Local groups meet to discuss affordable housing issues in Lexington

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Sofia Algiz moved to Lexington eight years ago from Long Island, N.Y., because she wanted to be live in a city with a lively downtown and low cost of living. She also wanted to be close to horse racing, one of her passions.

The longtime U.S. Postal Service employee found an ideal apartment in the heart of downtown for $600 a month in 2006. But the rent steadily climbed to $1,100 in 2011.

"No matter where I looked, rents were rising and so even though I found a new place, it was no longer downtown and still costs me over 40 percent of my monthly income," Algiz said.

Her rent is now $900 a month in an apartment close to New Circle Road.

She's getting priced out of the city she moved halfway across the country to live in.

Algiz is one of an estimated 30,000 people in Fayette County who spend more than 30 percent of their paycheck on rent and utilities, recent statistics show.

Algiz spoke last week at a stakeholders meeting organized by Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action or BUILD. BUILD is a coalition of area churches that have pushed city officials for six years to establish an affordable housing trust fund to create more affordable housing.

The meeting on Thursday night at Central Christian Church was aimed at drumming up support for affordable housing before a city-commissioned housing study is released in February.

Kentucky Utilities, the Fayette County Public Schools and other groups spoke Thursday of the need for more affordable housing in Lexington and how people are struggling to find a decent place to live.

Over the past six years, three separate city task forces or commissions have recommended establishing an affordable housing trust fund — a pool of money from a decided increase in the insurance premium tax that would be distributed to for-profit or nonprofit builders to supplement the costs of building or renovating properties for low-income housing. The increase would be roughly $15 per household.

In 2012, the Mayor's Commission on Homelessness was the third task force to recommend the establishment of a fund. But Mayor Jim Gray asked that the city commission another study to look at affordable housing and explore solutions. That study, which cost roughly $50,000, should be released in February.

While the city continues to commission studies, the number of people who are struggling to pay rent and find an affordable home in Lexington continues to climb, housing advocates say.

In 2005, 25,966 households paid more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In 2010, that number climbed to 33,800, according to data in a 2012 Mayor's Commission on Homeless report. The number of people paying more than 50 percent of their total income on rent and utilities has also grown from 8,733 in 2005 to 12,090 in 2010.

Tom Shelton, the superintendent of Fayette County schools, told the group on Thursday that data from the school system shows that more families are living in poverty, particularly minority families.

Lexington appears to be an affluent city. But 51 percent of the district's 41,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, he said. That means their families are below or just above the poverty line, Shelton said on Thursday.

The number of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch increases every year by 1 percent, he said. The district is 57 percent white and 43 percent minority — black, Hispanic and Asian-American. In the minority population, 78 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

"With poverty being the single-biggest barrier to education, if we don't deal with the poverty issue we are not only going to create a system of 'have and have nots,' we're setting ourselves up to be the community that we do not want to be."

Art Crosby, executive director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council, said many people in Lexington are being forced to live in substandard housing because they can't afford a safe, clean place to live.

If people report holes in floorboards, poor heat and exposed wiring to the city's code enforcement office, the units can be condemned because they aren't safe.

"But there's no place for them to go," Crosby said.

Crosby said they have to make that decision "on whether they should continue to live in a place that the city would deem uninhabitable but at least they have a place to stay."

"Nobody should have to make that choice," he said.

Many speakers urged the more than 125 people who attended Thursday's meeting to call their council member to urge support of an affordable housing trust fund. There has never been enough votes on the council to pass the measure.

Rachel Childress, CEO of Lexington Habitat for Humanity, was more blunt.

"We've had enough words, it's time for us to take action," Childress said. "If we want a council to institute an affordable housing trust fund then perhaps one of our actions should be at the polls."

Beth Musgrave: (859)231-3205. Twitter:@HLCityhall

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