Several years ago, the Urban County Government created both the Affordable Housing Fund and the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention.
Under Rick McQuady and Charlie Lanter, respectively, these programs have been doing important work and point in a positive direction for Lexington’s future. So, too, does the government’s decision last fall to raise the minimum wage in Fayette County over the next three years.
But we face a shortage of affordable rental housing that will only worsen over the next five years unless we take decisive steps to reverse it.
According to the Lexington Public Housing website, 10,560 of Fayette County’s 54,225 renter households (almost 20 percent) live at or below the official poverty line. And only 36 percent of those renters receive any form of assistance with rent.
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Since Lexington created the Office of Affordable Housing, that program has financed 164 new units as well as the rehab of another 269 existing units. The program hopes to rehabilitate and create an additional 300 to 500 units in the coming year.
However, this doesn’t begin to fill the affordable rental housing gap.
According to a 2014 study cited in the Herald-Leader, Lexington is losing about 400 affordable rental units each year to higher rents. And since the 2014 report, the number of affordable housing units has continued to decline.
This continuing net loss in affordable rental units is projected to intensify for at least the next five years, as large complexes that were built with subsidies from federal programs “age out” of the period during which they were required to offer sub-market rental rates.
For historical context, consider another comparison included in the Herald-Leader: In 1990 “there were 35,017 apartments that someone making a minimum wage could afford, about 88 percent of all apartments and rental units. In 2010 minimum wage employees could afford only 17 percent of apartments and rental units.”
This shortage of affordable rental housing and rental subsidies carries a tragic human cost. According to data from the Lexington Fair Housing Council, there were nearly 6,000 eviction notices issued last year in Fayette County and the vast majority of these resulted in evictions.
In recent years, about 10 percent of Lexington’s renter households have faced eviction proceedings. That is more renters than are assisted by all forms of housing aid administered by the Lexington Public Housing Authority, whose programs benefit about 4,700 residents of Fayette County.
Also alarming is the fact that only about 1 percent of those issued eviction notices are represented by any sort of legal counsel, clearly an important reason the vast majority of those cases end in eviction, often with a family’s possessions being thrown out on the curb.
Matthew Desmond’s opinion piece, “The Eviction Economy” in the March 5 New York Times, based on his book Evicted, gives a vivid sense of what many people in our community also face.
“Take Larraine,” Desmond writes, “Even though she lived in a mobile home park with so many code violations that city inspectors called it an ‘environmental biohazard,’ she kept a tidy trailer and used a hand steamer on the curtains. But Larraine spent more than 70 percent of her income on housing — just as one in four of all renting families who live below the poverty line do. After paying the rent, she was left with $5 a day. Under conditions like these, evictions have become routine.”
For the sake of our less fortunate neighbors and the future well-being of Lexington as a whole, let’s ramp up our efforts to provide housing all Lexingtonians can afford.
Rick Clewett is chair of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice Housing Justice Project.