Living in Gainesville: Few options, failed solutions for residents seeking affordable housing (Part 3 of 4)

Units can take years to find

Taylor Girtman, Alligator Staff Writer | Apr 12, 2019

Michael Powers, 31, sits at his dining table where he is about to eat a baked chicken dinner for himself and his three sons. He lives in East Gainesville public housing, but dreams of moving to Savannah, Georgia.  Caroline Keefe / Alligator Staff

Michael Powers, 31, sits at his dining table where he is about to eat a baked chicken dinner for himself and his three sons. He lives in East Gainesville public housing, but dreams of moving to Savannah, Georgia.

Caroline Keefe / Alligator Staff


Michael Powers has bought a new washer, but he still hangs his clothes outside to dry. A grey rolling chair doubles as his dining room seat at night and his barber’s chair during the day.

He pointed to the March calendar and laughed — he has been too busy raising his children to change it. He dreams of a house with a fenced green yard and a car but has never lived in a home like this.

Powers, 31, lives in Woodland Park, a subsidized public housing neighborhood at 1900 SE 4th St., with three of his nine children in a three-bedroom apartment.

“It’s not always the most comfortable,” he said. “Unfortunately, I may never really get out of here.”

Powers uses a public housing voucher from the Gainesville Housing Authority to afford his $200 rent, which is 30 percent of his monthly income as a barber. Without the voucher, Powers and his sons would be sleeping on couches or still living in a moldy 1960s trailer in Waldo, Florida.

High housing costs have led to about 15,000 cost-burdened households, which means those families pay more than 30 percent of their income toward rent. An average two-bedroom unit costs $17.19 hourly, while the median hourly wage is $15.95 in Gainesville, according to 2017 data from the UF Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

“I’m successful right now because I’m not where I used to be,” Powers said.

As of 2018, there were 3,403 affordable units offered in three ways: Section 8 housing vouchers, public housing and state- and federal-assistance programs. If a family can’t find affordable housing, alternatives can be homelessness, staying with friends and family or relocating.

Powers said he can’t work at a barbershop without reliable transportation, and his bus doesn’t run on Sundays. A five-minute car ride can take an hour and a half on the bus, so his clients have their hair cut in his dining room.

“Just today I made enough money to take care of all my bills,” he said. “Then I had some disposable income, but I don’t even consider that disposable income because I need a vehicle right now.”

Powers is about to become a father for the 10th time. He strives to be the dad he never had.

He beamed at his children’s photos along his kitchen countertop. He said he feels blessed, but he doesn’t know where he would be without a roof over his children’s heads.

“This has been a huge help for me to get on my feet, save money and move forward,” he said. “But I am not a tire spinning in the mud. I’m trying to get out of here.”

Accessing homes people can afford

In November, the Gainesville City Commission discussed GNV RISE, a possible solution to affordable housing issues that would have built affordable units.

The commission chose to not accept the plan after about 70 residents opposed its lack of community input and neighborhood interference.

In February, more than 100 residents gathered at a workshop to share ideas. Anne Wolf, the city citizen engagement program manager, said no future workshops are scheduled.

Pamela Davis, the executive director of the Gainesville Housing Authority, said affordable housing locations in East Gainesville are farther away from areas of opportunity, like Butler Plaza or Celebration Pointe. Areas of opportunity have public transportation, high-scoring schools and an active job market.

Although housing vouchers cover a portion of rent, renters may pay more for a better location but have to afford the difference. The housing authority’s role is to make sure rent does not exceed 30 percent of the tenant’s income, Davis said.

“There’s so many jobs that don’t start at that hourly wage rate,” Davis said. “If a unit is running for $1,300 a month, some school teachers can’t even afford that.”

Gainesville Housing Authority received more than 4,000 Section 8 applications over three days in 2018. Out of those 4,000 applicants, the housing authority placed 900 people on a waiting list, and the remaining applicants were denied, Davis said.

Section 8 applications do not open annually but may reopen with more units and a shorter waiting list, Davis said. In the past, applications have opened two or three years apart, depending on the number of available units.

Gainesville needs 5,822 more affordable units for no household to pay more than 30 percent of its total income, according to UF Shimberg Center for Housing Studies.

Extremely low-income households, which earn 30 percent or less of the median income, are the first priority for Section 8 and make up 70 percent of the waiting list. The median income for renters is $23,398 and $61,629 for homeowners, according to Shimberg Center data.

Elderly and disabled people, working families, and those who do not receive federal housing assistance are prioritized next, Davis said.

People may be on the waitlist for one to three years.

“Keeping 4,000 people on a waiting list with no homes to help them is not the most efficient way to operate,” Davis said.

Davis said if the housing authority cannot provide Section 8 housing, it suggests looking for tax credit housing units, which can cost $800 to $900.

Skepticism and stigmas

Pat Abbitt walked into her Gainesville apartment after her previous tenant moved out. She discovered her washer and dryer missing, broken windows and holes in the walls.

A single mother rented Abbitt’s three-bedroom apartment under Section 8 for a year. Abbitt, 65, wanted to help her tenant find a safe home for her children but didn’t realize the task she accepted.

Eighteen families applied for her unit.

Abbitt said more landlords should accept Section 8 tenants because families often accept low-quality homes in fear of the Department of Children and Families taking away children without homes.

“Some people accept places because they want to have a roof on their head,” she said.

Many landlords are skeptical of accepting Section 8 vouchers from the Gainesville Housing Authority because of risky tenants and the requirement of a thorough Housing Quality Standards inspection, Abbitt said. Irresponsible tenants are not limited to Section 8 – student renters also cause property damage.

“Just like learning how to balance a checkbook, you should learn how to change an air filter,” Abbitt said.

District 3 Commissioner David Arreola hopes to improve tenant-landlord relationships as the Rental Housing Subcommittee chair. Since November, the subcommittee has worked to draft renters’ rights legislation.

“We’ll be able to craft a roster of housing affordability policies that are going to help people access homes they can afford and stay in homes they can afford,” Arreola said.

John Harris, 64, bought his first home in October 2018. He previously lived in an apartment, but he couldn’t afford rent after a $200 increase from renovations. He turned to a Gainesville Housing Authority entrepreneurship program, which taught him how to run a business and save for a home.

“It meant the world to me to own a home,” he said. “The blessings started pouring in after I bought a home.”

Harris’ goal is to teach others how to buy affordable homes. This month, he will speak at a seminar about how to handle debt, fix credit scores and work with realtors and mortgage lenders.

The seminar at the Cone Park Branch of the Alachua County Library District will be at 11:30 a.m. on April 20.

“A lot of people don’t think they can buy their own house,” Harris said. “They didn’t think it was possible, but all things are possible.”