Candidates' views on housing


Published: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 20, 2008 at 12:16 a.m.

Although Gainesville has been somewhat insulated from both the rise and fall in Florida's real estate market, the issue of affordable housing made the agendas of many candidates for the three City Commission seats up for election.

"The last three years the cost of housing has gone up all over the state of Florida, and we find ourselves in a situation where the average person just can't afford the cost of housing," said Andre Davis, housing finance coordinator with the city of Gainesville.

And as the cost of housing has risen, concern over the number of homeless people in Gainesville has also grown. The median price of home sales in Gainesville is more than $200,000, according to Davis and the National Association of Realtors.

"That term 'affordable housing' is somewhat misleading because housing affordability is an issue at every income level," Davis said, adding that if housing costs more than 30 percent of a household income it is not considered affordable.

The preferred term, Davis said, is work-force housing.

"We really don't see a lot of work-force housing being built," he said. "Most of the housing being built in this community is for $300,000 and upward - somewhat too expensive for the work force."

The two candidates running for the City Commission seat elected by the entire city were asked what they would do to increase housing for the working poor.

Robert Agrusa, 22, who graduated from the University of Florida in December and is now a manager at the UF Bookstore, said he would promote a system of housing vouchers.

"I'd work with local and state governments to provide opportunities for those who are working at the poverty level," Agrusa said, adding that he'd also like to see more boarding houses like the Arbor House and Peaceful Paths Domestic Abuse Network.

Attorney Thomas Hawkins Jr., 28, who specializes in growth management law, said the city must work to increase accessibility to the affordable housing stock.

"We can help people on the edge by mediating landlord disputes, as well as supporting programs that make it so they don't have to decide between food and housing."

Hawkins said that the homeless issue is really an affordable housing issue.

He said there are two types of homeless people in Gainesville, those that grew up here or lived here already, and those that just came into town.

"The extremely strongly held misconception is that everyone is in that second category," Hawkins said.

In the highly contested District 2 race, Bryan Harman, 33; Lauren Poe, 36; and Bonnie Mott, 58, are looking to be elected by northwest Gainesville.

Mott said that as a real estate agent she has witnessed first-hand how state and federal programs, like the State Housing Initiative Partnership program and Section 8, can help get people back on their feet.

SHIP is a program funded by the state but administered locally to help increase homeownership by low- to moderate-income families. It also provides money for home repair.

"That program was very successful," Mott said. "In fact it was so successful the legislature pulled money out of it, and now we're trying to get the money back."

Mott said she has been lobbying, along with the Board of Realtors, to get those funds back.

"We understand the value of homeownership and what that means for the community," Mott said.

Poe, a professor at Santa Fe Community College, said that a lack of affordable housing is really a symptom of two different things: the cost of houses and the wages earned.

"One thing that's important is that we need to diversify our economy, and broaden our economic base," Poe said, adding that Gainesville needs to shift away from a service-based economy that pays low wages.

"That's not going to happen next year, and that's not going to happen ... in the three years if I'm elected," Poe said. "That takes patience and it takes a commitment."

The short-term fix, Poe said, are programs that assist with the high prices of housing, like emergency rental assistance, Section 8 and SHIP.

"The city can really try to put together more of a commitment to provide these transitional emergency funds," he said.

Harman, who worked briefly in real estate after moving here in 2003, said his concern is that the surge in home prices has made homeownership much less obtainable for first-time home buyers, single women, and minorities.

"We should incentivize builders and developers to make houses in a more affordable house range, which may be $150,000 and below," Harman said. "We're incentivizing developers to make high-end condos and not doing enough for people here locally."

Harman said that increasing the amount of less expensive housing should also help house the homeless.

"While I support efforts to help the homeless ... I'm concerned about the location of the one-stop homeless shelter," Harman said, referring to approval by the commission of a service center at 3335 N. Main Terrace.

Harman said he would have preferred that money be invested in the Salvation Army or St. Francis House, which already provide services for the homeless.

Megan Rolland can be reached at 338-3104 or megan.rolland@ gvillesun.com.

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