Ever since the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) announced plans to build a 15-story affordable-housing complex in downtown Fort Lauderdale, nearby residents have been up in arms. Many locals suggested the development belonged west of I-95 instead of across North Federal Highway from the upscale Rio Vista neighborhood. One person wrote on Next Door: "Dump em in the glades."
A mass email warned of homeless people from all over the East Coast "arriving in caravans." Things got so bad, according to the Sun Sentinel, the city sent a police officer to protect the home of a lawyer/lobbyist involved in the development.
A news conference called by the nonprofit last week doesn't seem to have eased the tension. After a series of questions about whether the project could be relocated, AHF CEO Michael Weinstein blasted residents for their opposition and noted he sees cranes "everywhere."
"If the drawbridge goes up as soon as it involves poor people, that does not speak well for this community," he said. "This is supposed to be — I'm told when I watch the election returns that this is the most liberal community in America. So if by that liberalism you mean that you're liberal unless it's in my backyard —." He didn't finish the sentence.
The Los Angeles-based nonprofit, an HIV/AIDS medical-care provider that also operates the chain of thrift stores Out of the Closet and posts crazy billboards across the country, already owns the land where the building would go up, at 409 SE Eighth St. The $71 million development would not use government subsidies or tax breaks, according to the health-care foundation. But it does need city commission approval.
The 680 apartments would be "micro-units," most of them about 16 feet by 16 feet. They'd be available to the formerly homeless and the working poor (employment would be a condition of living in the building). The rent is estimated to be around $500 per month. AHF has pitched it as a way to address Broward County's affordable-housing crisis.
But opposition mounted soon after the initiative was announced over the summer. The Rio Vista Civic Association board unanimously voted to oppose it, and Vice Mayor Ben Sorenson wrote in a recent email that "neighbors are overwhelmingly opposed to this project — as am I."
Residents complain about the size of the development and individual units as well as the impact on property values. Some are concerned it won't include all the necessary services.
Downtown resident Sheila Franklin worries the building is too large and will deteriorate over time. She also believes it'll cause more traffic.
"I'm a liberal Democrat, so no one wants to not support people in need," says Franklin, who was offended by Weinstein's comments at the news conference. "But I also have worked all my life to create what I have. So, really, your loyalty is always kind of to yourself first."
AHF says most residents won't have cars. The location would be good for its new residents because it would be close to Broward College, Florida Atlantic University, Publix, the Broward County library, and the courthouse.
CEO Weinstein, a somewhat controversial figure, did not hide his frustration with the community. He accused locals of "hate speech" and said it would be nice if more people acknowledged the generosity of his organization's investment in the community.
And he indicated that AHF would battle if necessary. "We are as capable of waging a fight as anyone because people living with AIDS have faced more discrimination and more hate than any other group, and so we are well, well, well experienced in these type of battles."