Grass-roots groups are building 'green' communities in Northwest Jacksonville - an area big-name developers have shunned for the past few decades.
Drywall in place. Snap. Doors on. Snap. Bathroom tile up. Snap. Snap.
Every day after work, and some weekends, Michele Davis takes her camera with her when she visits West 32nd Street in Northwest Jacksonville.
This is where she documents the progress of her first house, a new home in a new subdivision called Golfair Estates. The pictures will one day go in a scrapbook, where she can look back and remember one of the most memorable and life-changing steps she's made in recent years:
No more rent checks.
No more asking a landlord about the color of paint on the wall.
No more living in someone else's investment.
Jacksonville's Mayor, John Peyton, has made increasing homeownership one of his top priorities since taking office and he has made Northwest Jacksonville one of his two pilot sites for a neighborhoods initiative in an effort to curb the city's skyrocketing homicide rate. But, it's the vision of a grassroots organization, not city officials, that is making Davis' dreams come true.
The Northwest Jacksonville Community Development Corporation is building her 1,400-square-foot, affordable, energy-efficient home in an area that has - historically - experienced a stagnant economy. In part the economic conditions are due to the fact that large developers, who search the country for available parcels of land, have mostly stayed away from Northwest Jacksonville for the past couple of decades.
"One reason is that the cost to build homes in this area has far outweighed the appraised value -- the price a motivated buyer is willing to pay a motivated seller," said Joni Foster, senior program director for Jacksonville's Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which helps nonprofit groups engaged in community development.
Banks rely on the appraised value when backing mortgages, and the appraised value is partly based on recent home sales in the surrounding neighborhood. Those prices stay low when the only houses selling are older and not in great shape.
To help fill the gap between the appraised value and the cost to build the homes, the Northwest Jacksonville Community Corporation used $2.7 million grants and loans provided by LISC and federal HOME funds supplied by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, administered by the City of Jacksonville's Housing Commission. In 2002, the city gave the group a $30,000 subsidy per unit, said Paul Tutwiler, the group's executive director.
Tutwiler's group has completed 17 homes and is seeing progress on its 15-home Golfair Estates project – an ENERGY STAR subdivision being built under the Green Built Homes of Florida Inc. effort - a partnership between the Northeast Florida Builders Association (NEFBA) and the Jacksonville Electric authority (JEA) - the local utility that serves more than 360,000 customers in Jacksonville and parts of three adjacent counties.
In addition to encouraging local builders to be more knowledgeable about conserving energy through the use of ENERGY STAR systems, the Green Built Homes of Florida effort, created in June 2006, is designed to incorporate ENERGY STAR - a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy. – into home construction and operation that will help Floridians save money through energy efficient products and practices.
Currently, five Northeast Florida builders are offering ENERGY STAR standards in their 500 new homes now under construction. In addition, all eight (8) of Jacksonville's non-profit community development corporations have agreed to "build green" in their future development projects.
With stucco exteriors and nicely landscaped lots, the first homeowners of Golfair Estates began moving in in August 2006. With down payment assistance from the city, many homeowners also received an interest-free second mortgage from the state. With results of the recent new-home sales, the appraised values in the area are also now increasing, so much so that the city's subsidy has decreased to about $18,000 a unit, developer Paul Tutwiler said. "We should be able to wean ourselves as a community from any government assistance."
City leaders have consistently said people who buy their homes are more willing to invest in them and in their communities. Jacksonville's Mayor John Peyton said it can help improve education, increase personal wealth and reduce crime. "Whenever you're able to tap local leadership and let them guide the direction, the community is better served," Peyton remarked.
The Mayor picked Northwest Jacksonville as one neighborhood on which to focus city services as part of the Seeds of Change: Growing Great Neighborhoods Initiative because the area has higher unemployment, lower median income and higher rates of poverty than the rest of the county. Peyton's staff also cited a high density of violent crime in the area.
Back on 32nd Street, Davis beams when she talks about how she'll furnish her new $126,000 home. She walks through it, pointing to where her new refrigerator will go, and goes into the master bathroom where one day she'll enjoy relaxing in her garden tub. While she waits for the house's completion, which is expected to be next month, she has been getting financial-literacy training to help her with a budget to make sure she's not getting in over her head on mortgage payments. "We don't want them to get in and five years from now not be able to repair a window break or roof leak," Tutwiler said.
Of course, just because Davis, 33, will own the home doesn't mean she won't have some arguing ahead of her when it comes to painting the walls. Her 10-year-old son, Timothy Davis Jr., who goes by "T.J.," has visions of half his bedroom painted in the University of Florida Gator colors -- blue and orange -- and the other half in Jacksonville Jaguars teal. Michele Davis is thinking more earth tone colors, with colorful accessories to fit T.J.'s tastes. It'll be a typical argument settled between a mother and her son. Similar arguments will likely happen down the road, with the other families who will also call 32nd Street home. But this time, no landlords will be involved.
Adapted from Mary Kellipalka article that appeared in the 6/26/06 edition of the Florida Times-Union