November 28, 2006

A movable need: Affordable Housing task force set to present findings to the Mayor

Gina Santoro: (seated) is the director of Fairdale Ministries. She’s the only paid employee — there are four volunteers, including the woman pictured here. The ministry provides money for utilities and other living expenses for low-income Fairdale residents.In terms of real life, Gina Santoro is a single mother of two who lives in a trailer park in Fairdale. She says the park is decent — “not nasty, dirty, anything like that” — and is her most reasonably priced living situation given immediate circumstance, which isn’t even close to downtrodden, although she can’t quite make the average rent for a house in her slice of South Louisville.Trailer park life doesn’t grate much on Santoro, 36. That’s because the things she sees every day at work are much more dire: She’s the director and only paid employee of Fairdale Ministries, part of a 15-member collective known as the Association of Community Ministries. The ministries are Christian but non-denominational, and they offer financial help with the things that matter most when it’s cold outside: utilities, water, rent, and in cases like Santoro’s (though not her personally), propane for trailers.Like most non-profit social-good organizations, community ministries don’t feed wads of cash into low-income areas or rectify the social stratification that plagues many Louisville neighborhoods. They’re no substitute for Section 8, no subsidy for market-driven development.Outwardly, ministries reflect the better side of Christianity, eschewing political affiliation and the flame-throwing hypocrisy that has come to characterize the more media-savvy sects in recent years. Conversely, they have a finger on the pulse of their neighborhoods, and what they’ve been seeing here over the past few years — at least in the first ring of suburban Louisville, the layer that surrounds the city’s urban core, but more in South Louisville — is an expanding problem: The need for affordable housing, particularly low-income housing, is spreading like water on paper.Meanwhile, the original droplet is drying. Marlene Gordon, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said it’s mostly the result of booming downtown development that’s pushing low-income residents — who’ve been historically concentrated downtown and in its immediate environs — into other parts of the Metro. The ministries, for the most part, are watching it happen, trying to scrape together money as the need grows, with federal housing dollars dropping dramatically under the Bush administration.For an enlightened community with concern for the middle, most and least of its citizenry, somebody somewhere needs to come up with more housing money. As much as anything, this story is about where that might come from.Welcome the Affordable Housing Trust FundThe city of Louisville, as an entity, is quite close to joining hundreds of other American cities by establishing its own Affordable Housing Trust Fund.Funded by a renewable stream of mostly public money, the trust fund would assist those earning up to 80 percent of the area median income (AMI) — that figure is $47,100 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Precisely, half of the public money would go there and the other half to those below 50 percent AMI ($29,450 for a family of four). A task force created by Mayor Jerry Abramson, just a few months after his March 2006 Comprehensive Housing Strategy identified the need for creative funding efforts for more affordable housing as federal money diminishes, established the parameters of the trust fund. The task force, made up of those representing admittedly disparate interests — housing advocates, bankers, homebuilders, Realtors, Metro Government, developers and a state legislator — took from early July until the last few weeks to finalize a recommendation, which Abramson is being briefed on this week. A meeting tomorrow should produce the final financial details; the official recommendation will be presented to Hizzoner in a ceremony Monday morning.“I’m pleased when we can come together as a group and make recommendations as a group,” said Melissa Barry, director of Louisville Metro Housing and Community Development. Barry also chaired the task force. “I think it’s going to be very critical to the success of this that we all speak in one voice.” There has been a state trust fund since 1994, although it brings comparatively little to Louisville (under $4 million in 12 years). The Louisville task force’s working target is to raise $10 million annually; that’s more than what’s raised at the state level overall.The concern with such things is always where the money will come from, and getting a dedicated source of renewable public money is about as easy as catching a sparrow with a rope. Barry wouldn’t speculate on the exact sources of funding, though in a meeting earlier this month, the task force discussed myriad revenue streams, many of them slight increases in fees that most people probably wouldn’t notice. Another is to dedicate any County Clerk surplus, which could bring as much as $3 million annually, to the fund. Many funding proposals would require a change in state law. Among the possibilities: selling a housing license plate, imposing a 3-percent fee on rental cars and creating a new restaurant fee. In any case, such proposals would have to pass the General Assembly, making the timing of Mayor Abramson’s decision — either to accept the recommendation or go back to the task force for reevaluation — crucial, considering that the session that begins in January is a short one.“We feel it’s really critical to at least get it up there and get it out in the public and let it be known what we want to accomplish,” Barry said. She expects that will happen. There is a need“When they build something, they don’t look at it in terms of the people who actually live here.” Gina Santoro, stark black hair with a sheen enhanced by the fluorescent lights above her head, was sitting behind her desk, a nondescript country radio station whispering in the background, talking about developers putting up condos and houses that cost more than $100,000. That’s the vast majority of new development in Fairdale — there is but a single subsidized complex in the neighborhood, Santoro complained.Everybody plugged into housing issues feels the crunch. Anne Smith has been the director of MUSCL — Ministries United South Central Louisville, which covers 40213, 40217, 40219 and 40229 — for seven years. For the past three, she’s noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of clients who can’t keep up with rent. Many are the so-called “working poor.”“They’re saying, ‘Yeah, we used to live on Floyd Street, we used to live on Preston Street,’ and now they’re coming out Preston Highway and they’re forming their own pockets of poverty,” Smith said.MUSCL has been working for an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. “Gina Santoro: (seated) is the director of Fairdale Ministries. She’s the only paid employee — there are four volunteers, including the woman pictured here. The ministry provides money for utilities and other living expenses for low-income Fairdale residents. would help us in our community ministries,” she said. “Then we could give them a hand up and help them with utilities and food, and get them on their feet, help them with other things. When it comes to paying rent every month, no agency can do that. We just can’t do that.” Where the need for clean, safe affordable housing — different from public housing — has been strong in West Louisville for some time, it continues to grow in South Louisville. “Even with it being low-income housing in the South End, a lot of that is still not affordable to the people we’re looking at,” said Mike Jupin, executive director of South Louisville Community Ministries. The trust fund would pay not only to build new affordable housing units, but also to rehabilitate those currently in need of it. The money could also be spent weatherizing homes to chop energy costs. Jupin said that with the immigration, as it were, of a body of working poor and low-income Louisvillians from downtown to the South End, the need for a new source of housing money is fundamental. “I think efforts like the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, seeking to make housing more affordable — we’re going to have folks who are always going to need some kind of subsidized housing.” Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com