Women walking the line: A new study shows radical split in the city for single mothers who need a place to live

The line on the map goes north and south, almost right through the middle of the city. In the west half live most of the single mothers in Louisville — the map is dark with high concentrations. The east is lightly shaded, airy, a place where life seems to be a little bit easier. We know this intuitively, although laying it out this way is something to behold.

Forty-five percent of single mothers live in just five Metro Council districts, according to the latest report from the nonprofit Metropolitan Housing Coalition. The focus of “The Dividing Line” is women and housing patterns, somewhat unusual subject matter for a housing study, said Cathy Hinko, MHC’s executive director. That is to say, it hasn’t been studied much, nationally or otherwise.

“We knew there were a lot of female heads of household, but when we actually looked, we realized they’re one-third of all of us,” Hinko said in an interview last week. “That was startling.”

Of the households headed by women in Louisville, 41 percent are single with no children. The rest are either elderly (30 percent) or single mothers (29 percent), both focuses of the study.

What is striking about the study, particularly of the focus on single mothers, is that race appears to be much less relevant than in most housing and poverty studies, where African Americans are disproportionately affected. More than half of Louisville single mothers are white. However, African-American single mothers are considerably more likely to live in poverty, or in areas with a high risk of substandard housing.

Just as astonishing is this: 41 percent of students in Jefferson County Public Schools live with single mothers. When you combine that with the other factors at play, it makes for considerably less access to opportunities — jobs, higher education, child support services — for one-third of the kids in Louisville, and nearly half those in public schools.

“Clearly we can’t specify and say exactly why each woman is choosing to live in the neighborhood in which she’s living, but I think it’s so tied to income and poverty rates,” Valerie Salley, a Louisville policy analyst and author, said of the report in an interview last week. “I’ve been thinking about it really in terms of the choice that’s not a choice. If you’re choosing housing and you make $23,000 a year and you can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment at market value in the city, then you really don’t have that choice.”

Salley and Hinko both said affordable housing in every Council district should be a major priority for the city, which recently adopted an Affordable Housing Trust Fund. Although Mayor Abramson has provided funding from the city’s budget for the trust fund again this year, it will need a dedicated source of revenue, perhaps at the state level, to continue to be effective. For the past several years, MHC and a throng of social justice groups have advocated for just that.