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Fight Over Affordable Housing Erupts In Norton Commons

Norton Commons
Norton Commons

On a recent Friday night, Louis Johnson got off work and joined his family for a street festival in Norton Commons.

Johnson and his family live in the planned, mixed-use community that sits on the far eastern edge of Jefferson County. He's married and has a young daughter. He's looking to spend years as a resident of one of the city's fastest-growing neighborhoods.

The droning sound of construction seems ever-present at Norton Commons. Housing and businesses are popping up in handfuls. A public school recently opened on one end, along with a YMCA.

It's a neighborhood that, to some, seems to have everything.

Paige Massey, another resident, compares Norton Commons to Disneyworld. She said when she first drove through and gazed upon the neat rows of new-construction homes, "it was like looking at candy."

For Johnson, though, there's a missing link. But it's a link that some, like Massey, would rather not have.

A neighborhood fight has erupted over a proposal to add affordable housing in Norton Commons. It's playing out in living rooms and Facebook groups, forcing some residents in this idealistic urban-living community to declare sides. All this is happening while the city at-large struggles with a severe shortage of affordable housing options.

The Fight Begins

A few blocks from the festival, where a band played and patrons bought beers from beneath a tent, is an empty lot of patchy grass. That's the site where developers are seeking to build a 21-unit, three-story apartment complex.

The stock of three-bedroom units planned for the site at lot 426 in Norton Commons will be set aside specifically for people earning a certain annual income -- between $28,000 and $44,000 annually, according to a market study of the project prepared by the Gill Group, a Missouri-based consultant.

About 65,000 people live in the market area, which includes Norton Commons, as well as stretches of Prospect, Glendale and Graymoor-Devondale, among other suburban cities and areas of Louisville Metro.

About a quarter of those residents are renters, per the market area analysis. In Jefferson County, about 36 percent of residents rent. Currently, just about 12 percent of households in the market area report incomes in the range which will be the focus of the proposed affordable housing project, the analysis shows.

"I think it is what this community was developed for," Johnson said of the affordable housing proposal.

He said Norton Commons is designed to serve a range of residents. Tyler Glick, a spokesman for the neighborhood, agrees.

"Since its inception, the Norton Commons Master Plan calls for an inclusive, mixed-use community," Glick said.

Some residents disagree.

Massey said when she and her husband, Jim, were considering relocating to the neighborhood, they never heard of plans to include housing for low-income residents. Instead, she said neighborhood representatives reiterated how "upscale" the community is.

They opted to buy a corner lot and build a home near a neighborhood park. Monogrammed pillows sit on their porch, and an art studio looks out onto the street.

"We never anticipated a low-income project here," she said.

Now, with such a project in the works, the Masseys are joining other residents in a fight to stop it. They've hosted a resident meeting at their house, at which more than 100 people packed their living room, she said.

The group organized a steering committee to determine how to proceed. A survey was sent out, and 98 percent of the roughly 100 respondents said they want to stop the project.

They also elected to circulate a petition to ask for a "public forum" with Mayor Greg Fischer and Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, who represents the area. Some 84 percent of respondents voted to "bombard" Norton Commons' development offices with "complaints, personal visits, email."

According to Steve Haag, director of the Metro Council's Republican Caucus, Downard has received calls about the project and is working to determine whether complaints about it are "warranted." Haag said Downard was unaware of the project until he began receiving the calls from constituents.

The group's efforts to stymie the affordable housing project come as Louisville struggles with an inadequate supply of such housing.

Nearly 60,000 households here spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and nearly 24,000 of those spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing, according to U.S. Census data.

Families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be cost-burdened. They may struggle to afford other necessities such as food, clothing and medical care.

Last May, Fischer announced a $12 million revolving loan program intended to help bolster the city's stock of affordable housing. The Norton Commons project is one of the first such projects to be funded through the program.

Not 'The American Dream'

Massey said she doesn't oppose the idea of poorer residents living in the neighborhood, but that her neighborhood won't meet their needs. She said nearby restaurants and retail outlets are too expensive. The neighborhood lacks a full-service grocery store, and the city's public transit system doesn't offer full service to Norton Commons.

"This neighborhood is not the American dream," she said. "This is not a panacea."

Massey said residents who occupy the planned affordable housing units would feel "trapped" and "alienated."

The developer behind the project, Steve Kersey, dismissed that. He said people aren't going to be forced to live in Norton Commons.

"Just because it's an available option doesn't mean they're going to choose it," he said.

Kersey said the development is designed to provide housing for young families already working in Norton Commons. Structuring rent costs to incomes would allow residents to create a savings and, potentially, buy a home, he said.

And once people are approved for residency, he said, they'd be able to earn up to 150 percent of the area median income — $121,352 in Prospect as of 2013, according to the U.S. Census — and still qualify to live in the affordable units.

"It’s the kind of project that can break the cycle of poverty that might otherwise exist for generations," he said.

Roy Blewitt lives and owns a business in Norton Commons. He said the apartments would lower nearby property values.

"I earned the right to be out here, and now suddenly somebody is going to be put out here because they are what they are," he said, characterizing affordable housing as a "freebie."

Housing experts are quick to strike down that claim.

Cathy Hinko, executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, said the 21 planned units would have no negative effect on property values or crime levels in Norton Commons.

"That is 100 percent what the research shows," she said.

Hinko cites a case in Yonkers, New York, wherein residents fought unsuccessfully to keep public housing out of a section of the city. In that case, the number of affordable units was much greater and yet still had negligible impacts on property value and crime.

She warned that fighting the development could lead to fiscal and social burdens for Norton Commons residents and city government. Louisville Metro government and the Kentucky Housing Corporation have submitted letters of commitment for financing the project. Revoking such commitments could lead to violations of fair housing laws, Hinko said.

"Definitely," she said. "And that could cost the city a lot of money."

Supporting the development of affordable housing in Norton Commons, an area of the city in which less than 5 percent of the current housing stock is considered affordable, is not akin to social engineering, Hinko said. Instead, it's an attempt "to dismantle the old systems that force segregation."

'No Reason Not To Support'

While some residents plan to keep fighting the plan to build affordable housing in Norton Commons, many others, like Louis Johnson and Jenni Elliott, welcome the project.

Elliott owns a condo adjacent to the planned development site.

"I have no reason not to support it," she said.

Elliott said affordable housing could help "round out" the community, which she sees as a "microcosm of Louisville."

"Part of the beauty of Norton Commons is that it's an urban community that's made up of mixed homes, mixed people," she said.

George Hernandez, who lives in an apartment across the street from the planned development site, said neighbors' focus should be more on the people and less on their income.

"I think that what defines a person is not their square footage, or their bank account or what car they drive, but how they live their life day to day," he said.

And Johnson, who grew up in Louisville's suburbs and was introduced to diversity through public school busing, said he wants his daughter to grow up in a community where she can "know all kinds of people from all walks of life."

He wants that community to be Norton Commons.

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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