BUILD can't get support for affordable housing plan

The gymnasium was packed. The crowd was excited. It's March, but this wasn't a basketball game.

Nearly 1,400 people filled Imani Baptist Church's gymnasium Monday night to work toward more affordable housing, more access to health care for uninsured people and more effective strategies for dealing with youth crime, drug abuse and school behavioral problems.

It was the annual "action assembly" of BUILD — Building a United Interfaith Lexington by Direct Action — an interdenominational coalition of 17 Christian churches that for seven years has done impressive work to help solve some of Lexington's biggest social problems.

In previous years, BUILD has spurred the city to create a drug treatment program for women in jail and to improve code enforcement in trailer parks. The organization has prompted school officials to reduce middle school suspension rates by using more effective strategies with troubled students. And it has worked with the county health department and other providers to find ways to treat more uninsured patients.

At Monday night's assembly, BUILD announced that it has brokered an agreement to begin a pilot project in Lexington's family courts. The project will use a proven mediation process called "family group conferencing" to try to rehabilitate young people ages 11 to 17 who are using alcohol or drugs.

The biggest issue at Monday night's assembly — as it was last year — was BUILD's effort to create a city-supported affordable-housing trust fund.

BUILD cites studies showing that homelessness in Lexington has risen 38 percent since last year and that more than 35 percent of renting households pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent.

At BUILD's urging, Mayor Jim Newberry appointed a 47-member commission in May 2008 to study the issue. The commission recommended a trust fund, an effective strategy used by 600 local governments nationwide.

The commission said that, with an annual revenue stream of $3 million to $5 million, a trust fund could leverage federal money and conventional loans to build 336 affordable homes each year or renovate 1,400 existing ones. It said the effort would create 448 jobs the first year and 176 every year afterward.

The commission recommended that initial funding come from a 1 percentage point increase in the local 6 percent tax on insurance premiums. That would add a little more than $7 to the average annual cost of a home insurance or auto insurance policy. Over time, the commission said, the investment would more than pay for itself in other local tax revenue and increased economic activity.

Newberry rejected the idea, and instead proposed contributing $250,000, to be matched by private donations. BUILD called that inadequate. Vice Mayor Jim Gray formed a task force to study revenue sources for a trust fund, but it hasn't reported its findings.

BUILD activists are impatient, the city budget is tight, and this election year is a tough time for politicians to even consider a tax increase — any tax increase.

BUILD invited Newberry and all 15 Urban County Council members to attend Monday night's session. There, they would be formally asked if they would pledge to identify a dedicated city funding source of $3 million to $5 million a year and commit to the first reading of an ordinance approving it.

Newberry, Gray and Councilman Chuck Ellinger were the only ones who appeared.

The Rev. Richard Gaines of Consolidated Baptist Church asked each of the three for support. Newberry replied, as he did last year, "Not at this time." Gray and Ellinger tried to explain that they were waiting for the task force's report and the city budget process, but what BUILD wanted was "yes" or "no," not an explanation.

"I think it's too complicated for a yes or no answer," Ellinger said afterward.

There's a lot to admire about BUILD's process, and its goals and accomplishments. The organization identifies big, tough problems through listening sessions with member congregations. It then appoints committees to investigate them thoroughly. It finds proven strategies and proposes realistic solutions, with firm deadlines and accountability. BUILD activists are well-organized and polite, but firm.

Still, I fear that BUILD's confrontational style might eventually do it more harm than good.

I can certainly sympathize with the desire to get straight answers from politicians — I've spent much of my career trying to do it.

But among our sound-bite society's many problems is the tendency to oversimplify complex problems and solutions, and turn every gray area into black or white.

It's a delicate balance. I hope, given the important work that BUILD is doing, that its leaders are able to maintain it.

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