Tom Eblen

Putting heat on the city for affordable housing

Don't underestimate the power of a diverse group of 21 church congregations that have identified a serious problem in the community, proposed a proven solution — and won't take no for an answer.

That was the dynamic on display Monday night, when more than 1,200 members of those congregations filled the Immanuel Baptist Church sanctuary for a meeting of BUILD, which stands for Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action.

It was a well-organized group, with ushers wearing yellow toy hard-hats. I saw at least a couple of local judges in the audience, and one corporate CEO. At least two Urban County Council members came to observe.

The meeting's moderator, the Rev. Ron Luckey of Faith Lutheran Church, joked about seeing so many Lutherans and Presbyterians there, noting that those denominations aren't exactly known for pushy activism.

In the six years since BUILD began in Lexington, it has achieved some impressive results by pointing out problems to city officials and institutions, proposing solutions and demanding action.

BUILD's accomplishments include getting the city to establish a women's drug treatment program at the jail, working with police to fight crime in drug trafficking areas and getting the city to improve code enforcement at mobile home parks and provide relocation assistance to low-income renters displaced by redevelopment.

There were two items on BUILD's agenda Monday night. The first was following up on an agreement last year with local hospitals, non-profit clinics and the Fayette County Health Department to develop plans for providing primary care to an additional 6,000 uninsured adults over three years.

BUILD leaders had earlier reached agreement with officials on a series of next steps, and at 7:37 p.m., according to the meeting's precise agenda, Dr. Rice Leach of the health department was called to the pulpit and asked whether he would coordinate those efforts. He agreed, to loud applause from the crowd.

The next agenda item was more difficult.

At BUILD's formative meetings several years ago, one issue that emerged was affordable housing. Research showed that an approach that has worked well in Charlotte; Columbus, Ohio; Austin and nearly 600 other communities nationwide is an affordable housing trust fund.

At the organization's urging, Mayor Jim Newberry last May appointed a 47-member commission to study the issue. It was a broad-based commission, including Urban County Council members, legislators, representatives of non-profit charities, neighborhood leaders and experts from the home-building, real estate, banking and apartment rental industries.

The commission issued a thorough report in September that said 36 percent of Lexington's 48,357 renter households spend more than 30 percent of gross household income on rent. About 18 percent — 8,753 households — spend more than half their gross income on rent. Many adults in those households are fully employed, but at low-wage jobs.

The commission also found that 1,250 people at any given time are living in Lexington shelters, and an estimated 200 more live on the streets.

Meanwhile, the commission found that rental rates have risen more sharply than income in recent years, while federal money directed toward affordable housing has fallen 80 percent since 1980 and other public assistance has fallen since 1996.

The commission recommended creation of a trust fund that could be used to leverage conventional financing and other funding sources to build and repair affordable housing. It estimated that a $4 million annual investment in the fund could leverage $28 million each year for affordable housing — building 360 new units or renovating 1,400 existing units each year.

That level of funding also would create 448 jobs the first year and an additional 176 each year afterward, the commission estimated. It also would generate several times the investment amount back into the community as new economic activity and tax revenue.

After considering a broad range of sources for that $4 million in annual funding, the commission recommended a 1 percentage point increase in Fayette County's 6 percent tax on insurance premiums. That would add a little more than $7 to the average annual cost of a home or auto insurance policy.

Newberry rejected the idea, and BUILD asked him to recommend an alternative. But when the Rev. Richard Gaines of Consolidated Baptist Church called Newberry to the pulpit to ask whether he would commit to funding the trust fund, the mayor replied: "Not at this time."

The response, which was expected, was greeted by the crowd with stern silence.

Newberry was given two minutes to explain his answer. Because of the city's budget crunch, he said, "I do not foresee even the remote possibility" of putting city money into the trust fund. He added that the city expects to get several million dollars in federal and state money this year for other affordable housing initiatives through the Lexington Housing Authority.

Luckey of Faith Lutheran wasn't shy about expressing disapproval from the pulpit, invoking the name of a young woman who spoke earlier to group about her struggle to afford housing on a low-wage job. "As difficult as it is to be mayor in these times, it is more difficult to be Tina Whitlock in these times," he said.

"We were hoping for action tonight," the Rev. Joseph Owens of Shiloh Baptist Church added. "We did not see that and we are deeply disappointed."

Newberry said afterward that he dislikes dedicated sources of funding for programs. BUILD prefers that so it won't have to fight for trust fund money each year. The mayor said he had sounded out several council members about the insurance tax increase and received little support.

While the trust fund is a worthy goal and he wishes he could fund it, Newberry said, "The timing is as bad as it has been for 80 years."

Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who attended the meeting to observe, was impressed and a bit intimidated by BUILD. "This is a determined and committed group of citizens and even in the worst of times we need to reckon with them," he said.

You can bet that Newberry, Gray and the Urban County Council will be hearing much more from BUILD about this issue and others facing Lexington.

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