Fort Myers, developers clash over affordable housing plan in Dunbar

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Even as potential first-time owners are busily preparing applications to purchase affordable housing in Fort Myers, a funding dispute has delayed the start of construction on Dunbar’s Towles Garden project.

A majority of the Fort Myers City Council Monday night denied a developer’s request for access to a funding source to allow work on the project to begin.

City council members expressed skepticism that developer Robert MacFarlane could complete the project.

The city and the developer are both investing in the development of a 140-unit complex at Veronica S. Shoemaker Boulevard and Edison Avenue. More than half of the units would be earmarked for affordable housing.

MacFarlane told the council that instead he wanted to tap funds that were to be used for construction to prepare the site.

“I put $550,000 in escrow, not city money — my money until I break ground,” MacFarlane told the council.

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He asked the city council for the money back so he could spend it to prepare the site for building houses. He argued that doing so would allow him to get the money out of escrow to do the groundwork, which in turn would speed up the start of construction.

The funds were originally intended to be withheld until construction began on the actual buildings, a phase known as “vertical construction”. But he told the council he needed to use that money to create landscaping, parking lots and street space, and to prepare the land for the buildings.

The development took years longer than expected. The delays have worried council member Teresa Watkins Brown, a strong supporter of affordable housing.

“I have concerns,” said Watkins Brown. “The City of Fort Myers has supported this project and has done everything possible to ensure this project moves forward,” she said. “I don’t like saying that we’re not doing anything.”

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Council members Darla Bonk and Fred Burson, who keep a close eye on buildings and real estate on the council, said MacFarlane originally deposited money for costs that reflect the construction of an actual building growing vertically on the site.

Bonk and Burson argued Monday that MacFarlane was not entitled to simply take back the money he had set aside for expenses such as preparing the ground and for engineering drawings and other items that aren’t actual construction.

For Burson, this raises doubts about whether MacFarlane is willing to start the project on land the city has acquired to bring affordable housing to the neighborhood.

“We wanted to be sure that you would walk vertically on a piece of property that we gave you,” Burson said. “I’m not going to give you the property and I’m going to give you your money back. You made a commitment and accepted that you would spend the money on hard costs. You agreed to that right here on this panel.

Burson said MacFarlane was “the one who keeps delaying the process,” prompting a sharp response from the developer.

“I’m not back because I’m here for a helping hand,” MacFarlane said. “I have received final approval of the site plan. … It’s unbelievable what you have to do to get approval.”

Construction of Towles Garden, a row home development at Edison Avenue and Veronica S. Shoemaker Boulevard, has yet to begin.

MacFarlane said his company switched the project from depending on land ownership to leasing the land to make it more affordable.

“No one else came and went through what they went through,” said Councilor Johnny Streets, who made affordable housing a top priority and cast the single “no” vote on Monday. “We’re not playing these games with anyone else, I know what we’ve done and what we haven’t done.”

The 5-1 vote against MacFarlane repurposing the funds prompted Mayor Kevin Anderson and Councilors Bonk, Burson, Liston Bouchette and Teresa Watkins Brown to vote against.

The city has made a significant financial investment in the project, with nearly $5 million in property tax rebates, $1 million for the land purchase, and $10,000 in down payment assistance to prospective buyers.

According to an agreement between MacFarlane and the council, 51% of homes to be built would be considered “affordable” housing – which would require more financial help and lower costs for buyers. Other parts of the project would be considered “attainable,” qualities that wage earners could afford with creative funding.

Potential homeowners are already filling out applications

With the recent fold in the project slowing an already slow process, an office has opened to take applications and potential buyers have begun working on applications to purchase the homes.

A firm was hired to help families use available resources to structure a loan, including qualifying for down payment assistance.

Roy Kennix of FJ Sales, Services and Marketing worked with applicants to get their paperwork in order. Kennix has long been involved in urban development projects, beginning with a job in Boston in the early 1960s. He said buyers came to the sales office to start the application process.

When the discussion ended, a second vote urging city officials to work toward a compromise passed 5-1, with Streets again being the only member to vote against.

Despite not getting what he wanted at Monday night’s council meeting, MacFarlane left City Hall with optimism intact.

“I think there’s a trade-off here, I think what they’ve accomplished is the tremendous good that they’ve done in getting this off the ground,” MacFarlane said in an interview with The News-Press after the To meet. “I think it’s going to happen, there has to be a compromise. I wish there could have been a compromise before we came here.”

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