Merlene Davis: Mayor deserves thanks for $3.5 million for affordable housing trust fund

Herald-Leader ColumnistMarch 19, 2014 

Giving credit where it is due, I want to join the chorus of folks who are giving kudos to Mayor Jim Gray for taking a big step toward bringing affordable housing in Lexington closer to reality.

Tuesday, Gray proposed divvying up an expected $13 million surplus so that $3.5 million could be used as a one-time deposit on the city's $36 million need for affordable housing and for the needs of the homeless.

"We are taking one step at a time," Gray said. "This is a big step."

A recent report from czb consultants, said Lexington should invest $3 to $4 million initially to chip away at a housing problem that has increasingly become a crisis. It was the latest set of harsh facts from a couple of reports stating the same thing, along with pleas from Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct-Action, otherwise known as BUILD, an interfaith and interracial proactive organization comprising members of nearly 20 churches.

The reports and BUILD advocates stated the need to establish an Affordable Housing Trust Fund with a dedicated revenue stream to steadily wash away barriers to safe housing.

The $3.5 million isn't exactly a stream in this case, but it is definitely a rain shower that could lead to something more substantial.

"Our position is that we believe this is a good down payment on the problem," said the Rev. Adam Jones of Open Door Church and BUILD co-chair. "This is a one-time investment, which is fine and good."

But the problem is much bigger than that. If a person needs $150,000 to purchase a house and is given $5,000, Jones said, that person would be very grateful. But he or she would still need $145,000 more.

"I'm making sure that our citizens understand that this is a good step, but not enough to resolve a $36 million problem," Jones said.

Gray knew there would be a surplus of funds, but he didn't know how much until he got last month's numbers from Bill O'Mara, commissioner of finance.

Before that, Gray said he has been talking with the former three-term Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, and with Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor Richard J. Berry, both of whom have tackled affordable housing in their cities.

"We needed a good plan, a road map," Gray said. "We are using them as benchmarkers."

To develop a plan for Lexington from the successes of those two areas, Gray has asked Derrick Paulsen, planning commissioner, to bring the interested parties to the table to brainstorm Lexington's next move.

Gray plans to be involved as well.

"I enjoy being at the planning and problem-solving table," he said. "If you don't like that, you wouldn't want this job. It is a good challenge to have."

On April 8, Gray will announce his budget for the Urban County Government at the 3 p.m. council work session. Then, at 7 p.m., he will attend the 11th Annual Nehemiah Action Assembly of BUILD at Porter Memorial Baptist Church and answer questions. One of those questions in the past has been whether Gray would support a trust fund with a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing.

"I'm going to be there," Gray said. "It will be a red-letter day.

"I do appreciate the BUILD community," he said. "It has been vigorous and persistent and it demonstrates the value of the commitment from the heart and the head, and democracy at work."

So, does he expect to take a bow this time, instead of side-stepping the question or just saying no?

"I don't expect that," he said, laughing a little. "They want a dedicated fund."

Perhaps rightly so.

In Minneapolis, the trust fund was supposed to receive a $10 million infusion every year, but since 2005, it has met that number only once, according to my research. Still, some 6,100 affordable homes have been renovated or built since 2003.

In Albuquerque, voters passed affordable housing bonds, but the available money has dropped dramatically because of the recent recession, according to the city's Department of Family and Community Services.

We will just have to wait and see. At least for now, the mayor is onboard.

"This is the right thing to do and the right time," Gray said.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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