25 years, $15 million, a lot has been done, much remains to do

September 1, 2013 

P.G. Peoples, president of the Urban League, at senior apartments on Elm Tree Lane that his organization helped develop.

LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER Buy Photo

The Urban League is the forerunner of development initiatives in East End Lexington.

In 1981, along with private developer Ed Holmes, the league undertook the challenge of abating the decline of quality affordable housing in this neglected area of Lexington. No new development had occurred for decades.

The league formed a housing development entity — the Fayette County Local Development Corporation — to promote economic development in older neighborhoods by increasing housing choices for low-wealth citizens.

In 1984, the nonprofit corporation purchased four shotgun houses on Chestnut Street, gutted them, updated the floor plans and sold them to first-time homebuyers using low-interest Kentucky Housing Corporation financing.

Urban League's Ex-Offender Construction Skills Training Program participants built the units, making assimilating back into society less burdensome. Seeing the positive and tangible things they've done adds value to their lives. To this day, we have former program participants thank us for impacting their lives in such a positive way.

This partnering of job-skills training and economic development continued for more than two decades. Lives were infused with hope, a sense of caring that emanated from newly acquired skills that enabled them to contribute to society and provide for their families. Mllions of dollars were invested in real estate in the East End community.

Through the years, we have collaborated with the Community Action Council — YouthBuild & Young Builders Challenge, Reach, Inc., with homebuyer counseling and down-payment assistance, the city government, the Lexington Housing Authority and Lexington Habitat to build 16 new homes on Elm Tree Lane.

The role of government is critical, albeit sometimes obtrusive, to development in the East End. With the ageing of a generation whose possessions and lifestyles fit the design of the older homes, the changing demographics call for up-to-date housing choices.

Often the broad brush of historic overlays hinders the demolition of blighted properties to make way for new development. Nonetheless, the government has played a vital role in our development in East End Lexington.

In 1992 the Department of Housing and Urban Development funded the HOME program to increase affordable housing. The development corporation was designated the Community Housing Development Organization for this program. This designation, with the commitment of funds to subsidize development, positioned the corporation to aggressively build homes and rental properties in the area.

The Elm Tree Lane Apartments and the ETL Apartments, which anchor the East Second-Gunn Street block on Elm Tree Lane, were a major infusion to the East End. These multi-family, senior housing developments transformed a blighted block of ramshackle structures into 24 units of senior housing.

In the fall of 2012, the corporation opened the G.P. Russell Heritage Apartments. The Urban League, the development corporation and Community Action Council collaborated to save the historic Russell Elementary School. The council operates a state-of-the-art Head Start program in the renovated 1960s addition to this iconic building.

This $7 million investment saved a valued community landmark, and added 27 units of senior housing to the East End rental market.

The development corporation also has built 32 single-family rental houses in the East End. These two-, three- and four-bedroom houses and townhouses have an aggregate market value of more the $5 million, and expand the housing choices for those who want to live in an area where they have generational connections.

In the quarter century that the Urban League and its development corporation have engaged in economic development in the East End, more than $15 million of housing has been developed.

However, much remains to be done to continue improving the quality of life:

■ Investment in housing must continue. This must be a coordinated effort by nonprofit and for-profit developers.

■ City government must aggressively pursue enforcement of property codes violations and alleviate blight.

■ Lexington police must be more visible on the streets and in the neighborhoods of East End to restore the character of family-friendly neighborhoods.

■ Residents must demonstrate the kind of property maintenance shown by the earlier inhabitants of the area who made the East End great.

■ Government must restore job training to provide positive options for parents and children.

These measures will change the dynamics of the community and ensure the East End is moving and improving in step with Main Street.

P.G. Peoples is president of the Lexington Urban League

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