A City Divided: Fort Lauderdale's Controversy Over The AIDS Healthcare Foundation Development
This story has been updated with additional context at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16 2019.
What started as an idea to build more affordable housing in Downtown Fort Lauderdale has become a growing fight between residents, a developer and city officials.
At the center of the fight is a 15-story low-income housing development that the nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation, or AHF, is trying to build in empty lots that it owns on Southeast Fourth Avenue. The proposed building would contain 680 of the smallest apartments in all of Broward County, open to anyone who makes less than half of the county's median income of about $26,000. Most of the apartments would be 263 square feet; two of the floors would have larger apartments, at 400 square feet.
This approach to affordable housing - a high density of micro-apartments in one building - doesn't seem to have been done before in the South Florida region and has brought out competing visions for the future of the City of Fort Lauderdale:
On one side, AHF and supporters of the development consider the building an innovative model for future cities across the U.S. to combat lack of housing that's affordable, housing shortages, and homelessness.
On the other hand, residents who live near where the building would go up and some city officials worry that it's an untested method that is simply too dense, the spaces too small to live in, and that there won't be enough access to social services for all residents.
Supporters of the development in Fort Lauderdale say this could relieve some of the cost burden and pressure from high rents. The average rent in Broward County is more than $1,800 per month, according to county data. It's the highest average in all of South Florida.
The foundation estimates that rents in the new building would be less than $500 per month.
"Ugh. Rent in all of South Florida is extraordinary," said Robin Schwartz. She used to live in the city and still stays involved in Fort Lauderdale issues. She rallied with development supporters in Fort Lauderdale earlier this month. "In general - we need affordable housing."
In 2019, the average person who makes minimum wage in Florida will bring in just under $17,600. That comes out to close to $1,400 per month, before taxes, and not enough to meet the average rent price.
Schwartz said more low-income housing would relieve some of the cost burdens for renters.
"I don't really understand why it's so controversial, I just don't," she said.
The development was announced in June but it didn't start to gain attention until it hit social media last month - especially on the neighborhood-specific app NextDoor that allows people who live close to each other to make posts.
People wrote messages asking about sex offenders and drug dealers living in the building.
But AIDS Healthcare Foundation representatives say none of that is true.
"I mean, we're going to do comprehensive background checks on everybody that applies and qualifies to live in this development," said AIDS Healthcare Foundation Southern Bureau Chief Michael Kahane.
"And if someone has a history of being a sexual predator, they're automatically not eligible to live in the development. If somebody has a history of drug dealing - they are automatically not eligible," he said.
NextDoor users, and others who attended press conferences, were also worried about the building being for, or attracting, residents living with HIV or AIDS.
Under the Federal Fair Housing Act, it’s illegal to ask renters that question.
"If someone happens to have HIV - they are just as welcome as anybody else," Kahane said. "People are living with AIDS and HIV already in everyone's neighborhood."
Currently, South Florida has the highest rates of new HIV cases in the nation, and Fort Lauderdale is in the top 10 cities with the most new cases.
Kahane, calls some of the opposition to the tower "NIMBY-ism," Which stands for "Not In My Backyard."
"NIMBY: Not in my backyard, is people who are generally wanting to help on a certain issue, unless it's in a neighborhood that's adjacent to them," Kahane said.
City staff have already reviewed the development and are currently waiting for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to respond to comments. The project cannot yet move forward.
If the tower gets approved and built, it would be entirely funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. (The estimated cost to build the tower is $71 million.) There would be no use of grant money or funds from state or local government. Revenue to support it would come mostly from the nonprofit's pharmacies.
Kevin Cochrane lives near the site of the proposed tower and said he thinks it’s too many apartments all in one place.
"If we want to take care of our homeless population, there's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it," he said at a Jan. 7 community meeting about the project in Fort Lauderdale City Hall.
His biggest concerns are the density and small size of the micro apartments.
"We need to make certain they have adequate housing, not substandard housing," he said. "We need to make sure that they have access to services."
Some social and medical services are within walking distance of the proposed building: a dental office, a wellness clinic for sexually-transmitted diseases, and two pharmacies. And the AIDS Healthcare Foundation maintains the building is not intended to be a homeless shelter of any kind.
Fort Lauderdale's Vice Mayor, Ben Sorensen, opposes the project. He has organized two community meetings about the development.
"Actually this project does not conform with our city's master plan," Sorensen said. "Which is a really important component that is one of the many reasons this is a project that currently I'm opposed to."
The Downtown Master Plan is a series of suggested guidelines for developers created by the city with neighborhood associations more than 15 years ago.
The guidelines recommend against any buildings for the downtown area that would need wrap-around social services - like recovery, rehabilitation or treatment programs - for residential buildings, (called SSRF's by the City of Fort Lauderdale.)
The guidelines are not law. However, city staff is working to make the recommendations in the plan a city ordinance in the near future.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation maintains its building would be a regular apartment building, like any other.
Sorensen’s district - District 4 - is home to Rio Vista, one of the neighborhood associations that oppose the project. The average property value there tops $1 million.
"Every affordable housing expert I've talked to says that is way too many units," Sorensen said. "The need for services for those folks would be massive."
Sorensen has made homelessness his main issue on the city commission and said the city is already working on its own plan for more affordable housing spread across the city.
He said he has not seen research presented by AHF or an explanation of why officials believe a 680-unit building could be a successful new solution to help affordable housing in Fort Lauderdale.
"This is a model that has not been tested," Sorensen said.
Officials at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation dispute this, saying it is continuing outreach to the city and to neighborhood associations to better explain the vision for the building.
"We are open and available to sit down with city staff or elected officials at any point in time, we welcome a dialogue," Kahane said.
If city staff were to approve the building, it would not have to come before the city commission unless a commissioner wanted to specifically call it up for a public vote. Vice Mayor Ben Sorensen said he planned do so if the development gets that far in the approval process.
"If the city staff ever did approve this project, I would definitely be calling this up and bringing it in front of the city commission," he said.