Apopka still trying to block affordable housing development from ‘crown jewel’

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Apopka’s city leaders still appear to be trying to undermine a proposed affordable housing complex next to a development they refer to as the city’s crown jewel.

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The development, Southwick Commons, would be a 192-unit apartment complex for low- to middle-income tenants.

The fight over the development began several years ago, when the Altamonte Springs-based developer Wendover bought the property and proposed putting the complex on the site.

However, the city had placed a restriction on the land mandating that only luxury housing could be built there.

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“We’re looking for people that can walk to our downtown and get a cup of coffee, and they don’t mind spending $4 or $5 or buy a beer after work or whatever,” Mayor Bryan Nelson said at a June 2022 council meeting.

The developer sued Apopka for violating the Florida Fair Housing Act, and a judge later ruled against the city.

Half a year later, Wendover still doesn’t have the building permits thanks to a prolonged review process. The latest battle is being fought over the size of the balconies in each unit. Apopka’s requirement calls for full-size balconies on the land, among other “luxury” amenities. The developer is proposing 1-foot balconies accessible by a door.

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Wendover leaders say the battle – as well as others they say have been caused by city staff repeatedly changing their minds – is part of a delay tactic to push the project beyond a June 15 deadline set by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, which has invested $10 million into the project.

Wendover expected the project to be voted on by Apopka City Council members at its May 17, 2023 meeting, but the project was left off the agenda.

“I appreciate you commissioners giving me four minutes that your staff apparently unilaterally determined wasn’t worthy of an agenda item this evening,” Wendover Chief Operating Officer Ryan Von Weller said bitterly during public comment, before threatening an additional lawsuit.

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Von Weller said Nelson had made their jobs easier by writing a letter to the state asking administrators last month, requesting they revoke the funding to force Wendover to sell the land to a luxury developer.

“[Wendover] had the opportunity to look at the Developer’s Agreement and the luxury amenities that are required,” Nelson wrote. “We are just asking that you, the Florida Housing Authority, do the right thing and deny Wendover the funding for this project if they continue to whittle away at the design elements.”

Wendover in turn mailed a letter from an attorney, reminding the city of the June deadline and saying the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) opened an investigation into the city, though so far neither threat appeared to move the needle.

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Real Estate Attorney Mark Lippman called the lengths Apopka was going to to fight the project extremely unusual, and said it made no sense.

“I understand the idea that they want higher income, so they can charge higher taxes I imagine, but it’s really unusual to see this kind of situation,” he said.

Lippman noted the city was already facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees from the lawsuit it lost, and could be hit with fees, fines and other penalties stretching into the millions if Southwick misses its deadline and HUD determines the city acted illegally.

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Lippman said the city could be threatened with bankruptcy if it didn’t have strong cash reserves.

“If I was counseling the city, it would be okay, let’s back down potentially and figure out some sort of resolution that helps both sides,” he said.

The opposition to Southwick has also puzzled pro-development groups who point to Central Florida’s dire need for more affordable housing options, especially in growing areas like Apopka.

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“It makes me question who you believe belongs in your community,” Orlando YIMBY’s Foo Phan explained. “The fight for more luxury or for perception of luxury, as opposed to meeting a need, seems counterintuitive to what you would expect from a government.”

Phan warned Apopka could attract more criticism for being tone deaf if the land was turned over to a luxury developer.

“We’re talking about our firefighters or teachers,” he said. “If they are good enough to be a part of the community in service, they should also have a place to live within that community.”

Several council members have indicated they’re ready to vote on the project and put the issue to rest. Multiple calls and emails requesting additional comment weren’t returned.

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