Lexington Commission on Homelessness Report Reviewed

Jan 30, 2013

After months of review and investigation, a final report from the mayor’s commission on homelessness was delivered to city hall Tuesday.  20 years ago, as a Lexington council member, Debra Hensley helped write a report which made similar recommendations.   This time, Hensley, who also co-chaired this commission, has reason for optimism.   “Having chaired a similar report in the 90’s which produced a report with many of today’s findings, like most of the other members I believe that this report holds the most promise of getting real results, if it is acted upon,” said Hensley

The report calls for additional low-cost housing, financed with a steady revenue stream and supported by a single government office which will coordinate services.. 

Funding would come from a one percent increase in the city’s tax on insurance premiums.  Commission Co-chair Steve Kay says the increase would generate four million dollars a year and cost the average household 30 dollars annually. 

During his presentation to council, Kay was quizzed about the nature of the new housing by freshman member Shevawn Akers.

“Is it construction that you think is the best solution, that we need to build new housing or is it do we need to rehab existing housing or is it just providing subsidies to properties,” added Akers.

With low-interest financing from the so-called “Affordable Housing Trust Fund,” which was recommended by the commission, Kay says they can fund both new construction and rehabilitation.

Dave Christiansen, who’s with the Central Kentucky Housing and Homelessness Initiative, worries the report puts most of the emphasis on homeless people.  Christenson would like to see more help for residents who are barely hanging onto their homes.

“The trust fund targets affordable housing as high as 80 percent of the area median income, which is way beyond homeless folks’ income.  So, it has a much broader target in terms of the types of housing it would create,” said Christiansen.

With report in hand, the council must decide how to proceed.  A move to put its recommendations on a relatively fast track was opposed by council member Bill Farmer…who worries about a proposed tax increase.

It sidesteps some of our deliberative nature, and for me, I think it places us in an uncomfortable breach with the taxpayers,” said Farmer.

Already, Farmer says Lexington taxpayers will be asked to  pay more for an overhaul of the sewage system and fund a costly fix for the city’s underfunded police and firefighter pensions.  Council member Chris Ford argued caring for the homeless is already costly to taxpayers.

“In directly, we’re paying for homelessness.  We’re overcrowding our jails, our hospitals.  It goes on and on and on,” said Ford.

Proponents hope to increase the tax on insurance premiums before the end of March.  Then the tax could be enacted this year.  Instead, Council member Ed Lane says the recommendations should first go to the mayor’s office, which can project the impact on Lexington’s budget.

For his part, Mayor Jim Gray says the commission work has been unprecedented in it’s effort to tackle homelessness and affordable housing needs.  While he wants to continue the battle against homelessness, Gray’s not yet ready to back a tax increase.

“I am not gonna say today that I support any tax or that I don’t support doing it.  I’m gonna say that I will examine it.  That is the responsible thing to do,” explained Gray.

In the weeks ahead, Gray pledged to meet with members of his homeless commission and develop a plan for action.  For now, the report along with its recommendations will go before the council’s budget committee.  Discussion, and possibly a vote, could be taken there within the next month or so.