Vacant, abandoned and fully frustrated

Upon entering Tuesday’s vacant and abandoned property meeting at Memorial Auditorium, a tidy folder stocked with dozens of brainstormed solutions is received.

The gathering — a follow-up to last spring’s Vacant, Abandoned and Underutilized Property Summit, where work groups collaborated on feasible solutions to the problem — brings many of the same players: housing advocates, Metro government workers, social workers and concerned residents. (Read about last year’s summit here.)

It’s estimated Louisville has roughly 7,000 vacant properties. About 1,200 of those are abandoned, in large part due to the ongoing struggling economy and foreclosure crisis. A map highlighting where these properties exist, not surprisingly, blemishes the West End and spreads south like a bad rash. (For a look at how foreclosures affect property values click here.)

Councilman Kelly Downard (R-16) chairs an ad hoc committee recently formed to deal with the issue of vacant/abandoned homes. He’s among the first to speak this morning.

“The mayor has this as a top priority, and we do also,” says Downard.

For the first time, he publicly commits his support for a change in state law that would amend how property tax liens are handled, making it easier for cities to collect money owed and keep properties viable for redevelopment.

It garners a smattering of applause. He advocates for a stronger land bank that would allow cities to wipe titles clean of any messy liens and fines, again, making those properties more attractive to developers.

“This is a very important issue and one that we’ve left untouched for years,” says Downard. “We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t done anything.”

It’s a statement meant to placate. And for some it does.

Still, frustration simmers.

At about two hours in, after eight speakers comb through various initiatives, from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to a Metro program called “Brother’s Keeper” that would mobilize volunteers to maintain vacated houses, agitation becomes vocal.

“To me, this is triage,” says Dan Borsch, who sits on the board of the Landbank Authority and owns a business in Old Louisville.

Borsch feels “fired up.” He doesn’t think the city has the West End, and all of its dilapidated structures, as a top priority. Yes, last spring’s summit brought attention to the blight, but without jobs, businesses and a robust effort on the city’s part to build infrastructure in the West End, what can truly change, he wonders.

Borsch brings up the millions poured into downtown revitalization and the billions about to be spent on the Ohio River Bridges Project that will effectively open up the East End to development.

“We can’t compete with that!” he says, knowing that land’s cheaper to develop.

Revitalizing the West End is a complex undertaking. Challenges include old industrial (often contaminated) properties divided up and owned by several different people. And if swaths of East End land become suddenly available, that may make the West End look all the more unattractive.

“We really need help in west Louisville,” says Michael Dean, a California resident and advocate.

City officials counter that efforts are being made, for instance, the LiFE Zone project, an initiative created under Mayor Greg Fischer to build a local food economy hub in Portland.

“You’re not speaking of areas most affected,” says another concerned resident. “What happened to Chickasaw? DuValle?”

At one point, Jim Mims, director of Codes and Regulations, agrees these big economic policy questions are important but jokes, “I’m just a codes guy.”

Cathy Hinko, with the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, understands the anxiousness to see tangible improvements to neighborhoods. She says, though, when it comes to the issue of vacant and abandoned properties, last spring’s summit and today’s discussion act as important pieces to a problem that will take time to solve.

She points out that in the last year, one person within Metro has finally been designated as a kind of vacant and abandoned homes “czar.” That, she says, shows progress.

“… To change direction of a large, multi-layered organization like government is difficult. But you hear a lot of commitment to it, and you hear some of the solutions …

So much of this system is built on a paradigm that properties wouldn’t linger out there. People would be absorbed into the market. People would reuse it. The whole system was built on something that was valid for decades and its not valid now. So revamping a whole system is no small potatoes.”

One Comment

  1. Bud Hixson
    Posted April 6, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    If western Louisville was the location of a concentrated population of American Indians, Kurds or Hutus, Metro Government would be accused of running a stealth program of ethnic cleansing. The silence of the media has been deafening and good reporters are being stifled from sketching the true proportions of the government urban removal masked as good management policy.