House poor?

Alachua County ranks in the top third of the state in housing prices while residents rank last in buying power

A pair of nearly completed homes in the Porter's neighborhood will be sold by the City of Gainesville Housing Division as part of a push to provide energy efficient and affordable homes in infill areas.

Rob C. Witzel/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 at 11:22 p.m.

Like many Americans, Carolyn and Shedrick Burley didn't consider home ownership an option.

But five years ago they found themselves picking out carpet and lighting fixtures for a newly constructed home thanks to the city of Gainesville Housing Division, which provided subsidies.

"It gives you a sense of pride and helps you to move forward in your life in other areas," Carolyn Burley, 46, said from her home in Cedar Grove II subdivision.

While that subdivision has been sold out for five years and is now a bustling community filled with first-time home buyers, the city owns five newly constructed homes elsewhere that are ready for sale to buyers who will be eligible for up to $40,000 in subsidies.

Underscoring the importance of creating an affordable housing market in Gainesville are statistics from the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies that show Alachua County residents are "house poor."

It comes down to this:

The median selling home price in Gainesville was $210,000 in 2007, which puts Alachua County in the top third of housing prices in the state.

And the buying power of Alachua County residents is the worst in the state with more than 23 percent of residents making less than 50 percent of the area median income, or the equivalent of about $30,000 for this area.

"Basically, it means that people are not getting paid a lot of money when they are employed in Alachua County, and the cost burden they are experiencing is unusually high," said Robert Stroh, director of the Shimberg Center.

Some of those statistics are likely driven by the influx of college students to Alachua County every year, but Stroh says his center works diligently to exclude students from the study, particularly dormitories.

The statistics indicate that Carolyn and Shedrick Burley, a hair stylist and manager of a plumbing company, aren't alone in being priced out of the Gainesville housing market for years.

"We always rented. I raised my kids while we were renting and now it's great to have a house," Carolyn Burley said.

The city of Gainesville Housing Division is working to close the gap so area families can obtain housing that meets the definition of affordable - 30 percent or less of a person's income.

Two brand-new brightly colored Caribbean style houses on Depot Avenue between Main Street and SW 6th Street are the newest attempts to provide residents an affordable home ownership option.

Both of the three-bedroom two-bath homes are listed for $142,000 before any subsidies or credits, and between subsidies from the city and the federal first-time home buyers credit, the houses could sell for as low as $100,000 depending on the income and family size of the buyer.

"There are not many homes available in this market at this price," said Gail Jane, rehabilitation specialist for the city of Gainesville Housing Division as she showed off a three-bedroom, two-bath house in the Porters neighborhood.

The houses that are in that price range are often older - the average year of construction for a home in Gainesville is 1981 - and come with their own set of added expenses such as faulty foundations, infestations and high utility bills.

"These houses were built to the highest standards of energy efficiency. They are certified green," Jane said of the two new city homes, adding that they should reduce the electric bill by half every month compared to a similarly sized home.

Stroh said that utilities are included in the cost of living and that all told - rent, taxes, insurance, homeowners fees - everything should be at 30 percent of a person's income to be affordable.

"Are you breaking out your calculator?" Stroh asked. "The most logical reason why you need to worry about affordable housing is there are an awful lot of people who don't make very much money. The people who clean apartments, or they just work, and their only resource may be their muscles or their strong back, service workers, they are the backbone of most cities. That's what makes the rest of the world move, and it is really important that those folks can live somewhere close."

City Commissioner Jack Donovan, who is on the board of Habitat for Humanity and is an advocate for affordable housing, said Gainesville needs more "scattered housing."

"People benefit more when they are integrated into a neighborhood with multiple socio-economic housing," he said. "We need single lots upon which to build a nice house that's affordable."

That is precisely the direction the city housing division took after Cedar Grove II was completed and now all five houses for sale are considered urban infill, although none are in what is traditionally described as the more affluent west Gainesville area.

That phenomena is not surprising to Carolyn Burley, who looked for houses in northwest Gainesville.

"Anytime you get into northwest or southwest Gainesville, anywhere I would say west of Main Street or even 13th Street the increase is incredible - almost double the price," Burley said.

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