December 4, 2022

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Fund programs that help residents pay rent and utility bills, access healthy food

Let’s focus this month on affordable housing solutions that work.

In Gainesville and Alachua County, there are a variety of ongoing efforts to address homelessness and rehabilitate housing people can afford that target the root of these problems, namely, poverty. For example, Jon DeCarmine’s focus at GRACE Marketplace on getting homeless people into housing within 60 days is clearly working and should be fully funded. There is no evidence that “inclusionary zoning” will help.

Recently Claudia Tuck, Alachua County community support services director, made the case that “a home is the only cure for homelessness.” She described the arrangement agreed upon between city and county officials (not without controversy) that the city would continue full funding of GRACE Marketplace, and the county would dedicate its share to funding long-term solutions to homelessness.

People walk around at Grace Marketplace, Gainesville's homeless services center.

People walk around at Grace Marketplace, Gainesville’s homeless services center.

Alachua County has implemented the “permanent supportive housing” program. This is an intervention effort that targets the most vulnerable, chronically homeless individuals and combines rental assistance with voluntary support services such as rehabilitative treatment and daily living skills assistance.

According to Tuck, permanent supportive housing is designed to build independent living and tenancy skills and connect people with community-based services. In addition, the county provides rapid rehousing, homeless prevention case management, move-in assistance, and rent and utility assistance.

There are also any number of commendable private efforts and charities that address the problem of homelessness, food insecurity and poverty at its source. One of the most successful is the Bread of the Mighty Food Bank, which just received nearly half-a-million dollars of extra funding through President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, recently distributed to a number of nonprofit organizations by the city.

Workers organize food items on the shelves at the  at Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville.

Workers organize food items on the shelves at the at Bread of the Mighty Food Bank in Gainesville.

At the Rotary Club of Gainesville last month, we heard a wonderful presentation by John C. Barli, regional director of Catholic Charities, in which he described highly successful non-denominational efforts to address food insecurity and homelessness. The organization’s primary purpose is poverty reduction. They run a food pantry; they help people with rent and utilities.

In the first year of COVID, they distributed over $600,000 dollars of privately raised funds to help people with rent and utilities, and that continues until this day. They are also the recipient of a $400,000 ARPA grant which will assist people with rent and utilities over the next two years.

Do you see a connection here? Housing solutions that work include much more than just trying to incentivize developers to build more housing through radical zoning changes, most of which will be market rate. It requires public and private assistance in getting people into available housing, helping with rent and utility bills, and making sure they have access to healthy food.

More from Robert Mounts:

What does Mayor Poe’s inclusionary zoning plan mean to you?

City development review proposals frustrate public’s right to be heard

A tale of two cities: Gainesville during the day and after midnight

We need to put real money against the problem. Efforts to get a community land trust fully funded to actually build affordable housing have been problematic.

Former City Commissioner Gigi Simmons once hosted a forum at the Thomas Center featuring the executive director of the Halifax Community Land Trust in Orlando-Winter Park. There, over 14 years, in an historically African-American neighborhood, they were able to rehabilitate and build 24 homes that would remain available to low-income persons well below market rate because the cost of the land was forever excluded.

Gary Hankins of the Communities that Care Community Land Trust toiled endlessly to promote that idea. The city recently earmarked $1 million of ARPA funds toward a community land trust.

This year, with the community land trust model in mind, the Alachua Habitat for Humanity nonprofit is pursuing a pilot project to build 11 affordable homes on land donated by the city. This effort needs to be expanded. You can find information on how to support the group at www.alachuahabitat.org/donate-now.

Much more effort is needed to help people stay in the homes they already have. One great example is the volunteer work of the Community Weatherization Coalition to help people lower their utility bills.

People get information at the Community Weatherization Coalition booth during a Wellness Fair at Village Green Apartments in Gainesville in 2019.

People get information at the Community Weatherization Coalition booth during a Wellness Fair at Village Green Apartments in Gainesville in 2019.

In 2018, the coalition performed 172 home energy audits/tune-ups. The group then returned to some homes to add attic insulation, repair minor plumbing leaks, or upgrade a water heater or refrigerator, at a cost up to $1,200 per home.

In 2020, the coalition served 59 homes (down due to COVID); in 2021, 108 households; so far this year: 56 homes. You can find information on how to support the group at communityweatherization.org/donate/.

Finally, Gainesville Regional Utilities is expanding its Low-Income Energy Efficiency Program, started in 2008, about the same time the Community Weatherization Coalition was formed. The City Commission just allocated $1.9 million of ARPA funds to expand this program.

These are practical solutions that work; they just need more funding.

Robert Mounts, a retired attorney, lives in Gainesville.

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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Robert Mounts: Fund real affordable housing solutions in Gainesville