The William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association has contacted federal authorities to complain that several Lexington Housing Authority properties in the East End neighborhood were overgrown with weeds, strewn with trash and dumping grounds for unsightly piles of dirt and construction debris.
Several abandoned or vacant buildings owned by the housing authority are in "very unsafe and unkempt condition," said the letter sent by the neighborhood association to the Louisville office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Photographs were included.
HUD was notified after the LHA did not respond to neighborhood association requests, the letter said. "Numerous contacts and appeals have been made to the LHA by the local neighborhood association and residents, as well as local Code Enforcement and other city officials," it said.
The neighborhood association asked for HUD's assistance in cleaning up the properties.
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Copies of the letter were sent to Richard Moloney, the city's chief administrative officer, and David Jarvis, director of code enforcement.
Within a week of the letter being sent in mid-May, mowing starting, said Billie Mallory, association president.
Neighbors said some of the parcels had not been cut since last fall.
Austin Simms, executive director of the LHA, told the Herald-Leader that the neighborhood association's complaint to HUD was "a personal vendetta. There are people who don't like this agency and would do everything to assassinate it."
Simms vehemently denied that the neighborhood association had contacted the LHA to get property cleaned up and better maintained. "They are liars if they tell you they have contacted me," he said. "It is an untruth. They are lying."
Touring the neighborhood
Simms and Barry Holmes, the agency's chief administrative office, took a reporter on a tour of the East End on Thursday.
A white concrete block building at the corner of East Third and Race streets owned by the LHA looked poorly maintained. Painting was peeling. Bottles, fast food wrappers, plastic bags and discarded vinyl siding littered the side yard where two piles of dirt had been dumped. A tree grew out of a wall of the building. The sidewalk beside and in front of the building was seriously eroded, making walking precarious.
The building will be demolished when funds become available, Holmes said.
Asked if he thought the sidewalk posed a danger to pedestrians, Simms walked up and down the sidewalk. "I'm walking on it pretty good," he said. "Do you want me to spend your tax dollars to fix sidewalks if we're going to redevelop this parcel?"
Holmes said: "Look at the sidewalks we had to walk over to get here. We're just asking for fair play."
At 315 Race Street, a vacant clapboard house owned by the LHA, trash was scattered in the front yard. An overgrown rose bush hung over the sidewalk. The roof was damaged.
In the next block, a shallow culvert in front of a vacant building at 425 Race Street, also LHA-owned, was choked with trash and weeds that had been mowed but not raked. A 5-foot wire gate hung lopsided on its hinges. Waist-high weeds filled the backyard.
The backyard is easily accessible down a graveled path beside the building.
Mallory said it could be a place for vagrants to congregate or people to do drug deals.
But Simms said of the backyard: "This enclosed area has weeds. Nobody sees them. This is not a public park. Nobody should be back here."
He said, "We make no excuses. Tell me why we should be held to a different standard" than other parts of the neighborhood.
Of conditions in front of the building, he said, "You're saying there's trash here. There's trash in front of the Family Dollar store, on the school property. . .If you're going to write about weeds, we are not the only people who have weeds. But we are the only ones who have spent millions to transform a neighborhood."
Piles of dirt, gravel and construction debris on vacant lots owned by LHA are "unsightly," Mallory said. "How are you going to attract economic redevelopment when everything looks run down?"
Simms said the dirt piles were on lots that will be redeveloped. "They are construction sites whether she likes it or not."
A neighborhood's rebirth
The East End is a historically black neighborhood on the eastern edge of Lexington's downtown. Over the years, it became riddled with drugs, crime, prostitution, dilapidated housing, broken sidewalks and abandoned commercial buildings.
With redevelopment of the 80-acre Bluegrass-Aspendale public housing project that started in 2006 into a new subdivision of single-family homes and apartments, plus opening of a new elementary school, a renovated Lyric Theatre and the planned Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden, the East End is enjoying a rebirth.
Redevelopment of Bluegrass-Aspendale was sparked by a $20 million Hope VI federal grant administered by the LHA.
"Do we acknowledge trash and weeds? Yes," Simms said. "Are they out of the ordinary? I don't think so."
He dismissed the notion that the housing authority should be setting a standard for well-maintained property in the neighborhood. "I get furious when people imply 'You have let this neighborhood go,'" Simms said.
Pointing to the redeveloped Bluegrass-Aspendale property, Simms said, "Here is $8 million in homes, $80 million in apartments, a $15 million school, a $3 million city contribution to the community center and a $3 million road. And you're complaining about trash?"
However, it's this very turn around that has raised expectations of East End residents.
Tanya Torp, neighborhood association secretary, speaking specifically of an LHA-owned building — a former liquor store — at the corner of East Third and Race, described it as "a building in disarray."
"My neighborhood is better than this. The East End has so much to offer — the Isaac Murphy Memorial Garden, the Lyric Theatre — it's a rich cultural area," Torp said.
In order for the East End to keep pace with revitalization under way on the nearby North Limestone corridor, "Our neighborhood needs to be maintained well," she said.
Torp would like the city "to call to the carpet everybody who owns property in our neighborhood, whether it is vacant or occupied by renters, to maintain their property better."
The city's Code Enforcement office cannot cite owners of federal- or state-owned property for code violations like overgrown weeds or poorly maintained buildings, according to division director David Jarvis.
The LHA comes under the umbrella of HUD, a federal agency. "We have no jurisdiction," Jarvis said.
"Normally, if we get a complaint and find out it's a housing authority problem, we forward refer it to them. They usually take care of it," he said.
Sherry Maddock, neighborhood association vice president, said of the condition of many LHA properties, "This is worse than benign neglect. And it's by a housing organization that is meant to lift this neighborhood. That's what makes me so mad."
Maddock added, "This is a long-standing issue. This is not something new."
Councilman Chris Ford represents the East End and became aware of neighborhood concerns over LHA property when he attended the Williams Wells Brown Neighborhood Association's April meeting. Ford said he called Simms and Holmes. He toured the neighborhood. "It was very obvious there were weeds that needed to come out," he said.
Ford said that overgrown lots have been mowed. "My hope is that maintenance will be routine and consistent going forward," he said.
"Everyone else who owns property is expected to take care of it," neighborhood association president Mallory said. "I don't think there is any other place in town where people would accept these conditions, and I don't know why we should."