Creating affordable housing in Lexington has become a frequent topic of discussion lately. But the Urban League has been doing it for 36 years.
The new duplex was built on the site of the boyhood home of Les McCann, the famous jazz pianist, vocalist and photographer, and his late brother, Calvert, whose photographs documented Lexington’s civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Those 51 units are part of 260 houses and apartments worth $26.3 million that the Urban League has built or renovated throughout Lexington since the early 1980s.
The effort began in 1981 when two longtime Urban League officers, President Porter G. Peeples and Vice President Norman Franklin, began talking with city planner Ed Holmes, who then lived on Chestnut Street. They wanted to find a way to increase home ownership among black residents of the East End.
“We needed to find a niche,” Peeples said. “As a minority organization we were struggling to raise money.”
The Urban League formed a non-profit development corporation and bought four dilapidated shotgun houses on Chestnut Street, one of which was burned-out, from a Lexington lawyer for $5,000. They were completely renovated and resold to first-time homeowners.
As one house would sell, the Urban League would begin work on another. By 2006 it has built or renovated 159 single-family homes all over Lexington that cost an average of $73,396.
Changing market prompted a shift toward rental units for low-income families and senior citizens, many built with help from federal tax credits and private investors.
While most of the Urban League’s home buyers were single mothers, the organization knew there were other niches that needed filling.
“There is a demographic that will always be renters,” Franklin said.
In the past few years, the Urban League has focused on renting to low-income military veterans.
Much of the construction and renovation on early homes was done by ex-offenders after the Urban League got government grant money to train them for construction jobs. When those funds dried up, Peeples and Franklin helped their trainers, Derek Thomas and Vince Tucker, form their own construction company, which is now the main contractor on projects.
“It’s been quite a successful partnership,” Peeples said. “You need someone who understands this market, and they are truly loyal to the mission or the organization and the community.”
The Urban League’s Elm Tree Lane Apartments, with seven units for seniors, opened in 2003. The old Russell Elementary School on North Upper Street was renovated in 2012 into the 27-unit Russell School Apartments for seniors. Demand for the apartments has been strong since the beginning, Peeples said.
The Urban League since 1992 has partnered with the city to get federal housing funds. It also has applied for money from the city’s new affordable housing trust fund for a new project on Ash Street in the West End. Peeples and Franklin also look for grants and donations to supplement rental income.
“It takes creativity to get this done; there’s always a lot of risk involved,” said Peeples, adding that crime in some neighborhoods has made it difficult to attract renters. “What we can control is the inside of the house.”
In addition to housing, the Urban League renovated two historic commercial buildings on Deweese Street: a former black doctor’s office that houses the Urban League’s offices and the former office of the old Mammoth Life & Accident Insurance Co., which before integration was Kentucky’s largest black-owned company. The Urban League also renovated a nearby building now used for computer education.
Peeples, 71, and Franklin, 69, who have led the Urban League’s housing efforts since the beginning, are searching for young talent to eventually take over as they look toward retirement.
The Urban League’s work has provided much-needed affordable housing, but it also has helped stabilize historically black urban communities that have struggled since desegregation and suburban flight in the 1960s.
“I shudder to think where some of these neighborhoods would be had we not done this,” Peeples said. “We look at this as an investment in the community.”