Merlene Davis: BUILD assembly will bring residents, public officials together to solve community problems

Those who attended BUILD's Nehemiah Action Assembly last year might have a sense of déjà vu when the social justice organization meets Monday.

Two of three items on this year's agenda — increased affordable housing and the breaking down of barriers that often keep ex-offenders from finding jobs — are the same because they still lack sufficient action from local government officials.

And, according to BUILD officials, those issues will continue to be discussed until something positive happens.

"We do not quit until we accomplish a better city of Lexington," said Belinda Snead, co-president of BUILD.

BUILD, Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action, is a community-based organization founded in 2003 that is composed of members from 18 congregations in Fayette County. Religious congregations use the group as a united front to highlight and resolve education, crime, health care, drug treatment and transportation issues in Lexington.

Throughout the year, members research issues and meet with officials who have power to resolve them. Then they hold a public meeting in the spring at which those officials publicly agree to resolutions or state clearly why they won't.

Last year, the health department was able to fulfill its commitment to provide primary care to an additional 7,000 residents who didn't have access to health care, Snead said, so that issue was taken off the list. The push began a few years ago, but it did happen, she said.

"If one way doesn't work, we have to find another," she said. "The issue of affordable housing is the same."

This will be the fourth year affordable housing is on the agenda. A commission was set up in 2008 to explore the need and a way to pay for affordable housing. The commission suggested the city levy a 1 percent tax increase on house and car insurance premiums for a trust fund to build or renovate 235 affordable homes. Mayor Jim Gray and former Mayor Jim Newberry have declined to raise that tax, so additional affordable housing is still on the back burner.

Gray is expected to attend this year's gathering.

The issue of improving employment opportunities for ex-felons is being re-tooled, said Father John List, of St. Peter Catholic Church and co-president of BUILD.

List said Gray has reservations about opening positions to ex-felons, so BUILD asked the mayor to agree to look at ways other cities have dealt with the issue.

"Maybe a little further discussion will broaden future discussions," List said. "We are just trying to move these issues along. Sometimes it takes greater political will and sometimes you have to grow the political will."

That process may take several years, he said.

New to the agenda this year, although it has come up as a problem in discussions several times, are the high interest rates charged by payday lending businesses.

Snead said some lenders charge as much as 400 percent, making it very difficult for those who take the loans to quickly pay them back.

"The legislative session ended and it never came up," she said. "Hundreds of us called asking for the bill to be heard. But we will still go to the legislators again next year. It is still not morally correct."

And that is what keeps BUILD volunteers going. They believe it is a biblical mandate to ease the suffering of their neighbors.

List said he will continue to press the issues "as long as it is about the welfare of the people of God.

"Because the whole point of BUILD is that we want Lexington to be a better city," he said.