[color-box color=”white”]In our final installment on gentrification in Gainesville, we talk to the people investing in the Porters neighborhood who see development on the horizon. [/color-box]
Alpha Davis lives in one of the many identical clapboard houses clustered at the southeast corner of the Porters neighborhood, a subdivision called Porters Oaks. At 64, she has lived in several parts of the city, including the northwest Pleasant Street neighborhood — back when the area was almost completely populated with black families.
Now, she said, it’s over 65 percent white. The few who have stuck around can do so because they own their homes. But they’re aging, she said. They’re in their 70s and 80s. She’s known them since she was a child.
“I go through the neighborhood, and I can still identify where I used to stay and what I used to do. And I tell my kids, and I tell my grandkids,” she said. “But I mean, it’s different.”
After retiring eight years ago, Davis moved to Porters Oaks. It was what she could afford, though she said the house is poorly constructed with flimsy materials. But living month-to-month on social security, sometimes struggling to pay her taxes, means she has limited choices.
Recently, Davis has started to notice something familiar: an influx of students and young white couples. Not an overwhelming number, she said, but enough to be noticed.
She’s seen this pattern before. And she said it’s inevitable because of the neighborhood’s proximity to the University of Florida.
“All of this is just slowly moving from 13th and University, moving east,” she said, referring to the apartment buildings and other large-scale development. “So this is going to be swallowed up. Not right now, but I’m seeing it…This is the next step.”
Davis has noticed what many landlords, rental agencies, developers and other officials have sensed for a while: Porters is in the middle of the city’s developmental crosshairs. The recent beautification efforts, public works projects and influx of boutique businesses has caught the attention of not only possible tenants, but the people who control the rent.
According to Toby Foster, an appraiser at the county’s property appraiser office, the development closing in on the Porters neighborhoods is coming from three directions: Main Street with the Cade Museum and Depot Park; businesses from University Avenue; and Fourth Avenue with Innovation Square.
“It’s primed to be completely different than we know it today,” Foster said. “Ten years from now, it might not look at all like what it is now.”
Alachua County Property Appraiser records show that only 33 of the some 127 properties in the Porters Area Southwest qualify for the homestead exemption, meaning the property is owned by the person living in the house. Seventy of the some 187 properties in all of the subdivisions — Porters Area Southwest, Porters Oaks and Porters Court/Place — list the property itself as its mailing address. And at least 46 of the properties, the office’s records show, are owned by developers; construction, real estate and rental companies; or speculators.
Steven P. Sparks, a senior land title examiner at Attorney’s Title Fund Services based in Jacksonville, is one of these speculators. He purchased a small sliver of land in the Porters neighborhood, which he expects will appreciate as development continues. Eventually, he said, he’ll sell it to the adjacent property owner, who he expects will want to expand.
“Many times when an area is surrounded, for lack of a better word, by current development, it’s really just a matter of time before it itself falls into the same category,” Sparks said. “When you have areas like that, and you have the potential to keep rented multiple units at one time, it makes sense that, well, if you can afford to own one or two, you can own four or five or six.”
The people who own five or six lots after the development potential exerts its influence are the lucky ones, he said.
Britton Jones, president of the residential construction company Duration Builders, said he started purchasing property in Porters four years ago after noticing how development was slowly moving outward from UF.
“I timed it pretty good on that one,” Jones said. “The development of the Innovation Square there; the stuff happening at Depot Park and Depot Road; all the money being spent by the city and the university. As other folks around that area invest, including us local developers, it will continue. It’ll help the appreciation of the property values of that neighborhood.”
Keep up certain rates, you keep out certain people….Doesn’t have to be real high, but you have to keep it at a certain height, or you get a lot of people you don’t need.
Ryan Saylor, a realtor with Trend Realty, agreed that the neighborhood has significantly changed since he started investing in 2002, especially over the last eight years.
“Continuum wasn’t there,” he said. “And across Sixth Street there’s Savion. All this development is creeping closer and closer.”
Saylor, who also lives in the neighborhood, said he isn’t bothered by the development. He said he likes it; it helps raise property value, which is good for his business. He said that fellow residents don’t see it that way.
“To them, higher property values means higher taxes, and they don’t like that,” he said. “I think it’s going to change even more as houses continue to become available. More and more investors are going to be buying there, and injecting more and more money in there, and fixing places up and renting them out.”
As property value increases, so can rent, which can be toggled at the landlord’s or management company’s leisure. An agent at local property management firm Gore Rabell Real Estate, who preferred to remain unnamed, said that rent prices can be used to curate tenants.
“That side of Main Street, Gainesville’s really hopping right now,” he said, “as long as you have good management, where you keep out undesirable people. Keep up certain rates, you keep out certain people….Doesn’t have to be real high, but you have to keep it at a certain height, or you get a lot of people you don’t need.”
The Cade Museum and Depot Park are both projects spearheaded by Gainesville’s Community Redevelopment Agency. According interim director of the agency Sarah Vidal-Finn, the agency is sensitive to the link between development and rising cost of living.
“I don’t think you’d find a group that’s more sympathetic, or empathetic, to that plight than us,” Vidal-Finn said. “A lot of our efforts have moved to work with the neighborhood, to really re-establish where they are in their history…to establish that Porters is a destination in itself.”
Vidal-Finn was referring to one of the CRA’s recent projects, where the agency installed an updated sign for the Porters Community at the corner of Main Street and Southwest Fifth Avenue. But when asked what the agency is doing to prevent the neighborhood from becoming a high-turnover area like Pleasant Street, filled with transient students who can split costly housing among roommates, the CRA only really offered one option: Urban Infill Housing, a program where the agency builds new houses on city-owned lots that incentivize long-term home ownership by offering $25,000 off the cost of the house; if you stay more than 10 years, you don’t need to pay it off.
“It’s specifically for Fifth Avenue and Pleasant Street, so we’d have to rewrite it to include Porters,” she said. “But during our work plan and strategic planning for the next two-year budget cycle, we talked about trying to get that program going over there.”
But this kind of program can only happen on government-owned land, and the only other city-owned land in the neighborhood, aside from two small plots, is the entire Porters Oaks subdivision, where Alpha Davis lives.
And when asked what is being done to catch the people hit hardest by the development projects, Vidal-Finn said that the city has a lot of resources.
“What we [the city] lack is some sort of central place where you can learn about all those resources and get the assistance that you need,” she said. “It’s a gap. Unfortunately one that we can’t take on….To me, it’s more: What are our city’s priorities, and our community’s priorities, and how do we all come together…to help address a problem, or a perceived problem.”
In the meantime, development is still happening at a rapid clip. According to Foster, Porters is on the cusp of a development boom. And Davis knows the consequences: Those who have lived there longest will be forced to leave.
“That’s the reality of it, they’ll go wherever they can afford to go,” Davis said. “The people who make those decisions aren’t looking at where these people are going to go. They’re looking at what their bottom line is.”