Based on patterns over the past two years, more than 60,000 new neighbors are expected to join our community over the next ten years. I am pleased to welcome our new neighbors. We must either find space for them in our existing urban environment, or they will be forced to live far away, clogging our streets, compounding our climate crisis and disconnected from the social fabric of our community.
Prior to 1958, Gainesville had only four zone districts (“A” through “D”), with “A” being the basic residential designation. This zoning allowed up to four houses per lot (now called a quadruplex). From then on, the districts became more intense.
They were easy to understand and flexible enough for a variety of homes in each neighborhood. We can still see some of these old homes in historic neighborhoods like Pleasant Street and Duckpond.
What changed in 1958? Well, a decade earlier, a landmark Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) that cities could no longer separate apartments according to race.
Cities, including Gainesville, worked on their zone codes to preserve exclusive neighborhoods that would serve to maintain racial segregation no longer permitted by law. This is called Exclusion Zones and was codified by the City of Gainesville in 1958.
Simultaneously with these new exclusive zoning changes, there was a new housing boom. The boom was fueled by baby boomers, fresh out of the war, perhaps out of college, and with good-paying jobs and access to credit.
Generous mortgage guarantees backed by the federal government opened up the housing market for millions of young families who wanted to buy their first home — but only if they were white, since the loan programs were inaccessible to black and brown Americans.
Most of the neighborhoods surrounding our city’s traditional core were built in the late 1950s through the 1970s and all fell under the new, more restrictive and exclusive zoning code passed in 1958. This reinforced the segregated living pattern we still see today. It is also what continues to prevent more diverse housing options for families in most parts of our city.
There are a number of solutions, but not a single magic bullet. First, we need to enable soft density (homes for up to four families in residential areas) across our city. This will allow more people with different incomes to choose where they live. By giving people the choice to live close to work and school, we reduce car dependency and increase opportunity, diversity and inclusion. We also need to create greater density in our city core between the university, downtown and the post-industrial areas adjacent to downtown.
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These two solutions will benefit current neighborhoods by welcoming new and diverse families, and help us meet our environmental goals by reducing the need for so many cars, creating more efficient building patterns, and enabling more efficient service delivery. In addition to this preservation of current housing, we will begin to see real benefit for people looking for a safe place to live in a neighborhood that meets their needs.
We must also increase our investment in public housing. Part of that solution is partnering with not-for-profit housing organizations like our Community Land Trust, the Gainesville Housing Authority, and others to better leverage public-private partnerships. For people living below 80% of the area median income, this is the only realistic path to home ownership.
Investing in a middle-income workforce or housing is also crucial. Too many of our frontline workers are being forced out of our community because of the high cost of housing. We must welcome them back.
None of these measures will have an immediate impact on housing construction. When enacted, they will result in a gradual and incremental improvement in our current housing crisis. They will ensure that current neighbors can stay and thrive and that we can welcome new neighbors who enrich the image of our great city.
These ideas are neither radical nor unusual, but really a return to traditional living patterns of the past. They’re also just about the decent thing to do.
Lauren Poe is the mayor of Gainesville.
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