SPRINGFIELD RESIDENTS' CONFLICT NOT JUST A ZONING ISSUE
Ability Housing nonprofit wants to create homes for homeless veterans; Springfielders fight back
I get the concerns. I really do. Springfield has, for so many decades now, been on the cusp of revitalization, a charming neighborhood never really able to get over that hump, and the people who've invested in it are tired of waiting, tired of false dawns, tired of being rough around the edges. And there is no question that Springfield is already saturated with the homeless and services that help them — which is why the Jacksonville City Council passed a law in 2000 forbidding any more such "special uses" in the neighborhood — and that such concentrations make revitalization efforts all the more difficult.
I get the mistrust, too, toward Ability Housing, the nonprofit that wants to renovate a 12-unit apartment building and populate it with (Ability has promised) homeless veterans — many of whom have likely had psychiatric troubles — who already spend their nights or most of their time in the Springfield area. Ability executive director Shannon Nazworth told me her organization applied for the $1.7 million state grant funding this project almost as an afterthought, and was caught entirely off-guard when the grant was awarded. And so Ability never contacted neighborhood leaders, never built consensus, never did any of the preliminary work that can assuage trepidations. Springfielders had beaten back an Ability project just outside the neighborhood some time ago, Springfield Preservation and Revitalization president Bill Hoff says, so they had reason to suspect that Ability Housing wasn't acting on the level. "They knew what they are proposing wouldn't be a popular thing in the neighborhood," he told me.
So they fought back — first at a loud and contentious meeting in April, then to the city's planning director, who in May decided the Ability project ran afoul of the city's zoning rules for Springfield, because it "is akin to that of a rooming house or group care home and similar activities." The planning commission will hear Ability's appeal this week; it's unlikely commissioners will overturn the director's decision, and quite likely Ability will take the matter to court.
But this conflict is about more than just zoning — or, for that matter, more than just NIMBYism. It's really about how we, as a society, choose to deal with the least fortunate, and how we balance those needs with those of the neighborhoods that house them. We know, for example, that so-called Housing First initiatives — that is, actually giving the homeless places to live — work; they're both more effective and cheaper than other homelessness remedies, as has been demonstrated throughout the country. (Hoff, a social worker, acknowledges that there's merit in what Ability wants to do; he just wants it done elsewhere.) We also know that most nonprofits, like Ability, aren't quite lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills, and for these projects to work, they need to be centrally located — hence, Springfield, where property is inexpensive and social services are nearby. It is, in a sense, a chicken-and-egg problem, to which there's no easy answer.
So while I think the neighborhood's fears are overblown, I do get their concerns. But at the end of the day, the city has a problem it needs to face head-on — about 2,600 homeless people in Duval County in 2013, according to a state Council on Homelessness report — and as much as we try, we're not going to be able to will them into the shadows.