Community Meeting with Ability Housing

Date: Thursday, 4/03/2014

Location: Springfield Improvement Association and Archives's Woman's Club building (210 W. 7th Street)

The purpose of this meeting was to allow Ability Housing and Springfield residents & stakeholders to communicate each other directly, after it was revealed that Ability Housing had been working for months to open a new homeless program in the Springfield historic district.

On May 18th, the Florida Times-Union published an article about Ability Housing winning a $7.3 million dollar grant to establish two new homeless projects, one of which would be at 139 Cottage Avenue in our Springfield historic district. Soon after, a copy of the grant application was obtained by SPAR which detailed the criteria and scope of the planned homeless program. It also showed that the Cottage Avenue building was already under contract to be purchased by Ability Housing.

By this time, Springfield residents & stakeholders began to contact SPAR and Ability Housing to find out more information. A closed door meeting with Ability Housing and the SPAR Board of Directors, SIAA representatives, and local SHADCO chair was held on Tuesday, 4/01/14, to discuss community concerns about the project. Just two days later, a public community meeting was held to allow Ability Housing to present their plans directly to Springfield residents and stakeholders, and for community feedback to be given directly to Ability Housing. With roughly 200 people in attendance, the meeting was standing room only and lively.

Here's a summary:

Shannon Nazworth, Ability Housing Executive Director, Michael Cochran, Programs Director, and Greg Matovina, President of the Board, were in attendance for Ability Housing, as well as about 20 homeless advocates that Ability Housing invited.

City Council President Bill Gulliford, At-Large City Councilman Robin Lumb, and City of Jacksonville's Planning Director Calvin Burney, were also in attendance, among others.

Doug Vanderlaan, SHADCO chair, moderated the meeting.

The first 20 minutes were dedicated to Ability Housing sharing who they are, what they do, and what their plans are for the Cottage Avenue apartment building. They shared that the 12 unit brick building was selected due to it's proximity to medical centers, public transportation, and it's small apartments, all things that were valued by the grant selection committee. They shared that they would be acting as a landlord, more or less, and would be placing chronically homeless individuals or couples in the rental units. They expect that many of the individuals or related couples will have significant and on-going substance abuse issues, mental health issues, and criminal backgrounds, including felony convictions. Ability Housing will not require any treatment for these issues and would provide no onsite management or supervision. Ability Housing would rely on 3rd party social services agencies to pay all or part of the rent and also provide wrap around services. However, no services would be required - they are all voluntary.

Getting into specifics, Ability Housing stated that they would like to target homeless veterans specifically, and would like to partner with the Veterans Affair's HUD-VASH program, which would provide a voucher to pay for the individual's rent and also provide case management services. However, again, these services would not be mandatory, and non-veterans may also be housed at the property. Ability Housing also stated that registered sex offenders would not be allowed and that people with "recent" felony convictions would not be allowed, which was determined to be 3-5 years length of time, depending how measured. When asked about details of HUD-VASH case management (ie, frequency, quality, etc) and what the definition of the word "veteran" is in terms of this specific program, Ability Housing referred that question to the VA (not present). When the generous budget for rehabilitation of the building was highlighted, Ability Housing stated that the budget was based partially on other past projects they had done, and that if the project comes in under budget the remaining grant dollars would be given back to the state. When challenged about the logic of establishing a housing program that seeks to accommodate homeless person's substance abuse and risky behavior, and does not require supervision or treatment, Ability Housing referenced that research shows that this "Housing First" model is best practice for long-term success. Success is measured by keeping someone stably housed, not in recovery or treatment. Housing First is a model in which an apartment is given to a homeless person first, which the premise that once they are stably and safely housed, they then may feel comfortable addressing their underlying causes of homelessness.

When several residents inquired as to why Ability Housing did not engage with the community beforehand, they apologized for not reaching out sooner after they were notified about winning the grant. When residents interjected that the time for engaging the community is in the planning stages, not after the grant is already won, Ability Housing would not acknowledge this as a fault.

During the meeting, Ability Housing asked two formally homeless women to speak about the Ability Housing organization and their positive experiences. One of the women became stably housed and productive member of society through the HUD-VASH program, while the other through an unrelated Ability Housing program.

Several long-time Springfield residents spoke to the importance of the Springfield Zoning Overlay, which was enacted in 2000 and was instrumental in decreasing the concentration of social services housing in the neighborhood, which were deemed as a contributor to blight in the neighborhood at the time. One Springfield resident and business owner notably stated that he plans to challenge the legality of Ability Housing's project through the city's zoning laws. Others spoke about the importance of spreading homeless programs throughout the city, and not continuing to place them in Springfield and other urban core areas (several residents cited 40+ social service housing sites in the area currently).

At the meeting's conclusion, two hours after it began, Ability Housing stated that they do care about community input, however plan to move forward despite what appeared to be overwhelming opposition. They did offer to prioritize homeless people that are living in Springfield and pay an undetermined amount of money into the SPAR Public Safety Fund, which pays off-duty police officers to focus on specific issues or locations of concern in the neighborhood.

An anonymous paper survey was conducted at the end of the meeting: the results showed 113 in opposition of the project and 13 in favor of the project.

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