously to approve a $3 million settlement that follows through on Commissioner Ken Cornell’s promise to “make [Ability Housing] whole” after the board voted to withdraw their approval of $230,000 in local matching funds for the project. The settlement, which is for the purpose of “resolving any and all filed or unfiled claims” related to the Dogwood Village projects, obligates the County to pay Ability Housing $2,964,730.60, with $1.8 million of that amount going to purchase two parcels of land ($1,152,000 for the northern parcel and $648,000 for the southern parcel).
Funding could come from infrastructure surtax or general fund reserves
County Manager Michele Lieberman gave the board two options to fund the settlement: Option 1 would take the $1.8 million for the land from infrastructure surtax funds, with the rest coming out of general fund reserves; and Option 2 would take all of the funds from general fund reserves. Lieberman told the board that if they voted to use infrastructure surtax money, they would have to use the land for a purpose that is authorized under the tax.
Assistant County Manager Tommy Crosby told the board that taking $3 million from reserves “will deplete reserves quite a bit,” and that will mainly have an impact on the FY24 budget because those dollars will have to “come off the top” to get back to reserves of 5%, and that’s “just less that goes into the pot for other programs or tax reductions, or whatever the case may be.”
Chair Anna Prizzia said she did not favor allocating infrastructure surtax funds to the land purchase until they decide what to do with the land.
“A transformational, incredible opportunity”
Commissioner Ken Cornell said he was “really, really excited about today” and that he was comfortable taking the funds from reserves because the County will take about 60 days for due diligence, followed by 30 days to close on the property, and at that point, there will be less than 45 days left in the fiscal year. Cornell continued, “It will impact what we’re doing next year. But it should impact what we’re doing next year. This is a transformational, incredible opportunity that from my perspective brings us to kind of where we made a mishap a couple of years ago… We have an opportunity to rebuild trust in east Gainesville.” Cornell said it was important to listen to the community and spur economic development in east Gainesville and that if elected officials had followed through on promises made about a decade ago, the money would have come from Community Reinvestment Area (CRA) funds.
Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler asked Crosby, “We’re not gonna go bust if we take it out of the general fund? Are we good?” Crosby responded, “No, ma’am. We’re fine.”
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he would like to see “single detached homes” on the land, “so folks can buy homes and have the American dream of home ownership.”
Cornell offered to let Chestnut make the motion, but Chestnut deferred to Cornell. Cornell’s motion was to approve the settlement agreement and any funds needed to perform due diligence, with the money coming from general fund reserves. Chestnut seconded the motion.
“A game changer”
Most people who spoke during public comment were very happy with the settlement. Wayne Fields called Cornell “a brother from another mother” and said the purchase of the parcels is “a game changer” for Azalea Trails residents. Several people thanked Cornell, Wheeler, and Chestnut for their previous votes to overturn the previous decision to provide matching funds; they encouraged Prizzia and Commissioner Mary Alford to join the other three and make the vote unanimous. Juanita Miles-Hamilton said, “This experience has been a learning experience that community involvement is certainly important and vital to communication.” Jo Beaty said the meeting was “a culmination of people’s input, coming and making a difference.”
Gainesville City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said the issue had generated so much interest “because of the lack of investment, particularly the disinvestment in East Gainesville for generations” and that it is time “to move from performative equity” to “put your money where your mouth is.” When she reached the three-minute time limit that had applied to everyone else, she said, “I hope my commissioner status will give me a few more moments” and spoke for a total of seven minutes.
“It’s really beautiful to see the community this engaged”
After public comment, Prizzia said she was “emotional” and that “it’s really beautiful to see the community this engaged.” She said she had been asking for a “community engagement plan revamp” since she was elected: “It’s yet to show up, but I keep asking for it.”
Prizzia also pushed back on some criticisms of Ability Housing that had been made during public comment: “It wasn’t their fault; it was ours. This was not Ability Housing’s fault. This was the County Commission’s fault. When we put out an RFP, we solicited people to do this project. We asked them to come to us. They came in good faith, they came up with an idea. They looked for some affordable land. They found it, they started a process. As soon as they had enough information to be able to go to the community, they came to the community. I understand they did not do what you all believe they intended. And I understand that perhaps they were disingenuous–I don’t know about that part because the community stopped talking to me. And when I reached out, I didn’t get information back. And that’s okay. I understand trust was broken. I get it. But I want you to know that I really believed that we needed a developer for that property. We still need a developer for that property; we now have a massive piece of property with no developer.”
“We still need a developer for that property; we now have a massive piece of property with no developer.” – County Commission Chair Anna Prizzia
Prizzia said that other than small projects around South Main and Depot Park, east Gainesville has received few benefits from the CRA district. She said that when the County Commission gave the City control of CRA funds, “we gave all the power away… So the money that I would see as having to do big projects like these are in the hands of the City.” Prizzia encouraged the residents to stay involved to make sure the money is spent “the way it was intended to be spent.”
The board voted unanimously to approve the settlement agreement, with the money coming from County reserve funds.
After the vote, Wheeler said, “I’m glad for the journey, I’m glad for the victory, but I won’t be able to truly celebrate with you all until we actually see a plan and start breaking ground. So that’s when you will see me dancing with you in the streets. But for now, let’s just keep the momentum going, guys, because the work has just started, and it’s just begun.”
History of the project
The Dogwood Village project was approved by the County Commission in September 2020 on a consent agenda, and the State Housing Finance Authority (HFA) approved a loan award of $460,000 in August 2021. The County Commission voted in September to provide $230,000 to the HFA as a local match toward the project costs of about $25 million. The project was intended for families under 60% of adjusted median income, also known as “workforce housing.” The bulk of the funding for the project came from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation (FHFC) through housing tax credit funds.
At the September meeting, the commission voted unanimously to approve the funds but also voted to send a letter asking that the project be relocated to a different property in Alachua County. Cornell put the project on the December 13 agenda because he wanted to reconsider that vote and Ability Housing had given the board a deadline of December 14 to make any changes.
On December 13, the board voted 3-2, with Commission Chair Anna Prizzia and Commissioner Mary Alford in dissent, to withdraw the funds. Ability Housing sent an email to Prizzia on December 29, stating that FHFC would not permit the relocation of the Dogwood Village development and would not grant any extensions. Ability Housing said they would need to return the award before January 27, leading to the loss of the project, unless the board reversed its decision. Ability Housing said in the letter that if the board did not reverse course, the company would have “no choice but to return the award and seek damages from the County for its decision to breach its commitment”; those damages were estimated at $15 million. The board voted 3-2 on January 10 to affirm their earlier decision to withdraw the local match funding. The motion from Cornell that eventually passed was to direct staff to negotiate with Ability Housing to purchase the two parcels because, Cornell said, “then we and the City can control what gets programmed there.”
At the December 13 Alachua County Commission meeting, Cornell said that he believed Ability Housing had spent $2.3 million and that he wanted to “[make] them whole. I don’t want Ability Housing to not be made whole at all. In fact, if they will work with us, I want to work with them on future projects.”
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