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Metro Council Again Pushes Aside Vacant Property Issues

Vacant Properties-5
The house in Shawnee has been abandoned for as long as neighbor George Palmer can remember.

A Louisville Metro Council committee is continuing a trend of cancelling meetings.

Members of the council's Ad Hoc Committee on Vacant Properties have convened just once this year, in March. Council records show each monthly meeting since has been scratched off agendas, including Monday's.

Committee meetings are canceled at the behest of the committee chair. Councilman Brent Ackerson, a District 26 Democrat, chairs the vacant property committee and in July said the issue is not a priority among council colleagues.

Ackerson said no legislation is pending before the committee and that calling meetings to simply discuss issues or "search things out" is “lip service” that takes away from more substantive work.

“The committee meeting is not just an infomercial,” he said in a July interview. “It’s to handle legislation, and there hasn’t been any.”

Ackerson did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday. His aide said September's meeting will be held to discuss preliminary findings of researchfocused on foreclosures from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

Ackerson and his aide received a request last week via email to discuss the information in a committee meeting. The aide noted there was insufficient time to set up the discussion for Monday's scheduled meeting.

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 propertiestotal more than $40 million.

The committee on vacant properties was resurrected earlier this year by Metro Council president David Yates. In a January news release, Yates said the committee would work to “see where we as a council can help on the local and state level to address this concern for many of our neighborhoods.”

While Ackerson contends the issue sits on the council's back burner, other council members decry the lack of discussion levied by the committee.

Councilwoman Jessica Green, a District 1 Democrat, also did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday. But in July, Green said the issue is a priority for her.

Nearly five 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 about 20 such properties in his district, representing less than one percent of all land parcels in the district.

“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,” Green said in July.

An Enduring Problem

Data from the city's Vacant and Public Property Administration show vacant and abandoned properties are more prevalent in Metro Council districts that encompass western Louisville neighborhoods.

The reasons a property turns vacant are multifaceted, said Jeana Dunlap, the former director of the city's Vacant and Public Property Administration.

Dunlap said many cases of vacant or abandoned properties are attributed to deceased property owners. Sometimes, family members aren’t able to take responsibility for the property, she said.

In other cases, investors may be hit with financial difficulty implementing a plan to redevelop a property. Sitting unused and without maintenance, properties deteriorate and turn to blight. They can become a drag on neighbors for their links to crime and their pull on property values.

Dunlap was replaced earlier this month by Laura Grabowski as the head of the city's Vacant and Public Property Administration. Grabowski did not return a request for comment on how specifically the Metro Council could help reduce the prevalence of vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville.

When asked the same question, a spokesman for Develop Louisville said in an email "we have worked very well with Metro Council over the past five years on this very expensive and complicated issue."

"We also appreciate the funding for demolitions and foreclosures," he said.

Vacant properties can attribute to crime spikes, including assault and arson, according to a 2014 reportfrom the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department. The same report found vacant properties can drain property values by nearly nine percent and can be a fiscal burden on cities, leading to heightened maintenance demands and increased police and fire department expenditures.

Kentucky State Rep.-elect Attica Scott, a former Louisville Metro Councilwoman, also sees vacant properties being associated with public health.

Affordable, stable housing can improve residents' health by leading to a reduction in chronic and infectious disease and bolstering childhood development, said Scott, who is also a Community Coach with County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Scott, a former chair of the vacant properties committee and District 1 representative, said in July that committee meetings offer valuable time for local legislators to discuss factors that contribute to the prevalence of vacant properties, like the long foreclosure process, a lack of affordable housing, population shifts of young people and the impact an aging population has on neighborhoods.

"Abandoned and vacant properties should most definitely be a priority for the Louisville Metro Council," said Scott.

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.