October 28, 2009

Jerry's kids

Facts, rumors and political innuendo

It was skyrocketing rent that eventually pushed Keishanna Hughes to move into the Sheppard Square public housing complex with her four children.

“I was paying like $900 a month with rent and utilities combined,” she says. “Now I’m putting out only like $160. It was ridiculous. You couldn’t make ends meet.”

An increasing number of working families are looking for decent, affordable housing as a result of the rising cost of living and stagnant wages, and the situation is only getting worse, according to the annual state of housing report released by the Metropolitan Housing Coalition this week.

The coalition’s yearly study highlights several housing indicators, including segregated housing patterns, predatory mortgage loans and the rise in the city’s homeless student population, which show Louisville’s housing trends are moving in the wrong direction. The study concludes, among other things, that there is still not enough affordable housing for working families.

The report card shows, for instance, that a higher percentage of wage earners in Louisville Metro cannot afford a two-bedroom apartment compared with a decade ago. In 2009, a two-bedroom rental apartment cost about $680 per month, and nearly 55 percent of Louisville wage earners had a median income less than what was needed to pay the rent.

“Overall, people don’t understand what it takes to pay for a decent (apartment). I mean, the minimum wage is a joke,” says Doug Magee, a program director at the housing coalition. “People are not getting paid enough, and it appears there are fewer and fewer options available.”

Affordable housing advocates have pushed for a number of policy remedies they say could help alleviate this drift, such as better subsidized housing options, more public housing, and most importantly, the need for Metro government to get the Affordable Housing Trust Fund up and running.

City lawmakers enacted the trust fund in May 2008, but until recently it had been stalled due largely to a philosophical disagreement between housing advocates and the Mayor’s Office.

Established by the Metro Council in May 2008 to allocate grants and loans to area affordable-housing agencies, the trust fund has lingered in Metro government because Mayor Jerry Abramson has refused to appoint its 13-member board.

The mayor earmarked $1 million in city funds for the initiative, but delayed making the appointments because he was concerned that with a limited amount of start-up money and no dedicated revenue stream, the initiative’s resources would quickly be eaten up by administrative costs.

“It was really important to use those dollars sparingly and not on expenses,” says Chad Carlton, a mayoral spokesman. “There’s nothing worse than having a board with a mission, but without the resources to fulfill that mission.”

Impatient with the delays, housing advocates lobbied the city to equip the initiative with an executive director and board to get things moving.

A council committee suggested a number of amendments, with the most controversial change allowing the board — whenever it is actually appointed — to access the entire $1 million fund. The Abramson administration cringed at the possibility of the money being squandered; eventually a compromise was reached to give the board access to $100,000.

The council did vote to guarantee that a board of directors would be appointed by the end of the year, with or without the mayor. The amended city bill now requires Abramson to appoint the board within 90 days of the ordinance being passed. If he fails to do so, the council president will make the appointments.

With that controversy quieted for now, housing advocates and city officials appear focused on establishing a consistent revenue stream for the fund. The lofty goal set by the housing coalition is to get $10 million a year to operate the trust fund, says Phil Tom, a coalition board member.

Local advocates have suggested using housing fees and revenue from various fines, which would mirror the state’s trust fund. That move would require a change in state law. And although Abramson is a big fan of lobbying the General Assembly, the Mayor’s Office has also suggested that in a state budget crunch there are other sources of funding that could be tapped, such as private foundations and groups.

Either way, as the city’s affordable housing stock continues to spiral downward, the moves in the coming months will be imperative.