Investigates

INVESTIGATES: Broken promise in Jacksonville affordable housing as free property turned profits

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As Jacksonville leads the state in evictions and rents are sky-high, Action News Jax found the city has dropped the ball in a big way when it comes to affordable housing.

A report by the Office of Inspector General shows the city has been giving away property to people who say they’ll build affordable housing but failed to make sure the new owners followed through.

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Ninety-five percent of the people who got free property failed to deliver what they promised. In fact, only three of the dozens of people the city deeded property away to actually followed through and created affordable housing -- and that was just during one of the five years the city has been giving these properties away.

How it started

Starting in 2019, state law required the city to either sell or donate certain surplus properties to create affordable housing. The people who signed up could get up to five properties for free and had two years to get them on the market at below market rates. That first year, 2019, the city compiled a list of 174 vacant parcels and granted them to 62 different grantees.

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How it (didn’t) happen

Rick Samples is the city’s Deputy Inspector General, and when his office followed up on the parcels from 2019, it found a staggering failure of accountability. Of the 62 grantees, 59 of them did not create affordable housing in the time period.

“Our review,” Samples said, “showed that 95% of those grantees failed to create affordable housing, failed to do what the basic requirements, which was within two years, create the affordable housing that was available for people in a certain income level.”

Instead, 23 grantees violated the deed restrictions by selling 66 of the undeveloped lots to a third party, making a profit off the freebie property.

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Broken promise profit

A property in historic Springfield is one of the most egregious of the cases listed in the Office of Inspector General’s report. It was deeded to become affordable housing but the organization that got it turned around and sold the property for $300,000.

Action News Jax found the organization was run by Grace and Truth Ministries and reached out for comment. But, as we reported in October, the former Executive Director and Bishop is currently in jail on several charges, including sexual battery and molestation. The current owners didn’t answer when we knocked.

The cost

When adding up the lost revenue the city could have made if it had sold the property ($557,582) and the unpaid taxes and fines many of the new owners owe ($60,559,) Jacksonville missed out on more than $600,000 ($618,141 to be exact). That doesn’t include the loss of what would have been at least 160 affordable homes at a time when rents are skyrocketing.

Lack of accountability

But the big shock, Samples said, is the lack of accountability on behalf of the city. “What surprised me,” he said, “was the lack of oversight. Nobody followed it back to see had the people done what they’re, what they had agreed to do on that…and under the deed restrictions, nobody had, the city had not tried to revert the property back to the city.”

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When Samples’ report came out, the city did amend legislation tightening up who qualifies for the property and the Neighborhoods Department acknowledged the “gap” in ensuring the properties were converted to affordable housing. It went on to say the process of holding the grantees accountable now is a complicated one. According to the city’s response, quiet title lawsuits are the only way to claw those properties back and they are “very time-consuming, expensive and a drain on of City resources.”

The City responded to several questions and what corrective actions have been taken.

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