May 15, 2007

Vested interest: Newburg taps into federal program to fight crime while fostering home ownership

Photo by Melissa MoodyMichelle Clay lives in West Louisville with her two sisters and her parents, with whom she has lived for almost all of her 38 years. Working full time and taking classes at Jefferson Community College, Clay finally has the opportunity to achieve her version of the American Dream — a place to call her own. Through the Weed and Seed program, a five-year collaboration between local and federal government agencies, Clay will get the financial help she needs to purchase her first home. “Being a homeowner is empowering, and especially as a single woman, it’s empowering to own your own home,” Clay said. “The American Dream should be available to everyone.”The program was established by the Department of Justice in 1991, and has been implemented in more than 300 neighborhoods throughout the United States. The basic premise is: Residents collaborate with law enforcement to “weed out” drug activity and violent crime. In turn, the feds and locals “seed in” positive change through social service and housing programs, general neighborhood revitalization and financial incentives. Newburg is the only official Weed and Seed site in Louisville — participants must buy a home in that neighborhood. The criteria include a household income less than twice the federal poverty line and an agreement to save a minimum of $45 a month. There are federal and local grants to match individual savings, and participants get $2 for every $1 saved for a maximum of $4,000 toward a down payment.There are 49 spots available for those interested in buying a home; since late March, 10 people have signed up.Clay read about Weed and Seed in The Courier-Journal — that is, she didn’t hear it from anybody in the neighborhood. She and other Newburg residents complain about what they call a lack of communication from Newburg’s Metro Councilwoman, Barbara Shanklin, D-2, and other city officials about things happening there. It prevents residents from participating in programs like Weed and Seed, said Rose Robinson, a Newburg resident for more than 60 years. “We’re strangers in our own community,” she said. “The residents want to be included in what is going on. Photo by Melissa Moody don’t put no news out there.”Newburg resident Chris Walker echoed Robinson’s sentiment.“My question is, ‘If you’re supposed to seed in, why aren’t we seeing some seed money?’ said Walker. “There ain’t nothing in Newburg, we don’t even have baseball games like we used to.”Robinson signed up to be on the Weed and Seed Neighborhood Revitalization Committee, but she said she never even received a phone call.Newburg residents Gloria and Roland Allen recently resigned from the Weed and Seed steering committee, writing in an e-mail that the program is ineffective and that they could do more on their own. “In any neighborhood people will say that, and you just keep going,” Shanklin said of the defections. She said she and Weed and Seed representatives have gone door to door to dispense information about the program. In a subsequent interview, she added that it’s the coordinator’s job to get the word out, not hers, and said those criticizing her are “a group of people that are negative about everything.”That there is a lack of knowledge about the program in Newburg is “not a wrong statement,” said Latoscia Mason, a spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Department of Housing and Family Services. Elizabeth Fick Koppen, the Weed and Seed site coordinator for Metro Government, said it’s a community-driven program that Shanklin and some residents helped drive from the beginning. Metro Government hired Fick Koppen once Newburg had become an official site. Holly Stivers, who — through New Directions Housing Corporation — oversees the branch of Weed and Seed that helps low-income Louisvillians purchase a home in Newburg, has worked with Clay. She’s a strong proponent of the program. “It’s what we all want — a solid foundation for our future,” she said. “It’s very difficult for low-income people to get out of the low-income trap.”Participants also receive financial counseling, much a sign of the times. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has received national attention, as millions of homes across the United States are foreclosed because owners fail to make mortgage payments on the high-interest loans. In 2006, the percentage of borrowers who failed to make their first monthly mortgage payment tripled. In Newburg, a neighborhood with a population of about 9,000, 71 percent of residents are renters. Shanklin believes that is part of the problem. In 2003, while city officials and Newburg residents were preparing to submit the proposal for designation as a Weed and Seed site, there were nine shootings within two months. “We know when there is a less transient community, less renters, people take more of a vested interest in seeing the neighborhood do well,” said Fick Koppen.Half of the grant money for Weed and Seed goes to the Louisville Metro Police Department. Since the program began in earnest in September, violent crime dropped 23 percent and the division has received a significant increase in calls reporting crime, said Sgt. Don George, the 6th Division Sector Sergeant.“There is definitely still tension between the residents and police,” Fick Koppen said. “If residents can connect with one officer, they might not call 9-1-1, but they’ll call that officer.”