This story was published in partnership with Scalawag for our Powerlines series, which looks at climate change, justice, and infrastructure in the American South. The series is supported by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University, and is part of their POWER project.
At the corner of Golfbrook Drive and 45th Street in northwest Jacksonville, Florida, Fairway Oaks, a predominantly black Habitat for Humanity neighborhood, is tucked away on slivers of polluted land.
Fairway Oaks was built after a 17-day “blitz build” 20 years ago. The neighborhood sits in a floodplain or special flood hazard area. Based on its flood zone classification, Fairway Oaks land is so low that federal elevation certificates were required to develop it.
However, the method used to stabilize land in and around Fairway Oaks troubles many residents. Developers “filled in the low lying areas with trash,” according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) audit report published eight years before Fairway Oaks’ construction. HUD also reported a designated dump in the area and that enveloping land was “used to deposit trash, thus fragmenting the dump.”
In 2007, Nathaniel Borden, a lifelong Jacksonvillian in his late thirties and president of the Fairway Oaks homeowners’ association, said complaints started surfacing about homes sinking, foundation cracks, multiplying mold and soil subsidence. In dozens of written legal statements, Fairway Oaks homeowners said they were never told the land beneath their homes had been used as a landfill or dump and wouldn’t have purchased the properties if they knew.
For more than 10 years, Borden, who is black, galvanized his neighbors to pressure the city and HabiJax, Habitat for Humanity’s Jacksonville affiliate to address the complaints. He launched a petition in support of resident relocation. The homeowners’ attorney, Jack Krumbein, filed a class action lawsuit in spring of 2017 against HabiJax and the City of Jacksonville.
Home buyers in Florida rely on guarantees of habitability, which ensure that the homes meet certain standards before they are sold. But the conditions of the land on which Fairway Oaks was built, and the manner in which the homes were constructed, raise questions about whether HabiJax sacrificed normal housing standards to cut costs on building the community.
Though the homeowners advance several claims, their allegation that HabiJax breached the implied warranty of habitability speaks to their shared concern: that Fairway Oaks homes were built below standards, with risky materials, and on top of contaminated soil.
For the past two-and-a-half years, the homeowners have asked the court to hold the city and HabiJax accountable for the structural problems in their homes. “The houses are sinking and our main concern is why they are sinking,” Borden told me last November before he gave me a tour of the neighborhood. He said when the homes were built, the surrounding land seemed fairly level.
At the time of my tour, that was no longer the case. Behind a home where compressed trash was recovered underneath, slushy and sloping grass met the fence separating it from Moncrief Creek, which is reportedly contaminated by arsenic, a carcinogen, and other chemicals. Many properties had tilted, sinking backyards.
Borden worries often about his and his neighbors’ health in connection with the Fairway Oaks ecosystem: proximity to one dump, nearness to a still-operable landfill, a neighborhood partially flanked by the questionable creek. Residents also fear methane, a flammable and potent greenhouse gas produced through the decomposition of waste.
“Our health is our main priority,” Borden said.
Since its inception, Fairway Oaks has reflected tensions between environmental justice and the provision of quality, affordable housing. For residents, their case also demonstrates concerns about the impact of climate change on their safety.
As the largest city spatially in the U.S., Jacksonville stretches nearly 750 square miles, abuts the St. Johns River and hugs the Atlantic Coast on its southside. These dynamics position Jacksonville to face climate risks, including heavy rainfall, historic flooding, and hurricanes.
But Fairway Oaks isn’t the only affordable housing community in a southern city where residents allege structural problems. Actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right housing non-profit, unaffiliated with Habitat for Humanity, also faces a class action lawsuit brought by dissatisfied homeowners. Built in a predominantly black community in the Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, Make It Right homeowners allege defective construction caused by moisture retention and mold, structural problems and porch rot, among other damages in their houses, which were built after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Alyson Flournoy, a University of Florida law professor whose expertise includes environmental law and environmental ethics, said “an integrative approach” is key to balancing the dual duties of affordable housing and sound construction. “Proactive land use and affordable housing policies to ensure that communities have a meaningful voice in the development process should be the goal,” Flournoy said, “so that affordable housing is not relegated to areas with environmental contamination or housing with substandard construction.”
The land beneath Fairway Oaks has a long history with waste disposal. Part of Fairway Oaks was a “probable disposal area” for the Castellano Dump, which operated from 1959 until 1968. Castellano stretched 10 acres and accepted chemicals, paint wastes, and general trash. A 1993 assessment of Castellano by the Environmental Protection Agency reported the dump was never lined and lacked a pollution collection system.
In 1971, the city constructed the Golfbrook Terrace subsidized apartment complex, which stood where the present-day Fairway Oaks development is now. By 1973, numerous fill and waste disposal areas had been identified “in close proximity” to Golfbrook apartments.
The 1992 HUD audit of city public housing operations reported that Jacksonville housing authorities failed “to correct potentially hazardous conditions” at Golfbrook Terrace, which it received federal funding to operate. Krumbein described this era as “a sprint toward doing environmental studies” to redevelop the land.
An architecture firm recommended the demolition of several Golfbrook structures, including apartments, citing ground contamination, unfitness for habitation, ground subsidence and structural unsoundness as rationales in a memo. The firm advised that certain “units should not be replaced.” The city demolished the complex.
In 2000, thousands of volunteers helped build Fairway Oaks, including former president Jimmy Carter and the homeowners themselves. Habitat homes have fairly standard construction requirements. The homeowners’ fees and mortgages tend to be proportional to their income levels, and many people who buy the homes are women, people of color, and veterans. Habitat homeowners typically pay a deposit and assist in building the homes through a labor practice the organization calls “sweat equity.” Habitat relies on a vast volunteer base and tax benefits to sustain its work. Borden said Fairway Oaks homeowners worked for 200 hours on someone else’s house and 100 on their own. “We was putting roofs on,” he said.
A few years after construction, complaints began trickling in, including a foundation split in one woman’s home. Owners worry their biggest investment will retain no economic value. Some Fairway Oaks homes have foundation cracks, multiplying mold and soil subsidence. Around 2007, Borden learned his neighbor’s home had “sunk so bad that they [the city and HabiJax] had to do something about it.” After waste materials were discovered underneath that home, HabiJax sent a specialist to install an underlying protective pier.
HabiJax officials and the mayor did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In court documents, the city and HabiJax have denied building on or near a landfill.
Borden, who lives in the Fairway Oaks home his mother proudly purchased after she divorced his father, is also about half a mile from the Castellano dump. Before my tour, Borden described his home as having “a lot of nail pops.” Since “the carpet is buckled,” he said he believes cracks may be underneath. Borden said his home is sinking on one side and has constant mildew.
At first, Krumbein said he didn’t believe what he was hearing about Fairway Oaks. But, Borden kept calling him back with more stories. “The notion that public housing [Golfbrook Terrace] would be built on top of trash” was untenable to Krumbein.
HabiJax inspections showed no significant structural problems in the neighborhood, but an engineer who personally inspected 26 Fairway Oaks homes detailed graver results in a 2016 memo. Every surveyed home suffered “from settlement and differential treatment,” according to the report. “The decay of buried organic material, such as trash” likely caused the homes to sink. The report advised, “Fairway Oaks homes should be surveyed for methane with a flame ionization detector,” a process used to monitor landfills.
In court documents, the city and HabiJax suggested Fairway Oaks homes merely fell into disrepair — that new homeowners underestimated property maintenance. Krumbein acknowledged “cleaning has to happen,” at some of his clients’ properties. But while walking through one house, he thought to himself: “I am now walking downhill. Those are things that go beyond maintenance.”
Borden said allegations that he and his neighbors failed to care for their homes are “so discouraging.”
Not every Habitat community in or around Jacksonville experiences challenges comparable to Fairway Oaks’. About 19 miles southeast of Fairway Oaks, in a Beaches Habitat for Humanity neighborhood, homeowner Michelle Hyrne said she enjoys her townhouse. The working mother, who, like most of the neighborhoods’ residents, is white, told me she had tired of moving her family every year and paying high rent. So she chose to volunteer with Habitat and apply for a Habitat house, developed by a different Duval County affiliate. Though it took a couple months longer than expected to move in, and regulations prevent her from getting too artistic with her property, Hyrne called her home “a good deal.”
“I want to encourage people to do this,” Hyrne said, adding that she and her neighbors hadn’t heard about Fairway Oaks homeowners’ struggles or experienced anything similar. “It’s totally different [at the beaches],” she said, where the “fear factor” is hurricanes, not soil contamination and substandard construction.
Habitat International declined to speak about Fairway Oaks or the litigation. “Anything that’s happening locally, they’re managing that,” said Erika Boyce, a media relations official for the organization. She cited Habitat Strong, an initiative that promotes the building of “durable, resilient and physically strong” homes as one way the organization encourages climate-resilient local builds. “Our standard moving forward is to build fortified homes,” the organization’s website states.
Black, low-income and affordable housing communities often contend with construction quality challenges and many are sited in low-lying areas, near toxic industries, landfills, or other environmental hazards. This increases vulnerability to various forms of disaster — from industrial accidents to flooding to public health risks. These communities often possess fewer resources to prevent or recover from these crises, which highlight resiliency challenges.
Flournoy, the law professor, described true resiliency as inclusive of both sound construction practices and ethical principles to guide home development. “A key component of resilience is reducing not just physical vulnerability to storms, wildfires and other disasters but also the social vulnerability of residents,” she said.
“It is no longer tolerable to pursue economic development and housing policy without incorporating a focus on environmental justice,” she told me, “just as we can no longer pursue environmental goals without incorporating consideration of the impacts of environmental policies on socio-economic and racial justice.”
Habijax’s “whole vision is ‘let’s help people who are poor,’” Krumbein said. That Fairway Oaks homes would be “sold to economically-challenged, educationally-challenged individuals without disclosure of what they were being sold,” provides reason for pause, he added.
The Fairway Oaks case has not yet gone to trial. Though Krumbein’s complaint asks the court for financial damages to help fix homeowners’ property-related harms, Krumbein told me some Fairway Oaks neighbors told him, “It would probably be enough to get an apology.”
Borden, however, wants more from the city and HabiJax. “They used my mama,” he said. “Just get us off the land.”
Imani J. Jackson is a legal fellow at the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. Her research fuses jurisprudence, journalism and the environment.
DISCLAIMER: The Fairway Oaks plaintiffs filed suit in the Circuit Court for the Fourth Judicial Circuit in and for Duval County on April 26, 2017. The author’s mother began her term as a Jacksonville city councilwoman on July 1, 2019.