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New fund provides low interest loans to help rehabilitate neglected historic homes in Louisville

Kaila Washington stands in front of her 133-year-old Victorian home. She is in the process of securing a loan from Vital Sites new historical preservation fund to continue the massive renovations and preserve the history of the mansion.
Sylvia Goodman
Kaila Washington stands in front of her 133-year-old Victorian home on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard. She is in the process of securing a loan from Vital Sites' new historical preservation fund to continue the massive renovations and preserve the history of the mansion.

Gabe Jones Jr., 33, and Kaila Washington, 32, used to hang out on the sidewalk in front of a historic mansion in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood. The home sat unused on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard for years.

“It was covered in vines and Virginia Creeper on the front. You could barely tell there were windows and doors. It wasn't for sale, but we would talk about our hypothetical plans for it, our dreams for it,” Washington said at a news conference Wednesday.

Last year the couple purchased the home for $60,000, public records show, and undertook the Herculean task of rehabilitating it. On Wednesday, they announced they would be among the first recipients of a loan from the city’s new historical preservation revolving fund, where all the money from repaid loans goes back into funding more home rehabilitations.

Louisville Metro Government and the Owsley Brown II Family Foundation each contributed $500,000 to launch the fund. It will be administered by the Louisville-based preservation nonprofit Vital Sites, which was responsible for the preservation of Whiskey Row starting in 2011.

Now the nonprofit is turning its eye to Louisville’s West End and helping homeowners and longtime residents fix up historic properties.

“Some goals here include saving our history and authenticity for our future,” said Vital Sites’ Executive Director Heath Seymour. “But it's also to help people stay in their homes and avoid some level of displacement.”

According to Seymour, Louisville’s West End is home to thousands of historic properties, many of which are in desperate need of repair. The fund doesn’t only help people looking to fix up mansions, but also old shotgun houses and other small homes.

The fund will generally provide simple loans with less than 2% interest and occasionally no interest. Some loans may also be forgiven completely, Seymour said, under special circumstances. The current cap is $75,000 per loan.

The program is aimed at low- and middle-income people and recipients are required to live in the home for at least 5 years. Long-time residents are given preference.

Mayor Craig Greenberg said the homes add character to the neighborhoods and tell an important story about the lives of the people who lived there. And their current state of disrepair also says something about a darker past of systematic neglect and disinvestment.

“We know that racism and redlining contributed to that neglect,” Greenberg said. “[These houses] should have been kept up and passed down from generation to generation, helping build and preserve wealth for families and for communities. Instead, too many of the houses like this were abandoned, and families that should have prospered, struggled.”

Seymour said the local program, in combination with the state’s historic rehabilitation tax credit program, which recently expanded from $5 million to $100 million, can put a large dent in the cost of renovating old homes. He said it will hopefully help residents stay in their homes and encourage young people to buy and rehabilitate abandoned or neglected properties.

Jones and Washington have been in Louisville for four years and while renovations are underway at their historic home, they’re living around the corner. When they had an appraiser look at the home, the appraiser said they would never get their money back. The math on rehabilitating old, neglected houses rarely adds up. But Jones said that bringing the mansion back to life has changed how he looks at home ownership.

“Every single thing that any of us own, we're going to leave behind,” Jones said. “With opportunities like this one, it is a real possibility for us to put this place back together, and for this to be an example of our love for this community and the people in it that we can leave behind.”

People who are interested in obtaining a loan or who want more information on what properties count as historic sites can fill out Vital Site’s inquiry form. Vital Sites can also help the owners of historic properties access the state’s historic preservation tax credits program.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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