By Greg Jackson
As a civil litigation attorney, it is my experience that a death knell in a case against a corporation is when a plaintiff’s lawyer tells a jury that: “XYZ Corporation put its profits (making money) over the interest of people (the life of a human being).” In essence, the lawyer is saying that XYZ Corporation could not have cared less about the well-being of the person or persons affected by its actions, because money was more important. This concept of profit over people oftentimes infuriates citizens because it means that the pursuit of the almighty dollar, though not necessarily a bad thing, is more important than people, a bad thing. For example, you may remember a well-known tire manufacturer that allegedly knew its tires were defective but allowed the tires to be placed on thousands of vehicles without a single action because it would have affected its bottom line. The outcomes were devastating roll-over crashes that resulted in injuries and loss of human life.
Well here is something for Apopkans, particular those who live south of 441, to ponder: the Apopka Community Redevelopment Agency’s official position is that it is more important to focus on increasing profits for businesses rather than finding ways to quickly and efficiently address declining living conditions – “slum.” In short, Apopka’s CRA prefers profits over the needs of people. I know this because thanks to an active Apopka resident and business owner, I was provided a letter drafted on Apopka Community Redevelopment Agency letterhead and signed by an official with that Agency stating so. Shockingly, the letter makes it clear that the Apopka CRA is more concerned with businesses prospering than it is with the living conditions of residents.
In response to a call for the Apopka CRA to utilize a small portion of its funds (less than 7%) to support programs that would help build a sustainable community through affordable housing initiatives, improved public safety, as well as a focus on health/sanitation concerns, the Apopka CRA stated that its recent Updated CRA Plan’s “Finding of Necessity,” “was not based on any findings related to ‘slum’ conditions as enumerated in the statute.” In other words, Apopka’s CRA was encouraged to ignore the needs of the people in the community, while also downplaying the statutory provision it was founded upon to address “slum.” The Apopka CRA believes that it can fulfill the statutory intent by minimally addressing the needs of people or ignoring them altogether. Specifically, the Apopka CRA official stated:
As presented in the study, four of the statute’s criteria for establishing blight were met by the City of Apopka. These included:
1. Inadequate roadways or public transportation facilities. (Sec. 163.340(8) (a))
2. Faulty lot layout in relation to size, adequacy, accessibility or usefulness. (Sec. 163.340(8)(c))
3. Deterioration of site or other improvements. (Sec. 163.340(8)(e))
4. Diversity of ownership or defective or unusual conditions of title which prevent the free alienability of land within the deteriorated or hazardous area. (Sec. 163.340(8)(m))
After you finish scratching your head and asking yourself how does this address the intent of Chapter 163, Part III, for Apopka residents clearly plagued by “slum,” which relates directly to people’s living conditions, take a look at section 163.340(8). You will see that the Apopka CRA missed a couple points that are applicable to its own CRA District and could have been used to focus on people over profits. A full and complete review of section 163.340(8) would show that if Apopka wanted to put people over profits its “Finding of Necessity” as to “blight” could have easily been based on:
1. Unsanitary or unsafe conditions. (Sec. 163.340(8)(d)) – People issues)
2. Incidence of crime in the area higher than in the remainder of the county or municipality. (Sec. 163.340(8)(i)) – People issues)
Additionally, a more complete review of Chapter 163, Part III would also arguably reveal that in addressing “blight” from a transportation, parking facility and roadway perspective, as the Apopka CRA has done, Chapter 163, Part III for the most part was referring to “coastal resort and tourist areas.” See Fla. Stat. sec. 163.335(4). However, for some reason the Apopka CRA has decided to fight tooth-and-nail to use funds for “blight” while blatantly ignoring the “slum” that unfortunately exists within its boundaries. The position of the Apopka CRA seems to be contrary to Chapter 163, Part III, which could not be clearer where it states in sec. 163.335(6) that: . . .
[T]here exists in counties and municipalities of the state a severe shortage of housing affordable to residents of low or moderate income, including the elderly; that the existence of such condition affects the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of such counties and municipalities and retards their growth and economic and social development; and that the elimination or improvement of such condition is a proper matter of state policy and state concern and is for a valid and desirable public purpose.
So why is it that Apopka’s CRA, and many CRA’s across the State of Florida, opt to ignore this “policy and state concern,” by mainly focusing on roads, transportation, parking lots, etc., to address “blight,” when “slum” is an equal if not the predominate concern in underserved communities. I would submit that it is because the people writing the plans for CRA’s have no real understanding of the needs of underserved communities. Instead, they appear to have an understanding of and work to assist, business development and profits, not people. Additionally, CRA’s get away with ignoring the needs of people because quite frankly community leaders are perceived as weak in their silence. CRA’s see that community leaders, religious leaders, business leaders, etc., will speak out to support a political candidate or against the injustice of a person arrested, but these same “leaders” stand mute when it comes time to speak out against the disparate treatment of underserved communities from a resources standpoint. I believe the great urban philosopher, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Sr., said it best in a 90’s cult classic film when he stated: “Either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” Because this is not just an Apopka CRA issue, it is time that residents demand more from CRA’s statewide and demand that CRA’s find ways to address “slum” in the same ways they fight to address “blight.” I believe the purposeful focus on “slum” in conjunction with “blight” by CRA’s could reduce the need for municipalities to seek state funding year-after-year to address affordable housing shortages, infrastructure needs or health/sanitation concerns within underserved communities. It is time for CRA’s across the State of Florida to put people over profits or in the words of one of Florida best-known attorneys, John Morgan; it is time for CRA’s to be “For the People” —in my humble opinion.
Greg Jackson is a former Assistant Attorney General for the State of Florida, a military veteran, current Orange County District 2 Representative on the Board of Zoning Adjustments, and General Counsel for the Community Redevelopment Agency. He has been as an active member of the Central Florida community for nearly 20 years. He was most recently a candidate for the Florida House District 45 seat.