© 2023 Louisville Public Media

Public Files:
89.3 WFPL · 90.5 WUOL-FM · 91.9 WFPK

For assistance accessing our public files, please contact info@lpm.org or call 502-814-6500
89.3 WFPL News | 90.5 WUOL Classical 91.9 WFPK Music | KyCIR Investigations
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting is examining how various housing issues are widening inequity in Louisville and what is or isn’t being done to fix things.

One woman’s fight with the land bank could reopen pathways to generational wealth in west Louisville

Mary Hall, wearing a jean jacket with a serious look on her face, stands in front of the lot on the 1600 block of West Kentucky Street where her childhood home once stood.
Jacob Ryan
/
Mary Hall wouldn't let the memory of her childhood home fade even after the city land bank took and demolished it. But her push to reclaim the land where the house stood sparked change that could ripple through her whole community.

When Mary Hall was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, friends, relatives and a sense of stability filled her family’s small shotgun house on the 1600 block of West Kentucky Street.

Hall’s maternal grandparents had transferred the home’s deed to her mother and father in 1956 after the young couple followed them from Alabama with plans to raise their own family in Louisville.

The home in west Louisville’s California neighborhood felt like the center of a thriving village to Hall and her five siblings, she said. Their grandparents lived a few blocks away. She remembers a grocery on the corner, a barbershop and an old-fashioned beer joint that had snacks for kids where parents in the neighborhood would hang out.

“We didn’t have to worry about nothing over here,” she said.

But that changed.

Her father, Lester, fell from a ladder one day working on the house. Doctors found cancer in his body when he went to the hospital. He died a few years later, in 1987, two days after Christmas. He was 61.

City officials forced her mother to move out of the house in 1989 after inspectors deemed it uninhabitable because of a faulty heater, Hall said. They said her mother couldn’t return before ordering costly repairs, according to Hall. A city spokesperson said in November they cannot confirm Hall’s account because they don’t have the records needed to do so.

The house sat empty for several years. Hall admits she wasn’t keeping track of things back then. She was in her early 30s, in her own apartment, raising two sons as a single mother and forging a career as a hairdresser.

Her mother, also named Mary, assured her she’d save money for the heater repairs and move back in.

Hall didn’t ask many questions.

She didn’t expect what happened next.

“There weren’t any warnings,” said Hall, now 65. “Maybe my mother knew, but she didn’t tell us anything.”

The city filed a mass foreclosure lawsuit in 1992 alleging the Hall home and 19 other properties had unpaid taxes. The family owed about $2,500 in city and county taxes. None of the other owners owed more than $5,000 and almost all the properties, like the Halls’, were in predominantly Black West End communities.

A judge ordered the foreclosure, and the Louisville and Jefferson County Land Bank Authority acquired the property in 1994 after the county auctioned it off. The home sat there vacant until the early 2000s, when the city tore it down.

Hall said many of her mother’s belongings were still inside — the cast iron table where she made dumplings, the closet full of hats she wore to church.

The land bank, the public entity that took the property, was established by state law in 1988 with the power to acquire vacant, abandoned or tax-delinquent property and sell it at a sharp discount. The governor, the mayor and the local school board each appoint one person to the land bank’s three-member governing board.

Since 2010, the board has approved the sale of about 680 properties and sold about three-quarters of them for $1,000 or less.

It sold the Hall family’s property for $500 in 2018.

But she refused to let the home’s memory fade. It was more than just a piece of land. It was a symbol of Black success and a piece of wealth that should have been passed through her family for generations to come, Hall said.

She started digging into records and piecing together the details of what happened to the property — and how she could get it back.

From Hall’s perspective, land bank officials and private developers have helped perpetuate a biased system that strips wealth from Louisville’s historically Black neighborhoods: areas targeted by decades of racist housing policies and wracked by disinvestment.

For proof, she points to the vacant lot where her childhood home once stood.

Losing the property — and then the home — devastated the family.

“This was my heart right here,” she said with tears welling in her eyes, standing in front of the empty lot on a windy afternoon in late October. “They took it.”

Thinking back to when she was preparing to fight the city to get her land back, she recalled words of encouragement from her friend, former Louisville Metro Council member Willie Bright, who died in 2005.

“He said, ‘Don’t you stop until you get back what belongs to you,’” she said. “He said ‘You need to go to the main source.’”

A closer look at Louisville’s land bank

When city officials acquired the Hall home they used the land bank just as it was designed: They identified a property with a debt to the city and they took it.

Laura Grabowski, the director of the Louisville Metro Office of Housing and Community Development, said the land bank is a critical tool for the city’s efforts to address properties that are often abandoned, vacant or debt-ridden. It can clear a title and sell to a buyer who usually wants to develop the property.

The land bank controls less than 10% of the approximately 5,000 vacant or abandoned properties in the city, but it can have profound impacts on neighborhoods, she said.

“What people don't see are the neighbors that come out, and, you know, are thanking us and thanking our staff for finally doing something with that abandoned property,” she said. “Even the small drops in the bucket have meant everything to a variety of neighbors, the community itself.”

But Hall and her relatives said this system harmed their family.

“It's like proving what you hear about Black families not being able to carry that generational wealth because of a corrupt system,” said Nalette Hampton, Hall’s niece who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. “And we're seeing that happen. And I think there needs to be something done about it.”

Almost all of the 680 properties the land bank sold between 2010 and August of this year are in the city’s predominantly Black West End, according to city records obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting through an open records request.

Community development experts interviewed for this story said the concentration of vacant or abandoned properties in the West End reflects decades of disinvestment and institutional racism that have limited Black residents’ ability to buy and maintain homes, resulting in lower rates of homeownership, higher rates of foreclosure and higher rates of poverty.

Research suggests land bank programs can help cities address burdensome properties, create wealth-building opportunities and improve neighborhoods when the programs are well-resourced and run effectively.

But in Louisville, officials have for years focused narrowly on getting rid of properties as quickly as possible, oftentimes to developers with ready capital to pay property taxes and make costly repairs.

Along the way, they could have done more to create affordable housing, foster more homeownership and prevent displacement of local residents, elected officials and housing advocates said.

“When we're not being intentional about creating scenarios where everyday people can get into a position of ownership and build value for their families, those are missed opportunities,” said Jeana Dunlap, the former director of Louisville Metro’s redevelopment strategies.

When the city sells land for cheap it can help people avoid a mortgage and reap the rewards of appreciating property values over time, Dunlap said. But it can also incentivize investors and speculators to buy up property to wring out profits, she said.

More than one in four properties sold by the land bank since 2010 — nearly 200 — were bought by for-profit corporations, according to KyCIR’s analysis.

No single entity bought more from the land bank than Mirage Properties. The company bought 37 properties, mainly in West End neighborhoods, for a total of about $31,000 between 2017 and 2021. Mirage sold its entire portfolio, a rental empire spanning more than 700 units, earlier this year for more than $50 million.

Amherst Residential — an investor-backed real estate company from Texas that owns more single-family homes in Louisville than anyone — bought 22 of Mirage’s former land bank properties. An investigation published by KyCIR in August found Amherst had quietly bought hundreds of properties through at least 31 different subsidiaries in recent years to become west Louisville’s biggest private landlord. The report highlighted Amherst residents’ complaints about bad communication, hidden fees and property maintenance issues.

Nonprofit groups are also buyers in the land bank market, accounting for nearly 20% of the properties sold in the past 12 years. These groups, such as Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville and the Louisville Urban League’s REBOUND Inc., often look to build new owner-occupied housing on cheap, empty lots from the land bank and provide financing to homebuyers with incomes below the area’s median income, said Rob Locke, Habitat’s chief executive officer.

KyCIR’s analysis showed that private companies and nonprofits bought about half of the properties sold by the land bank since 2010. The actual share is likely higher. But land bank officials said they don’t have the data to determine how many properties were bought by people on behalf of registered entities and how many were purchased by individual residents.

That’s because the land bank hasn’t been tracking demographic information about people who buy, renovate or end up living on the land, according to a racial equity review of the program city officials began working on in 2020.

The land bank recently started taking applications from prospective buyers again after temporarily suspending sales earlier this year to finish the review, which touted the land bank’s positive impact on neighborhood residents but couldn’t elaborate on how transactions have furthered racial equity because of the lack of data.

The review acknowledged other barriers to equity, including policies that don't clearly spell out how the land bank intends to benefit people in communities and an outreach strategy that targeted potential buyers without seeking enough input from neighbors about project proposals. In response to the review, land bank leaders adopted sweeping changes to how properties are sold to prioritize homeownership and advance racial equity goals.

Grabowski, the Louisville Metro housing director, said land bank officials will begin tracking who buys the properties. The agency is facing pressure to boost homeownership and reduce the racial wealth gap by ensuring more properties go to local, Black residents.

Land bank staff also secured funding to help buyers with rehab costs, and Grabowski is hopeful the new programming will yield different results than in years past.

“You do as well as you can until you know better, and then you do better,” Grabowski said. “I hope that in three years, we're looking back at our sales starting now, and we're seeing more homeowners.”

Louisville Metro Council Member Keisha Dorsey, a Democrat representing District 3, which includes the western neighborhood of Shively, said she’s not surprised developers are buying the lion’s share of the land bank’s inventory. She said they’re more likely to have the resources needed to complete costly renovations. Private entities often move into profitable markets before government has a chance to install policies that protect consumers, she said.

Dorsey said the land bank could be a catalyst to rally the collective power of local government to help residents deal with rising rents and home purchase prices as developers buy up land across the city — both from private and public sellers.

City officials should include clawback provisions to get a property back if developers fail to meet promises, and they could encourage landlords to hold town halls with residents to be more transparent and communicative, she said.

Dorsey wants the local government to develop long-term strategies that use city-owned residential property to create affordable homeownership opportunities.

Land bank properties can be used to jumpstart broader ambitions surrounding zoning reform and neighborhood design standards, she said.

“My priority would be that these properties go to people who have some skin in the game,” she said. “We actually have a chance to actually change the landscape of what is known as a primarily and historically segregated city.”

Dorsey will leave her seat on the council in January to be the deputy chief of staff for the incoming mayor, Craig Greenberg.

“Circling back”

Hall holds a picture of herself as a young girl sitting in a little red wagon outside the old family home.
Jacob Ryan
/
This old photo of Hall shows her as a child outside the family home.

When she’s not digging into her family history, Hall runs a small pressure washing business and cleans houses in the California neighborhood that get coated each year with a black fungus — the byproduct, she said, of a nearby bourbon distillery.

In a way, the job is a symbol of her love for her neighborhood. She said she sees herself as one of the area’s caretakers. She’s also a leader in her family and a steward of the Hall legacy.

On a Sunday evening in late November, Hall gathered with loved ones at her house and served them spaghetti for dinner before they met with a KyCIR reporter to talk about the family’s land.

Her brother, son and his wife and 22-year-old daughter crowded into the living room, where Hall sat a laptop on a folding table covered with documents. As they waited for relatives on the West Coast to join the conversation through Zoom, they picked through a plastic tub full of old photos.

They found a picture of Hall as a young girl sitting in a little red wagon outside the old family home. One picture shows her brother and grandmother smiling and sitting together — squeezed onto a dining room chair — with their kitchen’s brown linoleum floors in the background. Her maternal grandfather shows off a catfish as long as his torso in another image, holding the creature above her younger brother’s head.

In an old black and white photo, Hall's maternal grandfather shows off a catfish as long as his torso, holding the creature above her younger brother’s head.
Courtesy of Mary Hall
Hall's maternal grandfather shows off a catfish in this old family photo with her younger brother.

Hall’s grandfather and father made good money from taking on stonework and construction jobs, she said — enough for her grandfather to buy a fishing boat and for her father to buy a few nearby properties.

“He wanted us to have wealth,” Hall said.

City officials took that wealth when they took the family’s property almost 30 years ago — starting with the family home, then later another piece of land across the street that Hall’s father bought the year he died.

The home also was the family’s refuge that anchors countless memories for Hall, her son and relatives. But Hall said after the city forced her mother to leave, tragedy followed.

Her mother moved into the Beecher Terrace housing project in the Russell neighborhood after leaving the family home on West Kentucky Street in the late 1980s.

A man robbed her as she walked to a bus stop not long after she moved there. A year later, Hall said the family found her a house that she rented with a Section 8 voucher. The house had buckled carpet and was infested with roaches so the siblings moved their mom again, to another apartment.

But a fire tore through the place in 1995, killing two grandchildren, Hall said.

Hall’s sister-in-law, Carolyn Hall, said the deadly fire can be directly traced back to losing the family home.

“All this was because Ms. Hall had to move,” she said.

The loss of the home also ripped a safe haven from Hall’s twin sisters, who each battled drug addiction at the time. Without it, the women had no place to shelter them from the swirl of the outside world, and they spiraled further into drug use before they got clean a decade ago, Hall said.

Hall eventually moved into her grandmother’s home a few blocks west from the family’s property to be a caretaker for the matriarch and her own mother after they each had strokes — her mother had one and her grandmother had a series of seven.

As the family weathered years of hardship after hardship, Hall said her mind kept “circling back” to the family property that had meant so much to her parents and siblings.

She kept tabs on the property. She said she called city officials but they told her only that it’d been foreclosed on and the city owned it, nothing more.

Then one day a few years ago, Hall discovered in online property records the site of her childhood home had a new owner.

A fight for home

After the city acquired the property as part of a mass foreclosure in 1994, it sat idle for more than 16 years before the land bank’s three-member board considered selling it to Elizabeth Rodes.

At the time, Rodes ran a nonprofit called Blockchange LLC and was looking to spend $2,000 to buy the Hall property and three other lots on West Kentucky Street. She wanted to build new homes and put them up for sale.

Rodes, who then lived in the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood east of downtown, told the board the finished homes would sell for up to $120,000 and that she wanted buyers from the California neighborhood where Hall grew up.

The board unanimously approved the sale in September 2018.

Hall called Rodes not long after and left a voicemail telling her how her family lost the property and said she’d like it back. Rodes followed up with Hall and acknowledged that the project she had pitched to the city would not work out given increasing construction costs.

She offered to sell the land to Hall for what she had paid — $500.

However, Rodes couldn’t just sell the land.

The deal she made with the land bank mandated she complete the project she pitched or give the property back to Metro Government. In September 2019, a year after buying the lot from the city, Rodes gave it back. When she did, she said she suggested the land bank give Hall the property.

About a year later, in January 2021, Mary Hall logged onto a virtual land bank board meeting where city officials proposed selling back her family’s property for $1.

That sounded like good news.

But it wasn’t over yet.

“I still went through some hell,” she said.

William Schreck, the land bank board chair at the time who was appointed by Mayor Greg Fischer, rejected the proposed sale at the January meeting.

Schreck said he helped craft the state law that created the city’s land bank and argued that giving the property back to Hall didn’t fit policy or intent.

He stressed that Hall, who lived several blocks west of her family’s property, didn’t meet the criteria to buy the land — which at the time mandated a person live on the same block of a vacant lot in order to buy it. He also said the city had invested too much in foreclosing on the property and demolishing the home to sell it for $1.

“Our ultimate goal is to get the property back into the hands of people that will build and do something with the property,” he said.

Giving the property to someone “just to have it” doesn’t accomplish those goals, he said.

But Hall told the board she wanted to build on the site, host community events and maybe even tap city resources for assisting funds.

Still, Schreck said the property was zoned for residential use only. Hall would need a zoning change to do what she intended, he said.

“I have concerns about transferring properties outside our policies,” he said during the meeting.

A guest at the meeting, Issac Fosl-Van Wyke, put a message in the virtual chat box criticizing how the city took Hall’s family’s property. He had come to the meeting for an unrelated issue. But when he heard the story unfold, he said he felt compelled to speak up.

“There is inherent value in returning land that was taken unjustly — value to communities through justice for families whose potential for wealth-building was stolen by bureaucratic instances of systemic racism,” Fosl-Van Wyke wrote.

His words caught the eye of Edward Muns, another land bank board member appointed by the Jefferson County school board, who took time to read Wyke’s message aloud during the meeting.

However, the meeting ended without a vote.

Board members wanted staffers to craft a new policy that would give people like Hall — people with familial ties to property — a mechanism for getting that land back.

Grabowski introduced the policy at the next board meeting a month later. The board voted to approve it. Schreck was the only board member who voted against the policy.

Hall had cleared one hurdle. But the board still had to decide on the sale of Hall’s family land. Before that vote, Louisville Metro Council President David James addressed the board. At the time, Hall was his constituent and he’d come at her request.

James told the board that returning properties that were taken “in a questionable way” — like the Hall family’s land — should be a priority for the land bank.

He, like Dorsey, will leave the Metro Council next month to lead the city’s emergency services in the Greenberg administration.

He said there are too many unknowns surrounding the mass foreclosure in the 1990s that let the city take Hall’s family’s land to characterize it as good or bad; there aren’t many records or people involved that are still around. But looking back, he said what happened likely wasn’t in the best interest of the neighborhood.

“It’s important that the land bank authority try to find ways … to create situations that can help restore communities,” he said at the meeting. “Some of these properties have been taken decades and decades in the past by the city in ways that would not stand today.”

In the end, Hall got her family’s property back.

The board voted 2-1 in favor of the sale. The property was listed for $1, but the board didn’t make her pay it. Schreck, the only board member who voted against Hall, resigned in October after Fischer appointed him to serve on the city’s ethics commission. He did not return multiple requests for comment. None of the board members returned interview requests from KyCIR.

Hall is the first and only person to utilize the new policy that allows people with a direct family tie to a property in the city’s land bank to get it back, said Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson for Develop Louisville, which oversees the city’s land bank program.

The policy specifies that people who are the child, grandchild or great-grandchild of a property owner who lost land to the land bank can apply to reclaim the land. Only vacant lots will be sold through the policy, buyers must have a plan and timeline for how they will use the lot and the minimum price will be $250.

The change was sparked by Mary Hall, said Bowling.

“It really was her coming forward that spurred the creation of this policy,” she said.

But city officials aren’t proactively searching for people with family ties to properties. At least, not right now.

Bowling said city housing officials will launch a program in early 2023 that will focus on delving into the history of properties currently in the land bank and hundreds of others the city maintains. The aim: to find out if family members want them, or at least give descendants a chance to have a say in what happens to the land, Bowling said.

The program is an expansion of the policy initiated by Hall’s fight, she said.

Tracing the heirs to property in the city’s coffers is a concrete step local government officials can take that could lead to real impact for families that want to build wealth by reclaiming their land, said Kentucky state Rep. Keturah Herron, a Democrat representing District 42.

“They may not want it, but if they do, then how do we make that happen,” she asked. “We owe that to those families.”

Herron joined Hall for a walk along West Kentucky Street on a windy October morning. Hall invited her because it’s Herron’s district and she wanted her to hear, firsthand, about the rich history of the California neighborhood and how it deserves to be preserved like more affluent parts of town — like the blocks along Northwestern Parkway in Shawnee, or the area surrounding Central Park in Old Louisville, or the Highlands.

Herron listened to Hall’s story of how her family’s land was taken, and how she got it back.

After an hour, Herron said the city has some responsibility to repair the harm to other families like Hall’s.

“I think it would be a long, tough process,” she said. “But I think that it’s possible.”

"If we don’t preserve our history, we won’t have any"

Mary Hall stands outside in the California neighborhood by her land.
Jacob Ryan
/
Mary Hall regrets she couldn't save her childhood home. But she's proud she wrestled the land beneath it back from the land bank.

Hall is quick to invite people to her neighborhood to walk the block and talk about the legacy of Louisville’s California. It’s her passion, she said. When she walks the four blocks from her current home to her family’s property, she can point out dozens of homes along the way and name the people that once lived inside them.

She’s working on starting a nonprofit that will be dedicated to helping people trace their family histories in the California neighborhood.

“If we don’t preserve our history, we won’t have any,” she said.

While Hall wishes that she could have saved her family home, she’s proud that she was able to wrestle the land back from the city.

Today, there’s a new shed on the property that’s painted yellow with white trim. It’s got a window to let in natural light and Hall hopes the small building will be something of a neighborhood headquarters, a place where people can visit, learn about the area and share their own stories.

Hall still goes to land bank meetings regularly to advocate against property sales to developers and investors, and she encourages other people to do the same.

She also recently delivered a petition with more than 300 signatures to the chair of the Louisville Metro Council’s Government Oversight and Audit Committee, calling on the body to investigate how city officials have “retained, seized and confiscated” properties over the past 50 years.

“I’m going to follow it all the way through, so I get back what belongs to my whole neighborhood,” Hall said. “Not just me.”

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.