Herald-Leader Editorials

Lexington makes progress on affordable housing but ongoing funding still needed

April 2, 2014 

Lexington has spent years doing a lot of navel-gazing, discussing, studying and arguing about the glaring problems of homelessness and lack of affordable housing in our community.

At last, the city has committed real money to begin the process of addressing these issues.

Mayor Jim Gray proposed, and the council agreed, to use some of the surplus in the current budget to fund these efforts in the upcoming year: $3 million on affordable housing and $500,000 on homelessness.

The mayor and council deserve praise for essentially pre-funding these programs for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Obligating the surplus means organizational work can start in earnest now rather than late summer.

That said, it was a politically neat step that meant we could start our programs without addressing the more politically difficult challenge of finding an ongoing funding source before November's election.

But no one, not taxpayers, not current council members or those running for spots, should delude themselves that can be put off much longer.

czb, the firm that conducted a study of affordable housing needs, reported in February there are about 15,000 households, that need assistance to rent a decent place to live in Lexington. Of those, only about 9,000 receive any kind of help, leaving 6,000 households in our community, most with at least one person working, that can't find decent housing at an affordable rate. Affordable is defined as equal to 30 percent or less of gross income.

The firm calculates that rent subsidies or the cost of building new housing amount to about $6,000 a year per household. And that, if you do the math, equals $36 million a year.

The sticker shock can be softened by leveraging investment from private developers and non-profits, awards from federal and state sources, and developing policies that provide incentives for building or maintaining affordable housing. But make no mistake, it's a large, long-term commitment, one that can't be fulfilled by hoping for a surplus each year.

This is serious business, something made clear again by czb's march of statistics:

■ Eleven percent of families here live below the federal poverty line; 83 percent of those include children under 18.

■ Among families headed by a single mother in Lexington-Fayette County, the poverty rate is 42 percent.

■ Minorities and, not surprisingly, adults without high school degrees also account for a disproportionate share of those struggling to pay the rent here.

Homelessness is a separate but related issue, also addressed in this one-time appropriation. Gray's administration is very close to hiring Lexington's first coordinator for homeless issues.

There are still many unanswered questions about how each of these efforts will move forward, although the administration plans to present a more detailed proposal to the council April 8.

Here are some suggestions:

■ Establish clear goals and measurements at the outset. czb suggests a goal of catching up with the affordable housing shortage in 11 years. That's aggressive but we need to be aggressive. There should also be a goal for reducing the count of homeless on our streets, and methodology for calculating the net savings to the community -- from fewer jailings, emergency room visits, etc.

■ Think broadly. Job development, transportation, zoning, code enforcement, neighborhood planning and development, public safety will all play a role in addressing these issues.

■ Engage the community as broadly as possible. The opportunities for working with non-profits, developers, schools and others are enormous. The citizen board that will oversee these efforts should reflect a very broad cross-section of our community.

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