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The Metro Council's Vacant Properties Group Keeps Canceling Its Meetings

The house in Shawnee has been abandoned for as long as neighbor George Palmer can remember.
The house in Shawnee has been abandoned for as long as neighbor George Palmer can remember.

Canceled meetings are the norm for the Louisville Metro Council's recently established committee on vacant properties.

All but one of the committee's monthly meetings have been scratched off council agendas this year, according to council archives. The lone meeting came in March; it was the committee's first meeting of the year.

The five-member committee was established earlier this year by council president David Yates as a way to re-energize efforts to quell the city's struggle with vacant and abandoned properties.

There are nearly 7,500 vacant or abandoned properties in Louisville spanning across each of the council's 26 districts, according to a March 2016 report from Develop Louisville. Such properties plague neighbors, and fines levied against the properties total more than $40 million.

In a January news release, Yates said the committee would help members "see where we as a council can help on the local and state level to address this concern for many of our neighborhoods.”

Jeana Dunlap, head of the city department for vacant properties, was unavailable for comment Tuesday, according a spokesman.

Despite the burden the properties pose, the council committee tasked with addressing the issue has canceled four meetings in as many months. That's because no legislative action has been assigned to the committee members, according to a legislative aide for Councilman Brent Ackerson, who chairs the vacant property committee.

Ackerson, a Democrat from District 26, was not available for comment on Tuesday.

Following the committee's one meeting this year, Ackerson said addressing the issue of vacant and abandoned properties hinges on the council's willingness "to make it a long-term priority and come up with a solid plan."

But continuing to cancel scheduled meetings may be sending another message, said Laurie Rhodebeck, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville.

"It does suggest that the issue is not seen as a priority," she said.

Rhodebeck said repeatedly canceling meetings eliminates opportunities to keep the public updated and engaged on the topic.

"To have a scheduled meeting is to create a public forum where people can air their views," she said. "Not having that, and repeatedly not having that, suggests a lack of transparency on the committee's behalf."

Dialogue a Necessary First Step, Advocates Say

Kevin Dunlap, director of the Louisville Urban League's REBOUND housing program, which focuses in part on rehabilitating vacant and abandoned properties, said the committee's continued cancellation of scheduled meetings shouldn't be seen as a sign they're "backing away" from addressing the issue of vacant properties.

Yet still, Dunlap said monthly meetings could be helpful for council members to stay up to date on the progress being made in reducing the prevalence of vacant or abandoned properties across the city.

"Dialogue is always going to be great," he said.

Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, said there's no absence of topics worthy of the committee's discussion. She said she reached out to Ackerson earlier this year via email with the preliminary findings of research on how the foreclosure process affects the proliferation of vacant and abandoned properties. Ackerson never responded, she said.

"I'm not saying we have the answer, I'm saying someone was giving them data that was interesting and was worthy of figuring out, 'how does this data affect what our policies should be,'" Hinko said. "Maybe the whole issue isn't as important as it once was."

Councilwoman Jessica Green, a Democrat from District 1 and member of the vacant property committee, said the issue is a priority for her. Nearly 5 percent of all properties in Green's district are considered vacant or abandoned, according to city data.

That rate is greater than in all four other committee members' districts combined. Ackerson, who represents the Bon Air and Hikes Point areas, has less than 20 such properties in his district.

Green commended the formation of the committee as a "noble" attempt to address the issue, and she said actually holding the committee meetings would be a good start in addressing the issue.

"It's an issue that can't be tackled without digging deep," she said.

Green said the council has addressed "some big-ticket issues" this year, and she hopes the focus will soon turn to reducing the number of vacant properties across the city.

"Unless you live in an affected area and you have to drive by vacant properties every day, you may not fully digest how it's not only an aesthetic issue, a quality-of-life issue, but that it's also a public safety issue," she said.

The committee's next scheduled meeting is Aug. 23.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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