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Councilman: Little Interest In Vacant Properties Among Local Lawmakers

As city leaders continue seeking ways to address the lingering problem of vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville, the Metro Councilman who leads a committee established to address the issue is defending its poor track record.

Meanwhile, an incoming state representative criticized the committee after WFPL News reported on Wednesday it had canceled its last four public meetings.

The committee is tasked with addressing the prevalence of vacant or abandoned properties across the city. Before March, it had last met in 2014.

This year, all but one of the committee's scheduled meetings have been canceled, according to council archives. The lone meeting in March was the committee's first after being resurrected by council President David Yates, who said earlier this year it would be a place to facilitate public discussion and long-term solutions to the problem.

Councilman Brent Ackerson, a Democrat from District 26, chairs the committee. He said the group hasn't met because there is no legislation assigned to it, and he added that he doesn't believe committees are places to "search things out" or craft potential legislation.

"The committee meeting is not just an infomercial," he said in an interview Wednesday. "It's to handle legislation, and there hasn't been any."

Ackerson said calling meetings to discuss issues is "lip service" that takes away from more substantive work.

But Kentucky Rep.-elect Attica Scott, a former chair of the committee when she served on the Metro Council, is calling on members to resume the meetings. She said the role goes beyond voting on legislation: Members can use meetings to gather context and information from community members and housing experts.

"One of the values of committees is they do provide the committee members with an education and also the viewing public," she said.

Scott said Ackerson and other committee members should use the meetings as chances to learn as much as possible about potential approaches or policies to reduce the city's stock of vacant or abandoned properties.

There are nearly 7,500 such properties in Louisville spanning across each of the council’s 26 districts, according to a March 2016 report from Develop Louisville. Neighbors have told WFPL News in the past that they are frustrated by the neglected houses and structures, and fines levied against the properties total more than $40 million.

Scott also said committee meetings provide council members a chance to discuss solutions to other issues that can perpetuate vacant housing, like the long foreclosure process, a lack of affordable housing, population shifts of young people and the impact an aging population has on neighborhoods.

"There were a number of issues we learned about because we had those kinds of committee meetings where the public was welcome in to share their experiences," she said.

Ackerson said "not one person" has expressed interest to him about exploring issues related to vacant properties since the committee's resurrection earlier this year. If someone did, he said, he'd make sure they were put on the committee agenda and a meeting would be held.

Ackerson also said it's not his role, as committee chair, to seek out experts or residents to provide context or share ideas about the city's struggle with vacant properties.

"My job is not to be the main person on vacant properties," he said.

Little Interest in Vacant Properties on Council

Laurie Rhodebeck, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisville, told WFPL News on Tuesday that cancelling scheduled meetings "suggests a lack of transparency on the committee’s behalf" and can reduce public engagement.

Ackerson dismissed that. He said any resident is welcome to contact him or any council member with concerns or ideas related to vacant properties or any city-related issues.

He also said at present, there is little interest on the council in addressing vacant and abandoned properties.

"People's attention is focused on other problems," he said, citing upcoming discussions about methadone clinics and tax increment financing districts.

"It is what it is," he added.

Ackerson said state legislators should take the lead on supporting legislation in the General Assembly to address the city's vacant property problem.

Scott, who is expected to assume her role as state representative of the 41st District in November, said she plans to do just that. She said she'll support efforts to strengthen the authority of the city's landbank and loosen restrictions for people seeking to purchase vacant properties.

As for the council, she's looking for "real commitment."

Like many housing advocates, Scott said she wants more financial support for the city's affordable housing trust fund and organizations working to rehabilitate vacant and abandoned properties.

"And I'd like to see the council get back into its regular meeting schedule," she said. "Because that's part of the accountability and responsibility and transparency of government that people are looking for."

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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