By Sandra Averhart, WUWF
At its 2023 Nehemiah Action Assembly Monday, JUST Pensacola did not get a commitment on its proposal to create an Affordable Rental Housing Trust Fund. But leaders of the interfaith coalition scored a victory in their efforts to establish a civil citation program for adults.
“We were very pleased that the state attorney agreed to come and shared with us her vision for what the adult civil citations will look like,” said Rev. Dr. Rick Branch, JUST Pensacola co-chair, reacting to the decision by State Attorney Ginger Bowden Madden to expand the local civil citation program.
“We were especially excited to hear her say that she’s not just going to focus on Escambia County, that she will implementing this in the other three counties in our district (circuit). So, I think that’s just a major win for the whole of northwest Florida.”
Speaking Monday evening before hundreds of people at First Baptist Church of Warrington, Madden touted the increased use of the youth civil citation program, which was the first action pursued by JUST Pensacola. She noted that 155 young people received civil citations in 2022. Already this year, there have been 93 juvenile civil citations issued.
But because she was just settling in to her new office, Madden said she was hesitant to move forward with a civil citation program for adults.
“I said look, ‘I’m gonna tell you, I got a lot of big issues to deal with right now. I don’t have the resources or the experience or the know-how to create a new program right now, just give me a little bit of time,’” she explained. “So they went back and they pulled together a program for me and presented it to me.”
With a proposal in hand, Madden said she was motivated to refine it and move ahead with a program she hopes to begin implementing by Labor Day.
“Once they receive that citation, sign it with our office, given their sanction so that there is accountability for the bad act, they will have 90 days to complete those,” said Madden, noting that after completion of the diversion program, the charge “will just go away.”
Branch, the Minister of Music at First United Methodist Church, has been working on Escambia County’s civil citation program for about 12 years.
“One of the great things about adult civil citation is that the plan for you will be tailored for what you specifically need,” he said, pointing to substance abuse recovery as an example.
He says such a program is all about second chances and, ultimately, keeping people out of the criminal justice system.
“They don’t spend time in jail,” said Branch. “They don’t have to lose their job. They don’t have to lose their license because of the fees that they would have to pay to from being in jail to get out of jail. It’s a win-win all around.”
At this year’s Nehemiah Action Assembly, the JUST Pensacola coalition was also looking for a public commitment from the Pensacola City Council and Mayor D. C. Reeves to address the affordable housing crisis in the city.
“We were hopeful that they would be there so we could continue to work together, but unfortunately, they were not,” said Rev. Ansley Walker, a JUST Pensacola board member from St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, expressing her disappointment that city leaders had a scheduling conflict and could not attend.
In February, JUST Pensacola went before the city council to present a proposal to establish an Affordable Rental Housing Trust Fund. In combination with state and federal funds, a set aside of $4.2 million in general funds from the city would be enough to construct 100 affordable rental units every year for 10 years. That would cover the current shortage of nearly 1,000 affordable rental units in the city.
Walker says they’re not going away and will continue to try to win city leaders’ support.
At Monday’s gathering, they invited the hundreds of attendees to write letters of support for the housing trust fund and explain how they’ve been affected by this crisis.
“So, we’re delivering those letters and hoping to have a big number of people attend this Thursday at the city council’s meeting, their public forum,” said Walker, explaining their desire to have another strong presence at city hall at the upcoming meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m.
“To show that we’re with them, that this many people, we care about affordable housing and the need for it here in Pensacola, that we want our residents to have a place to live.”
In his weekly news conference Tuesday, Mayor D.C. Reeves said he agrees philosophically on the issue of affordable housing, but he’s not fully onboard with JUST Pensacola’s strategy to lock in – for 10 years – a large amount of the city’s general revenue budget to address it.
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