"We don't have a housing problem," said Debra Hensley, co-chair of the Mayor's Commission on Homelessness. "We have a housing crisis."
We have a crisis. That's what Hensley said when she and co-chair Steve Kay were discussing the report from their commission, one of at least three organizations that have been discussing the growing need for safe, less-expensive housing in Lexington recently.
The Lexington Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission released a report earlier this month probing housing conditions here, complete with an examination of our makeup and living conditions.
The "State of Fair and Affordable Housing Report," said Ray Sexton, executive director of the HRC, highlights the issues, and "is a starting point to engage the community in several conversations and actions."
While it doesn't offer solutions, the report, Sexton said, is a buffet of sorts from which other agencies can gather information and data they can use to combat the problem of a lack of safe affordable housing from all angles.
One of those groups could be BUILD, a faith-based group that for six years has been challenging city leaders to address the issue of a shortage of safe housing for lower income families.
In 2007, at the urging of BUILD, Mayor Jim Newberry created a commission that was to give recommendations for a solution to the problem. In 2008, the commission recommended the local government set up an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, with a dedicated revenue stream from a small tax increase on non-medical insurance premiums.
The fund would have monies that could offset the high cost of real estate in Fayette County so that builders can still make some kind of profit. It could also be used for renovations so that substandard dwellings could be made suitable for human beings.
This year will be the fifth time BUILD has placed affordable housing and the creation of the trust fund on its priority list. In the four previous years, the answer from city officials has been that it was not a good time.
"It's not a good time for people in the city paying rent, either," said the Rev. Adam Jones, chair of BUILD's affordable housing committee. "It seems to be the thinking that we should wait for the perfect conditions."
But with Lexington recently reporting a budget surplus, Jones thinks conditions are pretty good right now. Especially after the report from the Mayor's Commission on Homelessness also recommended establishing the trust fund as a means of staving off homelessness for some minimum wage workers.
"We recommend that (LFUCG) increase from 5 to 6 percent the fee levied by LFUCG on insurance premiums to create a source of funding of roughly $3.9 million per year," the report reads.
That would be an increase on average of $30 per household, Kay said. The fewer houses or cars you have, the less you would pay.
The Affordable Housing Task Force and BUILD were recommending a 1/2 percentage increase, but the homelessness commission wants to kill two birds with one stone: support affordable housing as well as homelessness and its root causes by seeking a 1 percent increase.
Half of the money generated would go to create safe housing for the working poor. The other half would go to house and support the chronically homeless and those needing to transition from emergency shelter to a more permanent home.
"There really are 625 cities in 45 states that have affordable housing trusts and homeless funds," Hensley said, "from Columbus, Ohio, to Denver, to Kalamazoo, Mich., to Charlotte, N.C.
"We are not the first in line for this," she continued. "We are not creating something new. We are not experimenting with unknown tactics or tools. We are following best practices."
Members of the commission as well as members from BUILD will attend a 1 p.m. meeting Tuesday of the government's budget and finance committee. They hope to explain the need to collect more fees. Who knows if they will be convincing.
"This is not hyperbole," Hensley said, adding there are thousands of people waiting for public housing and for Section 8 vouchers. So many, she said, those agencies have stopped taking names. "We should have been dealing with this a long time ago."
I agree. No argument here.
But many people in this state, county and city are not interested in hearing about more money leaving their wallets. Plus, just asking for that small amount could mean politicians won't be re-elected.
The concepts of sucking it up for the better good or doing what's right for the least of us are in short supply. Fine. Don't raise the fees on insurance premiums 1 percent. Find another way to attack this problem. Maybe businesses will pitch in to create a fund that will help get the homeless off the streets. Maybe businesses will be willing to ensure the people they employ actually have a safe place to live.
The Hope Center or the Salvation Army can't accommodate everyone whose paycheck and the rent don't meet. And not many folks seem to be getting off that waiting list.
If not a fee increase, then what, folks? Should we put families up in the spare bedrooms in our houses?
The housing crisis is not going away just because raising taxes is an issue no one wants to touch. We need to figure out a way to get more people into safer homes as soon as possible.
We can't wait until the time is right. Some of our neighbors don't have that long to wait.
Mayor's Commission on Homelessness
A copy of the commission's final draft report can be found on the Fayette Urban County Government's website: Lexingtonky.gov.