Kennedy Homes residents want safe public housing
Rob Brinkman
November/December 2003

On October 6 a fire broke out in the middle of the night at Kennedy Homes in an upstairs apartment and raced through the attics, unimpeded by firewalls, destroying the upper floor apartments and damaging the ones downstairs.

This fire was a replay of a similar incident three years ago; fortunately no one was seriously injured on either occasion. In fact residents have been complaining about the conditions at Kennedy Homes for almost a decade. Shortly after the fire it was determined that the fire started in an electrical outlet and that the gas lines had contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

Numerous leaks were found in several buildings, which necessitated both the shutoff of gas and the evacuation of these buildings, since there was no cooking heat or hot water available. For the last month all but about 15 families have been living in hotels with no kitchens, courtesy of Aimco, the company that owns the complex and is one of the largest landlords in the country. Aimco has been cited for several building and fire code violations including inadequate fire egress through bedroom windows, lack of an alarm system, fire hydrants more than 500 feet from buildings and improper venting of many of the gas water heaters, making it possible for carbon monoxide gas to accumulate in the apartments. What we have here is a potential gas chamber as well as a firetrap.

The Gainesville City Commission held a special meeting on October 28 to discuss the Kennedy Homes crisis. While many of the residents attended, few were able to stay until public comment, which didn't start until after 10pm. Those that did favored the resolutions before the Commission to ask Aimco to immediately negotiate the sale of the complex to Community Housing Partners (CHP), a non-profit corporation which plans to demolish and rebuild the complex. They also supported a request to HUD secretary Mel Martinez to waive the rules and grant vouchers to the residents while the complex is rebuilt and then resume the federal subsidies.

Many residents insisted that they need to be relocated to apartments rather than hotels and wanted a guarantee that they would be able to return to the new Kennedy Homes as soon as possible. CHP presented tentative plans for new buildings that would be of a townhouse style design with a unique appearance to each apartment, first floor entries to all apartments, and ADA compliant ground floor apartments. Many of the residents in attendance seemed pleased with the proposed plans. CHP stated that they had originally planned to simply gut and refurbish the apartments but realized that in order to meet current fire and building codes a different design would be required; Kennedy Homes is 35 years old.

At the beginning of the meeting the City Commission was informed that HUD would like the commission to give it direction as to how to proceed, and four hours later they had punted the issue to Washington, DC. Several commissioners were adamant that Aimco not spend $1.8 million repairing the units and then sell them to CHP and have them demolished. As Rick Bryant observed, this was equivalent to his installing a new front door just before my home is demolished. The city is currently seeking to locate enough housing for the residents, an endeavor made more urgent by the potential displacement of the residents during Homecoming weekend due to previous reservations for the hotel rooms they are occupying.

All of this could have been avoided if, instead of arresting community activists attempting to organize a tenants union, as reported in the Iguana in 1994, the city had listened to the complaints of deteriorated apartments and acted. Now, almost ten years and two fires later, long overdue and needed changes may yet come to pass. If the entire community supports the residents of Kennedy Homes they may soon have homes they can be proud to live in and raise their families.

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