Red zones

Latest housing report highlights growing crisis

Nov 3, 2010 at 5:00 am

For many national economists, the first indication of Main Street’s recovery came in September when existing home sales figures jumped 10 percent.

Yet economic recovery eludes Louisville, where homeownership has been declining in the last decade. Figures from the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors show that sales of new homes fell 11 percent from August to September and 29 percent overall from 2009. Homeownership citywide dropped to 67.7 percent in 2009, compared with 73.4 percent in 2002.

Those statistics are included in this year’s State of Metropolitan Housing Report, compiled by Metropolitan Housing Coalition and released last month.

The report confirms what advocates have warned for years: There is not enough housing, rented or owned, that is reasonably priced for middle-class families. Findings include, among other data, the rising number of foreclosures. In 2009, there were 7,142 foreclosures in the metropolitan statistical area, which includes Southern Indiana, an increase of 18.4 percent over 2008. Overall, Jefferson County saw an increase of 34 percent from 2008 to 2009.

One heartwrenching byproduct of the absence of affordable housing is the city’s rising population of homeless students in Jefferson County Public Schools over the last six years. In 2009-2010 school year, the number of homeless students jumped 23 percent to 10,555, an increase of nearly 2,000 students over the previous school year.

“When I started 15 years ago, there were less than 1,000 kids in three big shelters. For this last school year, we are working with 29 shelters, and there were a total of 10,000 homeless students,” says Anne Malone, coordinator of the JCPS Homeless and Migrant Education Program. “I call them challenges more than problems, but the community at large is really struggling with a lack of affordable housing, and it’s having an effect. I know educationally, it’s tough for children who lose their housing.”

Last year, JCPS found that 37 percent of homeless third-graders read at grade-level compared with 67 percent of third-graders who were not homeless.

In September, 250 workers from JCPS, Family Court and the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services, the state agency charged with delivering child care services, met to discuss “the exponential rise of homeless children in these systems and how to improve these major systems working together,” according to a housing coalition statement.

One culprit behind the city’s housing crisis is its zoning regulations. The report says they promote economically and racially segregated neighborhoods, and that the city should do more to protect against discrimination.

Cathy Hinko, executive director of the coalition, says less than 6 percent of the land in Jefferson County is zoned multi-family residential, which is commonly a more affordable housing classification.

Zip codes with the highest percentage of multi-family zoning are all in west Louisville and make up more than 50 percent of the city’s black population. Zip codes in which 80 percent of the land is zoned single-family residential had an average black population of less than 3 percent and a median household income of $59,309.

With a median income of $20,673, those zip codes in the West End are crowded with residents whose income levels are below what’s necessary to afford a two-bedroom apartment. According to the report, an individual or family would need to make $27,360 a year, about $13.15 an hour, to rent a two-bedroom unit.

Hinko says that widespread single-family residential zoning, which tends to include more expensive housing, has successfully maintained racial segregation.

“By the very way we zone ourselves, we have herded people in all the protected classes — such as African-Americans, those with disabilities and female heads of households — into certain areas. And the proof is where people in the city are living,” she says. “So let’s say a nonprofit comes in and wants to put affordable housing up in an area where there are growing jobs. Well, the land is zoned against multi-family, which is one of the least expensive ways of providing a housing unit. There’s no way you can put affordable housing in there. We have to look at our zoning and how it prevents us from putting affordable housing everywhere.”

The report recommends changing land development codes in Louisville Metro and other cities in Jefferson County to allow for more multi-family housing. But that process can be laborious. Any changes to zoning designations must be requested by either the Metro Council via a resolution or the Metro Planning Commission, which would then hold a public hearing regarding a specific lot. The commission would draft an amendment to the area’s land use code and vote to send a recommendation to the council.

“It’s not an overwhelming process, but it’s nothing that can be hurried through for sure. It takes time and several steps,” says Council President Tom Owen, D-8. “Everything has to be done one lot at a time. What the housing coalition is proposing, well, it sounds very vague to me. On the face of it, asking for certain lots or zones to be re-designated needs to be specified.”

Owen says that the council could vote to amend the land use code altogether and create a new zoning code to address the housing coalition’s concerns, but he added that council members would need to meet with housing advocates to discuss the details.

Hinko says she hopes this report will draw attention to housing disparities and thinks the next step is listing and evaluating the tools to create more affordable housing. “We have a housing crisis, and we don’t even make it our top priority or one of our top priorities,” she says. “We are not doing nearly enough to address it. Everyone is focused on foreclosures and got complacent because the rest of the country was so bad, our ranking improved. Meanwhile, we turned our back on affordable public housing.”