Herald-Leader Editorial

Lexington should look to West Liberty, Louisville for housing ideas

July 6, 2014 

Lexington is, at long last, taking action to deal with a growing affordable-housing crisis.

On Tuesday Planning Commissioner Derek Paulsen outlined the recommendations of a stakeholder group that met for two months to sort out how an office of affordable housing can get the most bang for the community's public bucks.

The proposal is thoughtful and efficient, as it must be to leverage $3 million this year and a proposed $2 million annually in the future to erase an affordability gap estimated at 6,000 units and growing.

Rather than create a bureaucracy within government to build and manage housing, the plan looks for the city to partner with developers or nonprofits already experienced in the field. It anticipates a market-based competition among them to get the best possible projects. To assure properties don't fall into disrepair, there will be an annual inspection of each property that receives funds. It provides for an executive director to manage all this and coordinate with a host of other public and private players in this field and a board with the flexibility to adjust as conditions or priorities change.

This is, as councilwoman Jennifer Mossotti said, "a huge undertaking."

The board, likely to be appointed this fall, should use its authority and flexibility to make this an even more ambitious undertaking.

Recent stories about how two very different Kentucky communities are addressing housing challenges should inspire Lexington to reach even higher.

West Liberty, ravaged by a tornado in 2012, is partnering with the Clinton Global Initiative and other groups to re-build hyper-energy efficient buildings. In Louisville, urban blight has cut into housing units and property values. Louisville last year created the office of Vacant and Abandoned Property Statistics, known as VAPStat, to better target efforts, whether through rehab assistance, code enforcement or even condemnation.

Lexington is moving on both fronts but the affordable housing initiative can help it move further, faster.

As a city spending hundreds of millions to deal with water runoff problems, and with the largest per capita carbon footprint in America, according to a 2008 Brookings Institution ranking, any public initiative involving construction must place a premium on conserving energy and water. In terms of affordability, utilities — no matter who pays them — are part of the cost of housing.

Energy efficiency will be a criteria in ranking project proposals. But as the new board and director get into the details that will drive affordable housing efforts in Lexington, they must search for ways to leverage our investment.

The city must use the most innovative approaches to energy and water conservation, looking beyond insulation, storm windows and efficient appliances to geothermal and solar systems, permeable paving and capturing rainwater.

Lexington has recently begun to systematically locate vacant properties; the next step is to put them back into use. The affordable housing program can take the lead to coordinate enforcement and incentives to rehab vacant, substandard and unsafe housing to provide homes for people who need them and stability for neighborhoods.

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