Mayor Jim Gray has stood before the watchful eyes of nearly hundreds of his constituents at BUILD’s Nehemiah Action Assembly several times in years past.
I’ve been present at several of those events.
Of the times I’ve been there, I’ve never seen Gray smile as much as he did on stage Tuesday evening, or be as comfortable as he seemed to have been in front of people he often has said “no” to in the past.
BUILD had invited him to its assembly to answer questions about his commitment to a funding stream for affordable housing in Lexington.
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In the past, he has said the city just didn’t have the money.
Tuesday, however, he smiled and answered “yes” to three questions and “maybe” to the fourth one :
1. By July 1, 2014, will you bring a proposal to the council to create an affordable housing trust fund to build and renovate affordable housing?
2. In that proposal, will you dedicate a minimum of $2 million of annual revenue for the creation of the affordable housing trust fund?
3. Will you support and advocate for the passage of that proposal?
4. Will you come to the Community Problems Assembly on Oct. 27, 2014 at 7 p.m. to report on your progress?
Gray said he couldn’t promise to be at the October meeting because of possible scheduling conflicts. The nearly 2,000 constituents applauded loudly when Gray answered yes to the creation of a fund for affordable housing.
“That is what we have asked for every year,” said the Rev. Adam Jones, chairman of the affordable housing committee and pastor at Open Door Church.
What Gray committed to is more concrete and lasting than before, Jones said.
In March, when a budget surplus was revealed, Gray set aside $3 million for affordable housing and $500,000 for homelessness with council’s approval.
In his budget address, Gray said he would soon be announcing a director of the new Office for Homelessness, but he didn’t say he would champion a dedicated fund for affordable housing.
The one-time set-aside amount will get the ball rolling on a cleared pathway for 15,000 low-income households to get assistance in renting a decent place to live. That’s the number of households consultants have said are in need.
Gray and council members have asked to see a plan for an affordable housing program, and Derek Paulsen, planning commissioner, is working on it. The money won’t be spent until that occurs.
And that’s fine. It is a start, which is what the mayor promised in answering “yes” to the first question. It is his “yes” answer to the second question that worries me.
When I spoke to the mayor three weeks ago, he said he wasn’t sure BUILD would give him accolades for the $3 million start.
“I don’t expect that,” he told me. “They want a dedicated fund.”
The dedicated source of funding was something he hadn’t wrapped his arms around at that time. So, what was he committing to Tuesday if not a dedicated fund?
Although I tried to ask him that question, Gray has been unavailable. Shaye Rabold, his senior adviser, gave me clarification: She said the mayor’s past hesitancy, and that of several council members, has been where the money would come from annually for the fund.
Meanwhile, the problem of affordable housing was not going away and was not being addressed, she said. “People got distracted on the tax issue and it derailed the larger issue.”
Now, with the $3 million in place, and with the planning commissioner working on details of distribution, Gray and others can take more time to come to an agreement on a dedicated source for affordable housing in the future, she said.
“It doesn’t make the issue of a dedicated source go away,” Rabold said, “but it allows everyone to catch their breath.”
She added, the “urgency has slowed down a little bit” because the $3 million can be used to move things forward during fiscal year 2015.
So, Rabold said, what Gray agreed to in answering “yes” to question 2, was finding a dedicated source. He is committed to the concept and doesn’t think Lexington’s struggling households need to be pawns in a funding battle every year, she said.
“What he pledged was to work with council,” she said. “By going ahead and pre-funding the fund without raising taxes, it sets that whole issue aside. We have a little bit more time to come up with a dedicated source or to ensure an annual source.”
That sounds good, but I’m still a bit leery. Politicians scare me. Fortunately, others believe progress will be made with or without the mayor’s support.
At-large councilman Steve Kay, who has been pushing to use part of the insurance premium tax collected by the city for the dedicated fund, said the council will have to resolve the issue. “We are going to do this,” he said.
Kay told the BUILD assembly the funding stream could be determined by the end of the year.
Debra Hensley, who co-chaired the housing and homeless commissions in 1990 and 2012, said, “The power is in the hands of the council. The mayor appears to have most of the power at this point, but the council will have to make the decision.”
Hensley, who also attended the BUILD assembly, said she and others left with the impression that Gray was on board with their hopes of Lexington establishing an annual allotment of money to create more affordable housing.
So, maybe it was just me. I know how important safe housing can be for financially struggling families. I’ve been in that spot.
Affordable housing should be free of politics. We should be watching to ensure it is.