Lexington has a couple of big housing problems: there is too little affordable housing, and there are too many vacant houses in neighborhoods all over the city, especially since the wave of foreclosures that followed the 2008 financial crisis.
A partnership between city government and Habitat for Humanity has offered small help for both problems, but it has left officials optimistic that it could lead to bigger solutions.
On Wednesday, Mayor Jim Gray will help dedicate a renovated house at 224 Savoy Road in a well-kept, middle-class subdivision off Versailles Road. After a foreclosure in 2010, that house and another down the street sat empty for more than two years. That worried neighbors, including Urban County Council member Peggy Henson, who lives around the corner.
"These were sturdy, good, well-built homes," Henson said. "But they weren't going to stay that way the longer they sat empty."
Those two houses were among 10 foreclosed, vacant properties the city was able to acquire with federal stimulus money through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.
The city turned the 10 properties over to Habitat for Humanity for $1 each. Five properties had homes that could be renovated; the others will become building sites for new Habitat homes. Four of the renovations have been completed; the fifth will be finished next year, as will the new construction.
Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based non-profit organization made famous by former President Jimmy Carter's volunteer efforts on its behalf, builds affordable homes for low-income people willing to put in hundreds of hours of "sweat equity" to become homeowners.
In Lexington, Habitat has typically built new homes, usually in neighborhoods north of Main Street in the East End, West End and Winburn, where inexpensive lots were available. This venture was Habitat's first at renovating existing homes in other neighborhoods, and Rachel Smith Childress, the organization's Lexington executive director, said it turned out to be a winner for everyone.
"Our families like them because they're in other nice neighborhoods and have amenities that aren't typically part of our homes," she said. "Plus, it removes vacant houses from neighborhoods, increases property values for everyone and increases property tax revenues for the city."
For example, the house at 224 Savoy Road, which was built about 1960, is brick with hardwood floors and vintage knotty pine paneling. The kitchen includes a dishwasher. None of that is in a new Habitat house.
But the house needed work, including bathroom and kitchen remodeling, which was done by Habitat staff, volunteers and future Habitat homeowners. Whirlpool donated other needed kitchen appliances.
Money for the renovation was donated by business sponsors Paul Miller Ford, Ford Motor Co., PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation. Support for the other renovations has come from Ashland Inc., Calvary Baptist Church and Back Construction.
More than 500 hours of work was performed by the new owners of 224 Savoy Road: Emmanuel Katchofa and his wife, Marceline Ilunga. He was a physician in the Congo before they and their five children fled the war-torn country and were resettled in Lexington by the U.S. State Department and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Katchofa and Ilunga both now have jobs, although he is unable to practice medicine because his license is not valid in this country.
Legal refugees from the Congo and other troubled African nations now make up about half of the 15 or 20 Lexington families that Habitat is able to help become homeowners each year. That is because refugees come here without bad credit histories and with strong motivation to succeed, Childress said.
Henson said she and her neighbors are happy to have the vacant house on Savoy Road restored and occupied.
"It was a real blessing to the neighborhood," she said. "Those properties are looking great now, and it will be really good to have folks living there."
Although federal stimulus money is no longer available, Henson and Childress said they hope Habitat's partnership with the city on rehabilitating vacant houses or building on abandoned lots can find new ways to continue.
"We're talking with the city about property and buildings and partnerships," Childress said. "But the need for affordable housing goes beyond home ownership.
"Everyone is not going to be a homeowner. We really have a huge gap in decent rental housing that is affordable in Lexington. It's a huge need."