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Senior affordable housing development plan for Orlando's District 6 gets mixed feedback

Macene Isom
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Lifelong Orlando Resident Macene Isom passionately opposes a senior affordable housing development coming to the city's District 6. Commissioner Bakari Burns and Ariel Fraynd, assistant vice president of development at Housing Trust Group, replied to Isom and several other attendees at the meeting inside the Dr. James R. Smith Neighborhood Center on the evening of Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. Some of the public comments included questions and criticisms, while others had words of support.

Passions were high at a meeting Monday night to present a new affordable housing development for older adults, ages 62 and older, coming to Orlando’s District 6.

The meeting was held inside the Dr. James R. Smith Neighborhood Center in what is a predominantly Black and low income part of the city and was hosted by Commissioner Bakari Burns and Housing Trust Group, a South Florida-based affordable and market-rate development company, according to their website.

Some of the neighborhoods in District 6 include Eagle's Nest and Richmond Heights.

There were mixed reactions from the crowd of over 50 attendees. Some residents said they see the plans as the start of much-needed investment in the community. Many said they see it as the start of gentrification.

Longtime Orlando resident Cynthia Harris was just one of many residents who said she believes there are ulterior motives to so-called affordable developments, such as extractive investments from entities who are unfamiliar with or insensitive to the community’s needs.

“The words ‘affordable housing;’ it sounds good when you say it real fast. Well, we live here, and you have people come here who don't know the area, never lived here, and they want to present you with a bunch of pomp and circumstance,” Harris said. “It's not fair to us when we're struggling over here, and people can't afford rent as it is.”

The way Harris and many of the residents said they see it, these developments will eventually and ultimately price out residents from their own communities.

"It's fluff. Hogwash. Bologna. You're trying to sell us a pipe dream. It’s like the pied piper bringing the rats out of the city. So, we're the rats that they want to bring out of our own city," Harris said.

What's the plan?

The plan offered 92 units set to be built at the corner of Columbia Street and Bruton Boulevard, where the now-closed Grand East Building holds roughly four and a half acres owned by the Most Worship Prince Hall Masonic Lodge. The Masonic Lodge is an investing co-developer, giving HTG a 75-year ground lease to build.

Of the units, 69 will be equipped with one bedroom, one bathroom, at 683 square feet, and 23 of them will have two bedrooms, two bathrooms, at 966 square feet. To qualify, an applicant must make 60% of the area median income or below. The one-bedroom apartments range between $543 and $988 a month, and the two-bedroom units are set for a rental cost of $652 to $1186 per month, depending on income level.

Of the 69 one-bedroom units, six will be available at a 33% AMI rent limit, and the other 53 are priced at 60% AMI rent limit. Of the 23 two-bedroom units, four will be priced at a rent limit of 33% AMI, and the remaining 29 units will be priced at 60% AMI rent limit.

Of the 69 one-bedroom units, six will be available at a 33% AMI rent limit, and the other 53 are priced at 60% AMI rent limit. Of the 23 two-bedroom units, four will be priced at a rent limit of 33% AMI, and the remaining 29 units will be priced at 60% AMI rent limit.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo
Of the 69 one-bedroom units, six will be available at a 33% AMI rent limit, and the other 53 are priced at 60% AMI rent limit. Of the 23 two-bedroom units, four will be priced at a rent limit of 33% AMI, and the remaining 29 units will be priced at 60% AMI rent limit.

Many present erupted in arguments over the actual affordability of the units. Ariel Fraynd, assistant vice president of development at HTG, said he’s been to other meetings where the same concerns have come up before.

“This is absolutely considered affordable housing,” Fryand said. “And I can tell you unequivocally that once this development is built and brought to the community, it’s going to satisfy all the concerns, and they’re going to be super happy.”

Some of the planned amenities senior residents would enjoy include a clubhouse, fitness center, cyber café, swimming pool, BBQ area, a pickleball court or a putting green, and a dog park. The presenters said the three-story buildings will be green, as in energy efficient for a sustainable community, and that development will come to about $30 million.

One downside is that the complex is designed to surround a cell tower off Bruton Boulevard, a bit of an eyesore, agreed everyone involved. The company representatives said they would create parking space and a roundabout entry point to compensate.

Plans may change, as the development is still very much in its early stages. According to Bakari, the project was originally discussed as an assisted living facility, but he was committed to affordable housing for local seniors. This was last year.

Fraynd said that, in 2022, HTG applied for tax credit funding from Florida Housing Finance Corporation, which allocated the development $2.7 million in annual housing credits. Once the company sells those to different investors, which are usually large banks or syndicators, it will transfer into the equity of $30 million for development.

On the development timeline, Fraynd said the company just got the green light for the credit underwriting in June.

“It was a very competitive process that, you know, through some goodwill, and luck, and God on our side, we were able to get this funding, so that we can bring a development like this into the community,” Fraynd said.

But Bryan Finnie, vice president of development at HTG, said Fraynd is being modest. He said efforts to bring development into District 6 are a hard feat, and he lauded his team for the accomplishment against all odds in giving the community a chance for growth that matches the rest of Orlando.

“This project should not have been funded. We had a bad lottery ball,” Finnie said. “With Florida Housing this was not happening, okay? In 20, 30 years, I mean, I’ve never seen this done.”

A mixed bag

For some of the residents, the complex means progress. Charles Leon, lifelong Orlando resident, who just turned 59 years old, said he is excited to finally see investment in District 6.

“I understand how corporate America works, and you can't hold up all the money and refuse to invest back into communities. They put stipulations that keep certain people out,” Leon said. “District 6, this community has been around for a long time, a very long time, and it just needs some work. It should have been brought up long ago — when they did the Orange County Convention Center, they should have immediately started to come out here.”

Leon recently successfully completed heavy equipment operator courses through Employ Florida. Though he said “he put in his time with social security,” meaning he lives off his social security income, he doesn't want to retire just yet because he is not where he wants to be in life.

When the apartments are ready, he hopes to be able to qualify for residency.

"If you can't really actually afford affordable housing, if you're off maybe, say, three or 400 dollars or something like that, you can always get a second job, so that way you can qualify to make it work for yourself,” Leon said.

Macene Isom has been a lifelong resident of Orlando, since 1943. She said she was asked to run against Burns for the city commissioner position he now serves. Isom said most people in District 6 cannot afford these new developments.

“I said, ‘What about bringing some low-income housing?’ And he said, ‘We’re not about low-income, we are about affordable.’ They have changed that name from ‘low income’ to ‘affordable,’ but people here cannot afford that,” she said. “Most people that live in this city don’t have that kind of income to pay for this.”

Isom also said residents were not “properly informed” about this residential development coming in and that the complex will only attract outsiders.

“By the time we heard, this was already here. We had no input,” Isom said. “So, we will not have a voice and our vote won’t mean nothing because it won’t be people looking like us there.”

Burns said a lot of the people advocating against the development are homeowners, Isom included, and that they stand outside the conversation for local renters’ needs.

"It's easy to be against something when you're not in need of it. You go home to the house that you've owned for years, but what about that person who is contemplating, the senior contemplating going back to work because her rent has increased?” the commissioner said.

Burn also said that, regardless of naysayers, the senior population in Orlando is often overlooked and needs answers to issues that affect their everyday lives, such as affordable housing alternatives that are not run down and help promote aesthetic appeal and public safety.

He said he was inspired to advocate for senior housing when someone close to him, an older woman, was forced to get back into the workforce or lose her home when her rent went up.

"And that experience is what stuck with me in the back of my head as I'm pushing for affordable housing. I said, 'Well, let's start with our seniors,' because they've given so much to this community," Burns said.

The developers say the project is targeted to begin in July of 2024.

Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.

Lillian (Lilly) Hernández Caraballo is a bilingual, multimedia journalist covering housing and homelessness for WMFE, as a Report for America corps member.
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