Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance Aims To Stop Government-Funded Gentrification

Mar 15, 2023 at 6:37 pm
The Historically Black Neighborhoods ordinance would protect these neighborhoods: Smoketown, Russell, Berrytown, California, Limerick, Little Africa (aka Homestead), and Petersburg (aka Newburg).
The Historically Black Neighborhoods ordinance would protect these neighborhoods: Smoketown, Russell, Berrytown, California, Limerick, Little Africa (aka Homestead), and Petersburg (aka Newburg). Photo from Jessica Bellamy

As a young child, Jessica Bellamy lived on Lampton Street in Smoketown, where her family has deep roots. Her grandmother Shirley Mae Beard founded the iconic Shirley Mae’s Café, a soul food restaurant on the corner of Clay and Lampton streets that is now owned by Bellamy’s mother. During the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, formerly enslaved Black people moved to areas like Smoketown and Russell. Their descendants like Jessica Bellamy and her family have been living there ever since, looking after each other and supporting their neighbors. “I grew up seeing what is possible when people come together in community,” Bellamy said. 

But the neighborhoods have been changing. In recent decades, thousands of Black residents have been displaced by evictions, demolition of public and affordable housing, lease non-renewals, foreclosures, and an inability to afford spiking housing costs. In their place have come mostly white, higher-income residents. In a word: gentrification.

Gentrification, Bellamy points out, is not some inevitable phenomenon that is driven by free market forces. She and other members of the Historically Black Neighborhood (HBN) Assembly say that the Louisville Metro Government has subsidized the displacement of these Black residents by giving taxpayer dollars and discounted public land to private developers that destroy affordable housing and replace it with housing that the current residents cannot afford. And, with the help of Councilman Jecorey Arthur, they aim to use a proposed Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance to put a stop to the giveaways.

“Neighborhoods like Smoketown need protection from exploitation and a way out of this extractive economy,” Bellamy said. “The city needs to stop giving away our land, money, and staff time to support development projects that will directly or indirectly displace us.”

She and other HBN Assembly members point to corporations receiving millions of dollars in funding both from Louisville Metro Government and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop market-rate or nearly market-rate housing in Russell, on the same sites where deeply-affordable housing once stood. They tracked the spending of the Louisville Affordable Housing Fund over the course of two years, 2016 to 2018, and found that it spent millions more dollars on housing for families with incomes near the area median income as it did for very low-income families—even though the Trust Fund’s own assessment is that the city needs 31,000 more units for those lowest-income households. 

That lowest-income group, usually referenced as 30% of Area Median Income and below, includes families of three trying to get by with incomes below $23,000 per year, a common demographic in the Russell neighborhood. The bottom line, the HBN Assembly says: the neighborhood’s long-time residents can’t afford the housing the city is paying to develop in their community. “In Louisville, they like our Black smiling faces,” Bellamy said. “They will paint pictures of us on murals but take no steps to prevent our displacement.”

So the HBN Assembly, formed by the Smoketown Neighborhood Association in partnership with Books & Breakfast Louisville, teamed up with Councilman Jecorey Arthur to research possible legislative responses to the displacement. The result of that process is the proposed Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance, which would create a new chapter of the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government Code of Ordinances. The intent of the ordinance set to be formally submitted later this month is straightforward: government money should be regulated to both prevent further displacement and support the current Black residents of these communities.

The ordinance would designate several Louisville neighborhoods as Historically Black Neighborhoods: Smoketown, Russell, Berrytown, California, Limerick, Little Africa aka Homestead, and Petersburg, aka Newburg. That designation would trigger a process of analyzing any proposed development projects in those areas, denying any Louisville Metro Government assistance, in particular land grants or financing, to projects with a potential to cause displacement. 

A key factor in that analysis will be if the proposed development will be creating housing that is affordable given the average incomes and existing housing costs in the neighborhood. Since the ordinance would come on line after a long history of displacement, it also would attempt to remedy that legacy. It would create a process for Black residents to file claims for land and properties illegally taken from them by the government, along with home repair, downpayment, and business investment assistance for those who establish claims for prior displacement. 

Beyond subsidizing housing that cannot be afforded by the neighborhood’s current residents, millions of dollars for market-rate developers have harmful ripple effects. Other developers rush to buy up the relatively low-cost housing around the city-funded projects, counting on the infusion of government investment to spike property values. A report by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting showed that one Texas-based developer has purchased 1300 properties in Louisville, including over 400 in 2022 alone, much of it in Black neighborhoods. 

All of that activity causes housing costs to increase, and may motivate private landlords in the area who now accept tenants with government housing vouchers to switch to market-rate tenants only, further depleting the affordable housing supply. The displacement is already occurring, HBN Assembly members say. They point to Census data showing that the Russell neighborhood alone lost almost 2,500 Black residents from 2010 to 2020, with an accompanying spike in white residents. 

Linda Taylor, a healthcare worker who raised her two daughters in Smoketown and lived in the area for 30 years, has lived that displacement experience. In early 2021, her local landlord announced she had sold the Jackson Street house Taylor and her daughters were living in. Almost immediately, her new out-of-state corporate landlord gave Taylor 30 days to move, even though she was always current on her rent. 

Taylor and her daughters were forced to separate, and it upset them to see that the new owners launched substantial renovations. “When I moved in there, I had to clean up the place myself,” Taylor said. Like other area residents, she questions why the local government is supporting this kind of displacement. “I guess they think they are making things better,” she said. “But they are just ripping people from their homes and neighborhood. It is no wonder there are so many homeless.”