Guest columnists

From left are Reba Rye, Jennifer Oberlin, Katie Mueller, Reverend Leslie Whitlock, Margaret O’Donnell, Marty Perry and Natalee’ Cleveland. David Stumbo was absent when photo was taken. (Photo submitted)

Two months ago, several neighbors joined to make a seemingly difficult situation a little better.

Residents in an apartment building around the corner from us received notice that their building had been sold and they must vacate as soon as possible. Our small group knew a couple of these folks, and we could only imagine the distress that unexpected displacement would cause to some three dozen small households, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

This has been a challenging journey so far, and the campaign continues. Through this process we’ve engaged and gotten to know the new owners.

They have worked with us to collectively ease the financial burden and are being flexible on move-out dates. We have written letters, moved households, received financial support from the neighborhood association and made acquaintance with people who might no longer live in South Frankfort but whom we now know as members of the larger Frankfort community.

Our very small campaign with this apartment’s residents continues, and illuminates a larger battle: our need to provide more affordable housing for all of Frankfort.

In this city and across the nation, many families – including low-income seniors, people with disabilities, veterans and families with children – struggle to keep a roof over their heads or are experiencing homelessness. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic will certainly intensify this situation for months, perhaps years.

With more families renting their homes than ever before, and rents increasing due to a dearth of affordable housing, those with the most economic instability get hit the hardest.

According to the Kentucky State Data Center (KSDC) at the University of Louisville, as of June 2, 27% of Kentucky’s 2,042,289 households had either missed May’s rent or mortgage payment or had little confidence in their ability to pay in July.

The KSDC reports that only 19.4% of owner-occupied households had housing insecurity, while 39.5% of renters had similar concerns. The cost of housing puts families into the position of making harmful tradeoffs — skimping on groceries, medical care and other basic needs.

“The rent eats first,” as Matthew Desmond, sociologist and author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” points out. Kentucky has become the 10th most housing-insecure state in the nation.

Our nation is facing a reckoning with the effects of historical decisions and injustices in profound ways. We cannot change history, but what we can do is acknowledge those consequences and address head-on further disintegration of our valuably diverse South Frankfort community.

Across the river, Crawfish Bottom, or “The Craw,” was a thriving African American community in downtown Frankfort that was razed for development beginning in 1958. The Capital Plaza was developed in the 1970s, the new Transportation Cabinet building in 2004, and new development is ongoing. This history is one reason many Frankfort citizens are advocating for mixed-income housing to be part of the current development plan.

Today, South Frankfort is home to the only remaining historical African American neighborhood, an enclave that dates back to the years after the Civil War. Affordable housing investments in Frankfort, particularly in South Frankfort, have traditionally supported a mixed-income social fabric, which has made the neighborhood a special part of the larger community.

In recent decades investors have retreated from new affordable housing. Old housing has fallen into disrepair, and the city has spotty enforcement of codes related to rental properties. Frankfort relies on the goodwill of landlords to keep apartments in working order.

What the city should do, in addition to enforcing existing codes, is opt in to the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA), which clarifies and standardizes the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. The URLTA requires landlords to comply with applicable health and safety building codes and to keep their properties in a fit and habitable condition. Landlords in Frankfort currently can neglect properties for years.

Some dwellings become substandard for habitation — though sometimes still rented — until the housing is condemned. Other properties are purchased by developers, displacing neighbors who must scatter in a desperate search for affordable options elsewhere.

Dilapidated residences and frequent moves are often associated with those who are financially insecure. It seems just as likely that the scarcity of affordable, decent, safe and sanitary housing can explain these sociological phenomena.

Substandard housing can hold people captive just as effectively as personal choice can. We can debate who or what is responsible for these difficulties. What is not debatable is that the housing weakness seen in Frankfort gives evidence of a weak community overall.

If this community does not commit to ensuring that everyone has a safe, accessible and affordable place to call home, we should expect other signs of social decay to follow.

Alternatively, when we invest in affordable living options, we invest in our neighbors and our communities. The benefits are many, from increased employment and economic mobility to improved health and better education.

Other city governments are attempting to ensure that growth brings affordability, and there are various models worthy of review that can be customized for our unique community. We look forward to hearing from local candidates in the upcoming election regarding their positions and commitment to addressing this crisis.

Reba Rye, Jennifer Oberlin, Natalee’ Cleveland, Katherine Mueller, Marty Perry, David Stumbo, the Rev. Leslie Whitlock and Margaret O’Donnell are Frankfort residents. They can be reached through Rye at reba.rye50@yahoo.com

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