Judge: Apopka can’t block affordable housing project in city’s ‘crown jewel’

A developer will be allowed to build an affordable housing project in Apopka’s City Center area after a judge ruled the city’s law blocking the project was illegal.

Southwick Commons Ltd., a subsidiary of Wendover Housing Partners, intends to build a 195-unit complex on a portion of the site near Highland Manor after receiving government loans to finance the project.


However, city leaders maintained that the City Center site was the “crown jewel” of Apopka, and voted down the permit for the project even after staff members certified that it followed the appropriate land use for the area. The development agreement, written in 2006, specified that only luxury housing should be built in the area.

“We’re looking for luxury,” Mayor Bryan Nelson said during a meeting earlier this year. “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.”

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Another council member echoed Nelson’s sentiment during that meeting, explaining that subsidized housing could threaten the values of market-rate homes nearby and the feel of the community. In an emailed follow-up, Nelson said the city was in favor of affordable housing, just not on that site.

The developer subsequently sued the city, citing both comments and saying the restrictions against luxury housing were a violation of Florida’s Fair Housing Act, to which the judge agreed.

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“‘It is unlawful to discriminate in land use decisions or in the permitting of development based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, familial status, religion, or, except otherwise provided by law, the source of financing of a development or proposed development,’” Judge Emerson Thompson quoted, bolding the last part of the statute for emphasis.

Thompson ordered the city to permanently drop its restriction.

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The ruling is bound to be welcomed by housing advocates, who called restrictions like the one Apopka had on its property discriminatory and old-fashioned.

“We want communities that are mixed income because we want lots of different kinds of people in our urban centers,” Orlando YIMBY’s Maddi Lynch said. “That is what makes a healthy community.”

It’s not clear if the city plans to appeal the ruling or back down from its fight. Nelson said the city council will discuss the issue at its Dec. 21 meeting.

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