Herald-Leader Editorial

Good steps on affordable housing; it's easier to get dedicated funds with clear plan

April 22, 2014 

During the past few weeks, the push in Lexington to address the related issues of homelessness and affordable housing has moved into high gear.

Mayor Jim Gray has proposed carving out $3.5 million in surplus funds from this year to jump-start programs for the year to come. The city has filled the new job of homelessness coordinator. And, last week Planning Commissioner Derek Paulsen presented a thoughtful plan to develop programs to address these issues.

That's huge progress after years of tireless advocacy by many in this community, but there is still a lot of work to be done. A plan is not a working program, and without one a coordinator will have trouble making progress. And while this funding is an important first step, without ongoing, dedicated financing these early efforts probably will amount to very little.

The mayor and the Urban County Council appear to be genuinely committed to addressing these issues. In fact, the only serious controversy has been over how and when to fund the program.

Councilman Steve Kay twice has unsuccessfully proposed carving out a portion of the tax on insurance premiums for affordable housing and homelessness initiatives.

While we sympathize with Kay's impatience — we've supported an affordable housing trust fund for years — the majority of the council who voted against that measure were acting responsibly.

Kay's proposal would not have bound future councils and so doesn't assure a steady stream of funding. In addition, it essentially reallocates money already in the budget, setting up a potential annual fight over competing priorities. Also, plans for these initiatives are not fully fleshed out.

This week, Paulsen will appoint an advisory committee made up of people with practical knowledge in relevant areas — social services, construction, affordable-housing management, development, real estate, finance and rental property — to pound out the details of a realistic, workable affordable housing program. In July that group is to recommend goals, programs, funding levels and how to raise the money.

Charlie Lanter, hired as homelessness coordinator, begins work in May and so will be able to get a better handle on what the city's approach to and investment in that area should be.

This schedule allows the council to study the recommendations while it's on summer break and come back in the fall to decide how and where to find the money to do this important work.

A study of affordable housing presented to the council a few weeks ago found there are 15,000 non-student households in Lexington that make too little money to pay a fair-market rent for decent housing, and only 9,000 of those receive federal or state assistance.

In 1990, Lexington had 35,017 apartments that were affordable on a minimum-wage income, a number that dropped to 8,945 by 2010.

A count of homeless in Lexington in February 2013 found about 1,400 in shelters to avoid a bitter winter night, and 51 living outside.

Lexington is a beautiful, prosperous community that has too long ignored those who work here but don't earn enough to live decently. It's good the community is finally coming to terms with this.

It will be even better when these programs are up and running and securely funded.

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