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Springfield Residents, Officials Talk Safety At Ability Housing Meeting

Rhema Thompson

Just a stone’s throw from the planned site of the new set of apartments for the homeless, dozens of residents voiced their thoughts Thursday night.“We have more than our share — way more — so take it somewhere else,” one woman said, followed by a round of applause from other residents.

Ability Housing of Northeast Florida wants to convert an old apartment building on Cottage Avenue into housing for the homeless. While the agency says the plans will help the area’s most vulnerable, residents fear it might hurt them.

“We are in close proximity to an elementary school,” said Duval County School Board member Paula Wright, of District 4.

The housing site is in Wright’s district.

“I am not against anyone, but I am for the safety of our children,” she said.

Wright called the meeting between residents and representatives of Ability Housing at Andrew Robinson Elementary. The school of nearly 500 children is about a block away from the site of the apartments.

The meeting is in advance of a crime-prevention campaign organized by Wright, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and other community leaders entitled “Community Walk for Awareness and Prevention.” The event is planned for Saturday morning.

“And that’s the purpose of the community walk to not oppose anyone but to inform the neighborhood residents of the possibility of this housing," she said.

According to Ability’s grant application, the 12-unit apartment complex would serve up to 24 chronically homeless adults without children. The application states that most “will have a primary diagnosis of mental illness and a long history of psychiatric hospitalization.”

The application also specifies that while support will be provided by outside organizations, participation by residents will be voluntary. The property’s management would also be off-site.

That hasn’t sat well with many of the area’s residents. Last month, Springfield residents and property owners showed up in force to oppose the plans. Sixty-eight-year-old homeowner John Snyder was one of them.

“Ninety-eight percent of the people who came to that meeting do not want this project for obvious reasons,” he said. “Mine was the safety of my friends and the community that I live in, and the other is just math. I don’t want to stay in my home for the next 20 years because it’s inundated with these kinds of projects. I can’t sell my house.”  

Downtown Investment Authority Board member Jack Meeks was also among those in attendance at both meetings. Meeks has been challenging the project’s legal merits.

“It’s not a forgone conclusion that this project is going to happen,” he said Thursday.

Meeks has asked the city’s planning director Calvin Burney to conduct a review of the Ability Housing plan to determine if it is violating the area’s land use rules by converting the facility. Springfield currently has about 50 special use facilities, from halfway houses to shelters. Adding another special needs facilities to the area is not permitted under current land use rules.

“The use is not an apartment building being rented in the ordinary course of business,” he said. “It’s more of a treatment facility or a congregant living facility or a variety of other things.”

In an email, city spokeswoman Aleizha Batson said the city planning department is reviewing the issue and has 30 days to respond.

“This particular matter is currently under review and the department will provide a copy of the written interpretation once it is issued,” the email states.

Credit Rhema Thompson / WJCT
Michael Cochran and Paula Wright discuss the Ability Housing plans.

But Ability Housing programs director Michael Cochran and others with the agency said they are not in violation of zoning rules because they would only be landlords of the existing facility and would not be providing any on-site treatment services. Any services would be contracted with other non-profit agencies.

Cochran said the program could also help the area by getting the homeless off the streets and into apartments.

“Nineteen years ago, I was homeless,” he said. “I think most people that are homeless, they don’t want to be homeless, and I think given opportunity, many people would take that opportunity and improve their lives.”

The agency was awarded a $1.5 million grant for the project. They plan to invest $750,000 in renovations into the building, including surveillance cameras and security doors. A majority of the grant will go towards paying a number of legal, engineering and title fees, according to the application.

“In addition to that, there’s  an operating reserve that we put into place because we’re renting to very low income people,” Cochran said. “We won’t be taking in a lot of rent.”

The agency has yet to determine how much the rent will be, but Cochran said it will likely fall between $400 and $500 a month.

Cochran said the agency owns three other apartment complexes among numerous other single- and multi-unit properties in Jacksonville. The agency cites a 50 percent reduction in crime since purchasing one of its largest properties, the 83-unit complex Mayfair Village apartments.

However,  when pressed during Thursday’s meeting by resident and real estate manager Crissie Cudd about whether or not any of the other properties served homeless individuals without providing on-site care, Cochran said they did not. Springfield would be the first site to do so.

“I understand the concerns and we’ve listened to those concerns and we will do what we can to address those concerns,” he said. “And we will start looking at some of our screening criteria and we might develop a more stringent screening criteria for this property than we have for other properties.”   

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.