More than 200 people attended the release of the 2018 Neighborhood Assessment Report on Vacant and Abandoned in Louisville and a discussion that followed. | Photo courtesy of Michael Kopp

More than 200 people were at the Chestnut Street YMCA on Tuesday night for the release of the Neighborhood Assessment Report on Vacant and Abandoned in Louisville compiled by New Directions Housing Corporation, a nonprofit housing developer.

Kitty McKune, chief development officer for New Directions, told Insider the report was put together with input from more than 200 community leaders, including members of about 20 neighborhood associations, along with property information provided by the Louisville Metro Office of Redevelopment and Vacant and Abandoned Properties.

According to the city data, there are more than 5,000 vacant and abandoned properties in the city, the majority of them located in west Louisville. The New Directions report highlights just 29 of these properties.

The report’s unveiling was followed by small group discussion facilitated by 1619 Flux Art+Activism, a nonprofit dedicated to using creativity to transform the community.

McKune said New Directions and 1619 Flux intend to host a series of neighborhood discussions across the city in the coming months to start formulating a grassroots solution to dealing with the issues that lead to vacant and abandoned properties.

“These properties are a symptom of a larger problem. Things like economic equity, access to lending and appraisal gaps. Those are all issues that we have to address. It is very important to focus on the process in terms of foreclosure because that is one lever the city has at its disposal,” McKune added.

Laura Grabowski, director of vacant and public property administration, and Robert Kirchdorfer, director of codes and regulations, were at the event to answer questions about the city’s role with problem properties.

Kirchdorfer said the city’s goal is not to take possession of the houses but to get owners to make repairs and bring them into compliance. However, he said, this became more complicated after the housing market collapsed in 2008 and made it harder for his inspectors to get homeowners to be compliant.

“The penalty fee was supposed to be used as a tool to try to get the owner’s attention, and so was demolition. I did see a big change after the downturn. When we use to issue a demolition order, people would come out of the woodwork and say, ‘What can I do?’ After the downturn, the houses just became numbers. People just walked away from them and we didn’t have that same stick that we used to have,” he explained.

Laura Grabowski, director of vacant and public property administration, and Robert Kirchdorfer, director of codes and regulations, addressed the crowd at the report release. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Kirchdorfer said the city has 14,000 open cases on homes that have been cited for disrepair, and it could take years to resolve them because the owners of these homes have the right to appeal.

The New Directions report and the neighborhood discussions are important, Grabowski said, because they will help the city understand why these properties are being abandoned.

“There are a variety of different scenarios where property becomes abandoned. We all have to understand that real estate is the major way people build wealth. So, people don’t make a rational decision to just walk away from something that is valuable. It is important to understand the reasons so we can then design the solutions to fix it,” she added.

The city has more than 600 vacant and abandoned properties in its possession, Grabowski said. She explained that her department is only concerned with homes that are assumed abandoned, usually because Kirchdorfer’s office is having to maintain the property year after year with no contact with the owner.

New Directions Housing Corporation was founded by Father O’Connor at his parish, Saint William Church, a Roman Catholic congregation located at 13th and Oak Streets and incorporated as a nonprofit in 1971.

This is the 17th year that New Directions has done its neighborhood assessment report. McKune said the organization’s staff decided to partner with 1619 and get the city more involved because it recognized that just highlighting problem properties and having one neighborhood meeting was not going to create change.

“I would love to sit up here, wave the magic wand, and say, ‘Yep, New Directions has all the answers and we can solve this in six easy steps,’ ” she said. “But the answer is not simple. Part of this education and part of this is involvement and engagement with our community.”

McKune compared the way the community has approached the vacant housing problem in the past to waiting for a boat to go over a waterfall and then trying to put the pieces back together. She said it is time for a more proactive approach.

“We need to be looking at more potential options and solutions that are upstream,” she said, adding, “that are trying to solve the problem of a house slowly going into disrepair or a widow who needs help paying her property taxes. That’s a tall order, but there are things we can do.”

McKune said the city’s plan to leverage a $30 million grant to revitalize the Russell neighborhood into a wider renaissance of the city’s West End provides an opportunity to redevelop a large number of vacant and abandoned homes. But she stressed that there needed to precautions taken to keep current residents in their communities.

“One of the things we have going for us is that there are some economic engines and drivers that are coming, for instance, to the Russell neighborhood in terms of the HUD grant,” she said. “And to the California neighborhood in terms of the new YMCA and Passport Health Plan headquarters. But the answer can’t be we trade a small group getting ahead for the people who have been in these neighborhoods forever. Gentrification is a concern and it’s a valid concern.”

[dc_ad size="9"] [dc_ad size="10"]
Michael L. Jones
Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.