Merlene Davis: Apparently affordable housing isn't a priority for Lexington council, mayor

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 26, 2014 

In January, Facebook friends helped a familiar homeless woman find shelter for the winter.

They feared Dorothy — who pushed carts filled with plastic bags around Chevy Chase and Woodland Park — might come to great harm in the frigid temperatures.

Led by Debra Hensley, an insurance agent, former council member and co-chair of the Mayor's Commission on Homelessness, the group — with help from the local police — found a motel room for Dorothy and she agreed to stay there.

Hensley said she would not have been comfortable going home to her warm house while a woman she didn't really know, but whom she cared about, could be left in the cold to die.

That's called talking the talk and walking the walk. Helping Dorothy was important to Hensley.

I bring that up because, yet again, another report has been presented to our local government officials that says Lexington is a prosperous city that is not caring for the least of its residents.

The latest report, from czb consultants, said we need to invest $3 to $4 million initially to address the city's $36 million affordable housing problem.

It's basically the same recommendations offered a year ago by the homelessness task force. Back then, Hensley said the city had a housing crisis.

And that followed several years of pleas from BUILD, a faith-based group that for years has been challenging city leaders to address the issue of a shortage of safe housing for lower income families by establishing an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Still, at the council work session Tuesday, a majority of Lexington's leaders were unwilling to walk the walk. The council voted to delay the establishment of the housing fund that so many advocates have said we need.

Mayor Jim Gray, whose vote broke the tie and postponed a decision until April 15, said everything is going according to plan. "I intend to do what I said I would do," he said, and that means including affordable housing in the budget he will propose on April 8. "I have a lot of questions, though, still."

Why are there still questions after all this time? Had our mayor hoped this report would come back sugar-coating the housing crisis we have? None of the others did.

Had he hoped that somehow the problem would just go away? Well, it didn't. The consultants said it is getting worse.

Chris Ford, first district councilman, said he was disappointed with the lack of action by the mayor and his fellow council members.

"I was very surprised," he said. "I don't know why they are opposed to it. The issue is just not important."

Well, it is to Hensley, who posted this question on her Facebook page: "Would you buy a 'membership' to help create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund since it seems our elected officials keep kicking the can down the road?"

She was referring to reports that city leaders were trying to find new ways to fund the $310 million renovations to Rupp Arena, including selling memberships to the Big Blue Nation fan base.

We can devote time to coming up with innovative ways to pay for a revamped Rupp, but we have questions about paying for affordable housing.

"I believe in examining these issues carefully," Gray said. "Three years ago I was urging caution about (Rupp Arena) expectations. Even today we are only at step five.

"I believe the same thing about this (affordable housing)," he said. "I didn't suppress any of this report."

True. In fact, as the report was about to be unveiled to the public, Gray said, "After looking at the report, it is a demonstration that we are not afraid of the unvarnished facts."

I don't think our government has ever been afraid of the facts, no matter how many times the same data have been presented. What our government is afraid of is action.

So, like so many others, I will wait to see how much money the mayor has in his budget for folks like Dorothy and the low-wage worker who is struggling to avoid becoming a Dorothy.

"We really should be thinking about what the people want," Ford said. Tuesday "was a rough day, but we are going to keep fighting."

I am, too.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog:

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