Can North Lexington revival avoid the pitfalls of gentrification?

April 24, 2015

Rand Avenue. Rock Daniels   Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.comRecently renovated houses on Rand Avenue off North Limestone Street. Photo by Tom Eblen


My column last Monday about the quickening pace of renovations in the North Limestone corridor generated some heated discussions on social media about “gentrification.”

In case you aren’t familiar with the term, it was coined in the 1960s to describe the displacement of poor residents when people with more money move into a neighborhood, leading to higher property values, rents and taxes.

It is a politically charged word sometimes used to try to shame people interested in historic preservation, or who want to improve property in neighborhoods where they wish to live or invest.

As urban living has regained popularity in Lexington after decades of suburban sprawl, re-investment in old neighborhoods has led to worries about gentrification.

It is a legitimate issue, because business practices and trickle-down economic policies have created a widening gap between rich and poor. Many hard-working people struggle to make ends meet after years of stagnant wages.

But gentrification can be subjective and complicated, because it involves touchy issues of class, race and capitalism. There are no easy solutions.

Two thoughtful essays about gentrification in Lexington were written by Bianca Spriggs in Ace Weekly last June and Joe Anthony in North of Center in May 2012. Both are worth reading online.

Here’s my view:

Neighborhoods are not static. They are constantly changing for many reasons. Some of those changes are good and others are bad, depending on your perspective. I see a lot more good than bad happening in North Lexington these days.

Many of these neighborhoods were created a century or two ago for wealthy and middle-class homeowners. Suburban flight led to disinvestment, deterioration and crime. A lot of owner-occupied homes became low-income rentals owned by people who didn’t take care of their property.

There are many good houses and commercial buildings there worth preserving and reusing. There also is a lot of community fabric and culture worth respecting and nurturing.

The return of more owner-occupied housing in these neighborhoods is a good thing. It is a fact of life that homeowners have more political clout than renters. That often results in more investment, better policing and less crime in neighborhoods with a significant share of owner-occupied homes.

That doesn’t mean rental property is undesirable. In many neighborhoods, such as mine, renters contribute a lot to community life.

Thanks to investment by new residents, businesses, non-profit groups such as the North Limestone Community Development Corporation and some professional renovators, many of North Lexington neighborhoods are becoming safer and more economically diverse places to live.

That doesn’t mean I like every house-flipper’s craftsmanship or tactics. But some of them are doing good work.

It is inevitable that some renters will be displaced. But I think renovators and re-sellers have a moral obligation to treat people fairly and, when possible, help longtime residents stay in the neighborhood.

Lexington is still small enough that business people’s reputations precede them. Quality work and good ethics will pay off for those who practice it, especially if others in the community speak out about bad actors.

Some absentee landlords will be displaced, too, and that is a good thing. Poor people often pay high rents and utility costs for substandard housing — and then get kicked out if they complain to Code Enforcement.

There are better solutions to affordable housing than steadily deteriorating homes owned by absentee landlords. The Urban League, Community Ventures, Habitat for Humanity, AU Associates, churches and others have done a lot of good work on affordable housing over the past two decades.

This wave of private investment in North Lexington, and the city’s new affordable housing trust fund, provide a good opportunity to address some of these gentrification issues in new and creative ways.

For one thing, people who choose to live in urban neighborhoods rather than more homogenous suburbs are seeking cultural diversity. That’s because diverse neighborhoods are more interesting places to live.

How can the city, non-profit groups and developers work together to keep low-income people in these neighborhoods, while at the same time improving the quality of housing they can afford? How can neighborhood revitalization work for everyone?

Neighborhoods are like any natural environment: The more diverse they are, the more healthy they are and the more sustainable they will be over time.

Habitat needs volunteer builders for Morgan, Menifee reconstruction

January 29, 2013

Greg Dike, right, executive director of the Morehead Area Habitat for Humanity group, helps build an interior wall for a house near Morehead with a group of volunteers from Lexington on Jan. 19.  Photos by Tom Eblen


MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity’s Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.

A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.

“When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area,” said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.

Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.

Morehead Area Habitat’s most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.

So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.

Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.

“They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing,” Dike said.

Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.

Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.

Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.

The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.

“I think there are a lot of people out there with skills,” Dike said. “We’re not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense.”

Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.

“It’s an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day,” James said. “Most people have really enjoyed it.”

That’s certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.

“I just love doing it,” said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.

“It’s fun, and I’ve learned so much,” Burns said. “I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn’t have time for that.”

Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work. “Plus, it helps make a difference in people’s lives,” Seithers said. “This is something I can do, so I’m doing it.”

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Habitat works with Lexington to restore foreclosed homes

December 17, 2012

Neema Dominic puts in volunteer hours painting a foreclosed home on Savoy Road that is being renovated by Habitat for Humanity.  Habitat has renovated four foreclosed homes in Lexington this year and will do a fifth next year as part of a city program to keep foreclosed homes from becoming vacant liabilities in their neighborhoods. Photos by Tom Eblen


Lexington has a couple of big housing problems: there is too little affordable housing, and there are too many vacant houses in neighborhoods all over the city, especially since the wave of foreclosures that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

A partnership between city government and Habitat for Humanity has offered small help for both problems, but it has left officials optimistic that it could lead to bigger solutions.

On Wednesday, Mayor Jim Gray will help dedicate a renovated house at 224 Savoy Road in a well-kept, middle-class subdivision off Versailles Road. After a foreclosure in 2010, that house and another down the street sat empty for more than two years. That worried neighbors, including Urban County Council member Peggy Henson, who lives around the corner.

“These were sturdy, good, well-built homes,” Henson said. “But they weren’t going to stay that way the longer they sat empty.”

Those two houses were among 10 foreclosed, vacant properties the city was able to acquire with federal stimulus money through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.

The city turned the 10 properties over to Habitat for Humanity for $1 each. Five had homes that could be renovated; the others will become building sites for new Habitat homes. Four of the renovations have been completed; the fifth will be done next year, as will the new construction.

Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based non-profit organization made famous by former President Jimmy Carter’s volunteer efforts on its behalf, builds affordable homes for low-income people willing to put in hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” to become homeowners.

In Lexington, Habitat has typically built new homes, usually in neighborhoods north of Main Street in the East End, West End and Winburn, where inexpensive lots were available. This venture was Habitat’s first at renovating existing homes in other neighborhoods, and Rachel Smith Childress, the organization’s Lexington executive director, said it turned out to be a winner for everyone.

“Our families like them because they’re in other nice neighborhoods and have amenities that aren’t typically part of our homes,” she said. “Plus, it removes vacant houses from neighborhoods, increases property values for everyone and increases property tax revenues for the city.”

For example, the house at 224 Savoy Road, which was built about 1960, is brick with hardwood floors and vintage knotty pine paneling. The kitchen includes a dishwasher. None of that is in a new Habitat house.

But the house needed work, including bathroom and kitchen remodeling, which was done by Habitat staff, volunteers and future Habitat homeowners. Whirlpool donated other needed kitchen appliances.

Money for the renovation was donated by business sponsors Paul Miller Ford, Ford Motor Co., PNC Bank and the PNC Foundation. Support for the other renovations has come from Ashland Inc., Calvary Baptist Church and Back Construction.

More than 500 hours of work was performed by the new owners of 224 Savoy Road, Emmanuel Katchofa, and his wife, Marceline Ilunga. He was a physician in the Congo before they and their five children fled the war-torn country and were resettled in Lexington by the U.S. State Department and Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Katchofa and Ilunga both now have jobs, although he is unable to practice medicine because his license is not valid in this country.

Legal refugees from the Congo and other troubled African nations now make up about half of the 15 or 20 Lexington families Habitat is able to help become home owners each year. That is because refugees come here without bad credit histories and with strong motivation to succeed, Childress said.

Henson said she and her neighbors are happy to have the vacant house on Savoy Road restored and occupied.

“It was a real blessing to the neighborhood,” she said. “Those properties are looking great now, and it will be really good to have folks living there.”

Although federal stimulus money is no longer available, Henson and Childress hope Habitat’s partnership with the city on rehabilitating vacant houses or building on abandoned lots can find new ways to continue.

“We’re talking with the city about property and buildings and partnerships,” Childress said. “But the need for affordable housing goes beyond home ownership.

“Everyone is not going to be a homeowner. We really have a huge gap in decent rental housing that is affordable in Lexington. It’s a huge need.”

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Dilapidated YWCA cleared to create Parkside

January 30, 2012

In the early 1960s, this place was the Cabana Club, and 5-year-old Holly Wiedemann came here to learn how to skate on Lexington’s only ice rink.

In the early 1970s, it was The Aquatic Club, and Wiedemann came here to swim with the Greater Lexington Swim Association and play on the adjacent putt-putt miniature golf course.

Now, this 6.2-acre site in southwest Lexington’s Gardenside neighborhood is called Parkside, a stylish new development whose first phase opened last week with 36 beautiful apartments for low-income people and offices for two social service agencies.

Parkside required creating a complicated network of public-private partnerships and financing, and it was organized and built by Holly Wiedemann.

Wiedemann, 56, is president of AU Associates, a Lexington development company that specializes in restoring old buildings and converting distressed properties into affordable housing. Over the past 21 years, the company has done $63 million worth of projects throughout Kentucky and in West Virginia with 350 housing units and more than 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

Many previous AU Associates projects have involved creating affordable housing by restoring old school buildings in small towns. She also developed the upscale Artek Lofts on Old Georgetown Street and is now working on The Bread Box, which involves converting an old Rainbo Bread bakery on Jefferson Street into a craft brewery, artist studios and the Broke Spoke Community Bicycle Shop.

Parkside was different than most AU Associates projects. Rather than “adaptive use” — that’s what AU stands for — of an existing building, the old swim and skating facility had to be demolished. Parkside’s three new, connected structures were built on the former putt-putt course.

Gardenside has changed a lot in the decades since it was a new, upscale development, then on the edge of Lexington. Back then, Wiedemann could ride her pony to the club from her family’s farm at the end of Beacon Hill Road.

The YWCA acquired the private swim club in 1977 and operated the pool and a fitness center until early 2006, when it abruptly closed because of the organization’s financial problems. After dropping affiliation with the national organization, the YWCA became the Brenda D. Cowan Coalition for Kentucky, named for a firefighter killed while responding to a domestic-violence situation.

The coalition’s plans to turn the center into affordable housing stalled, and vandalism and neglect made the facility irreparable and a threat to neighbors in the 1960s-era apartment buildings around it. AU Associates acquired the property and put together the deal to build Parkside.

Parkside’s one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments will rent from $500 to $700 per month to individuals and families earning 60 percent or less of the area median income. The apartments feature energy-saving construction and appliances, plus fancy design touches rarely seen in low-income housing.

Wiedemann said the project created 108 direct jobs, and she tried to use local suppliers when possible. For example, all of the kitchen cabinets were made by a small company near Hodgenville.

The buildings’ first floors will house rent-free offices for two non-profit organizations: Bluegrass Domestic Violence and Sunflower Kids, which works to help children maintain safe relationships with non-custodial parents.

Parkside was financed by Citizens Union Bank of Shelbyville, affordable housing tax credits and trust funds from the Kentucky Housing Corp., the Community Affordable Housing Equity Corp. and the city’s Division of Community Development. City Studios Architecture of Cincinnati designed the contemporary-style project. If Parkside is successful, an additional phase is planned on the adjacent swim-club site.

“What I think you have here is market-rate housing at an affordable price,” said Mark Offerman of the Kentucky Housing Corp. “It’s some of the nicest in the neighborhood.”

At Parkside’s dedication last Wednesday, Mayor Jim Gray also hailed it as a great example of urban infill redevelopment that revitalizes neighborhoods and preserves Lexington’s unique farmland by avoiding suburban sprawl.

“Whatever Holly Wiedemann touches is going to have a transformative effect on our city,” Gray said. “Holly has this extraordinary sense of great design. When we build a city around great design, it lasts a long time.”

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I hope BUILD’s style doesn’t hamper further success

March 24, 2010

The gymnasium was packed. The crowd was excited. It’s March, but this wasn’t a basketball game.

Nearly 1,400 people filled Imani Baptist Church’s gymnasium Monday night to work toward more affordable housing, more access to health care for uninsured people and more effective strategies for dealing with youth crime, drug abuse and school behavioral problems.

It was the annual “action assembly” of BUILD — Building a United Interfaith Lexington by Direct Action — an interdenominational coalition of 17 Christian churches that for seven years has done impressive work to help solve some of Lexington’s biggest social problems.

In previous years, BUILD has spurred the city to create a drug treatment program for women in jail and to improve code enforcement in trailer parks. The organization has prompted school officials to reduce middle school suspension rates by using more effective strategies with troubled students. And it has worked with the county health department and other providers to find ways to treat more uninsured patients.

At Monday night’s assembly, BUILD announced that it has brokered an agreement to begin a pilot project in Lexington’s family courts. The project will use a proven mediation process called “family group conferencing” to try to rehabilitate young people ages 11 to 17 who are using alcohol or drugs.

The biggest issue at Monday night’s assembly — as it was last year — was BUILD’s effort to create a city-supported affordable-housing trust fund.

BUILD cites studies showing that homelessness in Lexington has risen 38 percent since last year and that more than 35 percent of renting households pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent.

At BUILD’s urging, Mayor Jim Newberry appointed a 47-member commission in May 2008 to study the issue. The commission recommended a trust fund, an effective strategy used by 600 local governments nationwide.

The commission said that, with an annual revenue stream of $3 million to $5 million, a trust fund could leverage federal money and conventional loans to build 336 affordable homes each year or renovate 1,400 existing ones. It said the effort would create 448 jobs the first year and 176 every year afterward.

The commission recommended that initial funding come from a 1 percentage point increase in the local 6 percent tax on insurance premiums. That would add a little more than $7 to the average annual cost of a home insurance or auto insurance policy. Over time, the commission said, the investment would more than pay for itself in other local tax revenue and increased economic activity.

Newberry rejected the idea, and instead proposed contributing $250,000, to be matched by private donations. BUILD called that inadequate. Vice Mayor Jim Gray formed a task force to study revenue sources for a trust fund, but it hasn’t reported its findings.

BUILD activists are impatient, the city budget is tight, and this election year is a tough time for politicians to even consider a tax increase — any tax increase.

BUILD invited Newberry and all 15 Urban County Council members to attend Monday night’s session. There, they would be formally asked if they would pledge to identify a dedicated city funding source of $3 million to $5 million a year and commit to the first reading of an ordinance approving it.

Newberry, Gray and Councilman Chuck Ellinger were the only ones who appeared.

The Rev. Richard Gaines of Consolidated Baptist Church asked each of the three for support. Newberry replied, as he did last year, “Not at this time.” Gray and Ellinger tried to explain that they were waiting for the task force’s report and the city budget process, but what BUILD wanted was “yes” or “no,” not an explanation.

“I think it’s too complicated for a yes or no answer,” Ellinger said afterward.

There’s a lot to admire about BUILD’s process, and its goals and accomplishments. The organization identifies big, tough problems through listening sessions with member congregations. It then appoints committees to investigate them thoroughly. It finds proven strategies and proposes realistic solutions, with firm deadlines and accountability. BUILD activists are well-organized and polite, but firm.

Still, I fear that BUILD’s confrontational style might eventually do it more harm than good.

I can certainly sympathize with the desire to get straight answers from politicians — I’ve spent much of my career trying to do it.

But among our sound-bite society’s many issues is the tendency to oversimplify complex problems and solutions, and turn every gray area into black or white.

It’s a delicate balance. I hope, given the important work that BUILD is doing, that its leaders are able to maintain it.

Church turns old buildings into affordable homes

July 23, 2009

It was a puzzle with no easy answer.

Two buildings from the mid-1800s — former servants’ quarters and Lexington’s oldest apartment house — were in such bad shape they had been condemned.

Their demolition would have left another sad gap in the historic neighborhood between downtown and Gratz Park.

Meanwhile, there is a need for affordable housing downtown for low-income people and retirees. Officials estimate that more than 8,700 households in Fayette County spend more than half of their income on rent.

With a lot of work and creative financing — such as tax credits and grants — the puzzle was solved Thursday with the dedication of First Presbyterian Church Apartments on Market Street.

The two buildings were carefully restored into a studio apartment, two one-bedroom units and seven two-bedroom apartments that will rent for between $330 and $550 a month. Tenants must have incomes below $22,700 for singles and $26,000 for families. Even before the first residents have moved in, there’s a waiting list.

Not only are the apartments affordable, they’re beautiful. While adding modern closets, fixtures and appliances, the developers preserved the buildings’ exterior, as well as inside touches such as windows, woodwork, wooden floors and fireplace mantels.

The large project team celebrated the apartments’ completion Thursday with a ceremony next door in First Presbyterian’s chapel.

“This project has been both a joy and an honor,” said Holly Wiedemann, a church member and president of AU Associates, which specializes in converting old buildings into affordable housing.

“It can be done,” Wiedemann said. “Historic buildings can be saved. Affordable housing can be produced, and it is desperately needed.”

Clyde Carpenter, a University of Kentucky architecture professor and member of the church, spoke passionately about both Christian outreach and historic preservation.

“Preservation is as much about the future as the past … it is about environmental sustainability, not wasting, not consuming,” he said.

In addition to giving historic buildings new life, Carpenter said, the apartments will add vitality to the neighborhood.

First Presbyterian, which recently restored its circa 1872 sanctuary, has played an important role in keeping the neighborhood vital. Among other things, the church restored Henry Clay’s law office next door and built a magnificent contemporary chapel in the 1990s that Carpenter helped design.

First Presbyterian Apartments, Carpenter said, represents a new ministry for the church.

AU Associates led the project on the church’s behalf with a big cast of characters. Financing came from Central Bank, the city, the Kentucky Heritage Council and the Kentucky Housing Corp. Design was done by S+A Architecture, with construction by Churchill McGee LLC.

Behind the scenes were many more partners, from lawyers Robert Vice and Mac Deegan to Kentucky American Water Co., which replaced water lines so old that some of them were made of wood.

“This is a model we need to replicate for other projects,” Urban County Council member Diane Lawless said of the public-private partnership. “Not only is it affordable housing, it is quality affordable housing. That makes all the difference.”

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