Fayette County

Davis bottom residents displaced by Newtown extension

Eighteen manufactured homes, left, house about 15 families of 50 to 60 people in the Davis Bottoms area near De Roode Street. At right are the remains of the old houses.
Eighteen manufactured homes, left, house about 15 families of 50 to 60 people in the Davis Bottoms area near De Roode Street. At right are the remains of the old houses.

More than a dozen families displaced by Lexington's Newtown Pike Extension project have lived rent- and utility-free in government-owned manufactured homes for more than two years, and they can expect to continue doing so for at least another two or three years.

It will take that long before they can move into new, permanent housing in Davis Bottom, said Andrew Grunwald, extension project engineer/manager for the Urban County Government.

The idea behind the temporary housing in Davis Bottom, where some of the families have lived for generations and which is one of Lexington's poorest areas, is to keep the little community together.

The residents' old homes, located elsewhere in Davis Bottom, were slated for demolition because of the 1.5 mile road extension, stretching from West Main Street at Newtown Pike to South Limestone at Scott Street, near the University of Kentucky.

Federal Highway Administration dollars are paying for much of the extension project, and federal agencies are required to identify and address disproportionately adverse effects that their activities have on minority and low-income populations.

The families in Davis Bottom haven't been required to pay rent and utilities in the hope that they will be in a better position to qualify to become homeowners or renters in a new affordable housing development planned for the area.

"People's lives are going to be totally changed," said Dorothy Coleman, a liaison between residents and Newtown Pike project officials. She is helping the residents prepare for life in the new permanent neighborhood, which will be called Southend Park Urban Village.

"We're teaching them how to save their money, how to deal with banks," Coleman said. "Each household is working in their own way to become self-sufficient."

For some of the residents, not having to pay the enormous utility bills that came with their drafty old houses allows them to buy fresh, instead of processed, food. Others have been able to get better medical care and further their education, she said.

"We've had a family become foster parents," she said.

People can pull themselves up by their bootstraps only if they have boots, Coleman said.

"We're here to provide the boots," she said.

Kenneth Demus, a school bus driver, has lived about 37 of his 49 years in Davis Bottom. He now lives in one of the temporary homes with his four children.

"I think it is a good program that they set up. It's worked for me," Demus said.

"I've got two daughters in college. It has helped me to be able to pay for their schooling and not to have loans," he said. He said he also has been trying to save money to buy one of the new homes.

Davis Bottom residents began moving into the 16 manufactured three-bedroom, two-bath homes in late fall 2008. Last summer, two more manufactured homes were added.

In early December, there were about 15 families of 50 to 60 people, most of them former Davis Bottom renters, living in the manufactured homes. Two more families were slated to move to the temporary development.

Grunwald said that through October, the total cost for electricity in the temporary housing was $50,385.10. Water fees came to $16,885.11. That averages about $147 a month for electricity and $49 a month for water for each household.

The manufactured homes came with a one-year warranty. Repairs after warranties have expired have totaled less than $5,000, Grunwald said in early December.

"We've had quite a few plumbing issues," he said.

There has also been some turnover among residents. One family was asked to leave because a member of the household was charged and jailed for theft.

"You can't be a criminal and live in government housing," Grunwald said. The family, which is entitled to relocation benefits, was in the process of buying a home elsewhere, he said.

Another woman, the sole occupant of one of the homes, moved away because of health problems, Grunwald said.

The first phase of the Newtown Pike Extension opened over the summer, around the same time the extension was renamed Oliver Lewis Way,

But there have been difficulties in completing the current part of the project, not the least of which has been determining the ownership of 33 parcels of land on which the old Davis Bottom housing sat so the government can acquire the land. Determining ownership of the properties is necessary so they can be purchased for the extension.

It's also necessary to determine how Davis Bottom households will be compensated for having to move out of their old homes, Grunwald said.

"We've had to track down people in Ohio, Texas and California," Grunwald said. "Some of these people didn't even know they were involved."

In one case, a man who died in the early 1950s left his Davis Bottom property to his children, but his will was never probated. In another case, a person living in Louisville was found, through a will, to be the owner of one of the properties, but family living in Lexington had been paying the taxes on that property for years, Grunwald said. Some properties have had liens placed on them, which also has complicated the acquisition process, he said.

As of early December, 15 of the parcels had been purchased and five more were in the closing process. A couple of the properties were in the courts to settle ownership issues, and price negotiations were under way for several others.

"My hope is we'll have all of the property accumulated by next summer," Grunwald said.

After that, the area along De Roode Street will be getting new infrastructure, including new electric and water lines, which will take about a year and a half. Then it will take at least a year to build new housing, he said.

The project plan calls for 22 single-family homes, two duplexes and two four-plexes, which will be part of a community land trust, for displaced residents. (The temporary manufactured homes are to be sold after the new housing is built, with proceeds going to the community land trust.)

Plans are for the new neighborhood to eventually include more affordable housing units and businesses.

Nearly half of the total extension project money is slated to be used for the new neighborhood. For the past several years, the price tag put on the entire extension project has been $87 million.

Grunwald said the total cost could now be as much as $92 million because of changes made in the extension plan. Those include burying utility lines and excavating for a railroad underpass in a section that runs from West Main Street to Versailles Road. Grunwald cautioned that the additional $5 million was a rough guess.

Grunwald said that if everything falls into place, the entire Newtown Pike Extension project should be completed in five to six years.

"I have to be optimistic it will happen," he said.