Dogwood Village: Steps forward and back for workforce housing, lessons learned 

by Melissa Hawthorne, ACLC Co-Chair, and Bobby Mermer, PhD, ACLC Coordinator

University towns face unique challenges when it comes to maintaining affordable housing. As student populations grow without adequate campus support, housing stress is placed on the surrounding communities. Rental units are built to cater exclusively to undergraduate students, and end up sitting largely vacant, while wealthier undergraduates gobble up single-family homes, displacing the locals. 

With 29% of Alachua county residents now categorized as low-income (making less than 60% of the area median income) or cost-burdened (paying more than 30% of total income on housing), it is easy to see that Alachua county is facing a workforce housing crisis: nearly one third of the population is struggling to afford housing in the county where they work. 

To put the housing crisis further into perspective, a 2022 report from the Florida Housing Finance Corporation shows that rents have risen dramatically in the past year. “Apartment List estimated a median rent of $1,779 per month in Florida for March 2022. This amounts to an increase of $400, or 29 percent, over the previous year, compared to historic increases of 2-4 percent annually.”

With trends such as these, it is no surprise the county has been courting solutions. One such recent proposal, Dogwood Village, involved a 15 million dollar federal grant and a non-profit affordable housing developer, Ability Housing. The County first convinced the Florida Housing Finance Corporation to set aside a separate pot of federal workforce housing grants (technically LIHTC funds) for small and medium-sized counties like ours. 

The County then requested proposals from housing developers ahead of applying for a grant from this new category of funding. Ability Housing submitted the winning proposal to develop a vacant lot near SE 15th St and SE 8th Ave. The County and Ability then submitted the proposal to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, who awarded a $15 million grant for the project – the very first of its kind. But there is one thing the county did not do. Although a contract to move forward with Dogwood Village was signed without dissent in August 2022, the county had failed to adequately involve community stakeholders in this process from the start, which proved fatal to the project. 

It was only as recently as October 2022 that the ACLC learned of the Dogwood Village project when a presentation on the status of the development suddenly appeared on a county commission meeting agenda.  And the community itself (especially residents of Azalea Trails and nearby neighborhoods) opposed the development, citing issues such as 86% of affordable housing projects in the county already being situated east of Main Street.Residents expressed concern that “stacking” another “low income” housing development east of Main Street would only perpetuate a racist history of concentrating poverty in their neighborhoods. 

Commissioner Desmon Duncan Walker argued that affordable housing needs to be placed in resource rich areas. Ultimately, in December 2022, a 3-2 vote reversed the County’s initial approval for this project in favor of backing out of the contract with Ability. This decision was affirmed by the Commission in January 2023. Better communication from the County from the beginning of the process could have resulted in far better outcomes and use of all stakeholders’ energy. The merits of the project were not well communicated to the public. 

For example, the community perception of Dogwood Village was that it would be a low-income housing development, but in reality it would have housed a range of incomes, providing fair rates of workforce housing to a single mom with 2 kids making $44,000, or to a family of four making $49,000 (up to 60% of AMI). These are professional salaries, representing occupations of much needed community members such as teachers, nurses, tech support, therapists, paraprofessionals, childcare workers, custodians, managers. 

The developer was willing to engage in community benefits agreement, offering solutions to address specific neighborhood concerns such as providing on-site security, or even an on-site day-care and after-school care facility for residents. And far too late, at the meeting where the final vote was made to scrap the project, commissioners made a motion to include first-right of refusal to buy the property after the term of the contract, so that it could never be bought by slumlord investors and allowed to devalue the neighboring communities (a la Kennedy Homes). 

Communication could have also been much better among stakeholders. The ACLC attended meetings to vocalize support for relocating the site away from the east side location. But ultimately the ACLC’s commitment to economic justice for working people and the fear of losing a specially constructed $15 million grant for much needed workforce housing caused the ACLC to propose moving forward with the project rather than backing out of the existing contract. This could potentially result in ongoing litigation for damages and fines, which could stall future workforce housing projects in the county for an indefinite period of time, as well as put future funding through grant awards at risk. However, there was no communication between ACLC and Southeast Gainesville community groups; ACLC leadership recognizes this was a mistake. 

Lessons learned are that community problems require community solutions, and full community engagement is required for success.The County must prioritize communication and publicity about community projects from the very beginning in order to succeed. And other stakeholder groups must also communicate better to educate one other about needs and goals. If all stakeholder groups had done so, they could have coalesced a single unified message: our county very desperately needs workforce housing, but not in this particular location. Working together could have achieved a different outcome. And you can count on the ACLC doing better next time.

– Data from The Shimberg Center at UF

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