Interview #078 Nov/Dec 1994

Jerry E. Abramson, Louisville Kentucky's Progressive Mayor on Housing and Community Development

Housing is a serious issue in Louisville, Kentucky. Last October was Affordable Housing Month, a month sponsored by the Metropolitan Housing Coalition (MHC) that brought together scores of neighborhood activists, […]

Housing is a serious issue in Louisville, Kentucky. Last October was Affordable Housing Month, a month sponsored by the Metropolitan Housing Coalition (MHC) that brought together scores of neighborhood activists, nonprofit and for-profit housing developers, bankers and city officials at dozens of events. At one luncheon over 170 people attended, including the editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal and both congressional candidates.

Affordable housing receives support in Louisville for many reasons. Louisville is a city of neighborhoods where a real sense of community exists and people are genuinely proud of their friendly, upbeat place. Louisville's citizens are among the country's most involved and dedicated, fired by the issues of affordable housing and community development. Thanks to hundreds of church, neighborhood watch, school committee and nonprofit groups (nearly 100 are members of the MHC), Louisville has developed a critical mass of organized citizen activists.

Presiding over the city is Mayor Jerry E. Abramson. He was recently elected to his third, four-year term with over 80 percent of the vote, making him the first mayor in Louisville in over a century to be elected for three terms. He is unquestionably popular in Louisville (he ran virtually unopposed in his last two elections) and is recognized throughout the country as a progressive, activist mayor. He is the immediate past-President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he led on a number of initiatives, including inner-city crime and unfunded federal mandates. Mayor Abramson proves that government can promote economic growth while living up to the social compact it has with all of its citizens.

On the issue of affordable housing, Mayor Abramson has been clear and outspoken. While most politicians running for office avoid the issue altogether, Abramson made it a centerpiece of his campaign.

Making good on campaign promises is even less common than making affordable housing a campaign plank. By creating a coalition of support from the business and middle-class communities in Louisville, Abramson has been able to catalyze citizens throughout the city to find common ground, work together to plan and implement change, and move closer toward becoming a city with decent housing for all its residents. He is a strong believer that the key to community revitalization is a thriving and growing local economy; and the key to that is viable neighborhoods.

Since he become Mayor, Abramson's administration has worked with nonprofit and private developers and the housing authority to create almost 3,000 new low income rental housing units and 300 scattered site public housing units, and to complete, begin or rehabilitate hundreds of single-family homes. Revitalization initiatives have been carried out in a number of neighborhoods. In the 175-acre Smoketown/ Shelby Park Neighborhood Development,  the city has employed a “bottom-up” strategy that depends on residents and community groups working with the city to guide every step of the process.

Abramson's tenure has not been without obstacles or moments of anger. He's the first to admit that some of his earlier endeavors were too top-down. “I never want to be in a situation where I pick a neighborhood, walk in and start a plan,” he recently said, referring to the early Russell neighborhood revitalization activities. When the Louisville Airport was expanded, he lost considerable good will by eliminating a perfectly sound neighborhood, with little or no participation by its residents in the decision.

The city itself is notable for its culture, economic opportunity and quality of life. Yet, for all its strengths, Louisville still suffers from all the problems of other cities, albeit to a lesser extent. It must overcome  a legacy of racism, reverse the racial and economic segregation of past housing policies and stem the onslaught of drugs and crime – especially in at-risk neighborhoods. Mayor Abramson's challenge is to do all this while sitting in a county where policies are not as progressive as his.

We spoke about these issues with Mayor Abramson on November 22nd.

Harold Simon: The Russell neighborhood suffered from years of neglect and bad policy. It needed complete revitalization at considerable cost. Putting lots of city money into Hampton House was very risky. It could have become an oasis in the middle of a desert, with the desert gaining every year. It didn't turn out that way. Private developers – with significant incentives, like free land, water and sewer tax abatements and the low-income housing tax credit – and nonprofit developers did come in and made the project work. What were the calculations that went into this? What was the gamble and why did you take the risk here?

Jerry Abramson: The only way to go into a neighborhood that has not had any new construction in over a generation with any hope of success is to step up to the plate and take the risk, and take the risk in such a major way that once you show a demand exists then you step aside and allow the private or nonprofit sector to move forward.

And that's what we did. We went into this neighborhood and developed Hampton House, a 150 apartment complex, putting more money into it – in terms of percentage of the deal – than we have ever put into a project in my nine years as Mayor.

We had to do that to get the land, clear it, build the apartments and show home builders and others that there was a market. I also went to a corporate leader in our community, the CEO of Humana, David Jones. He and his wife agreed to help us build some single family homes around the apartments.

We did the apartments to show that there was a market. The market rate apartments rented first [75 percent of the apartments are subsidized]. With that track record we proved that there was an opportunity for single family homes. David and Betty Jones joined with the Urban League in an operation called Project Rebound and committed to carry the construction loans to build five model homes. The city began to find  5 17 20 30 lots that we could foreclose on and transfer to Project Rebound. From that, the ripple effect of private home builders as well as community development corporations have sprung up in the neighborhood. It is, literally, a totally revitalized neighborhood on the move.

HS: What convinced you that, no matter how nice the apartments in Hampton House, people would go against the tide and move into a distressed neighborhood?

JA: I had talked to lots of people in the neighborhood and the surrounding areas who were saying that they wanted to live in that neighborhood once again if there could be safe, secure, sanitary, attractive homes. The apartment complex that we built has a clubhouse, a swimming pool, it's all red brick and canopies – it's really special. Right in the center of what looked like a significantly disinvested and devastated neighborhood in terms of poverty level, unemployment, crime problems, etc.

HS: What, if anything, stood in the way of starting this project?

JA: Well, there were some folks in the area that were in homes so dilapidated that we had to relocate them. There were others that were in homes in the area that were structurally sound and we could help them rehabilitate. But, we needed a certain number of acres to build our complex. When going through the urban renewal process, the media can always find that one person with that gut wrenching story about how big brother government is coming in and ripping the heart out of their homestead. When in fact they were living in significantly distressed conditions and, with the funds we were able to provide them, moved into a much better quality home.

Another problem was getting the EPA to sign off on the “homogenization” of the dirt. This is a term of art in the field of environmental standards; homogenizing a piece of dirt that has been in an inner-city and has had cars drive on it back in the old lead gas days and who knows how many businesses have been put up, torn down, put back up and torn back down who knows how many times in the hundreds of years it was there. We had almost a year's delay with the environmental issues. We finally got it.

HS: Who did you need to make it happen ?

JA: I needed a bank, I needed a private developer, I needed the state government regulators on the environment as relates to the dirt and I needed the support of seven of the twelve member Board of Alderman to put in the many millions of dollars of public money to make the project go. It was a $10 million project and we put in about $3.5 million of city money.

HS: Were residents involved?

JA: We created a neighborhood oversight board that gave us a significant analysis of the rehabilitation of the area so that we could determine through their decision making the percentage of apartments versus the percentage of single family and duplex and fourplex homes.

HS: This was long-range planning?

JA: It wasn't very long-range. When we went in and did the apartments, without the neighborhood organization dictating a significant, single-family home component, we could have just kept on building apartments. I didn't want to, but they didn't either. That gave us guidance.

HS: How did it play out in terms of continued housing and economic development? Were there any changes in the social climate such as decreases in drug and crime activity?

JA:  It turned out tremendously. See, we can build a three-bedroom, bath and half for $49,900. The city gives the lot for free, we do the sidewalks, streetscapes, curbs, etc. and you've got yourself a single family home.

HS: It's obviously attracted private developers.

JA: We showed them there was a market. Now, homes go up to $80,000. An $80,000 home is probably worth $125,000 in a more suburban setting. The homes that are two story and more expensive are the ones that are selling. We're also doing low- or no-interest facade loans for the small business in the area – cleaners, shoemakers, convenience stores. But, these are loans. We're also working with the churches in the area, some of which are expanding into community life centers. To rehab the structurally sound homes in the area, we put aside $1.5 million in low-interest loans to provide people an opportunity to upgrade their homes so that they fit comfortably into the landscape of the neighborhood.

There's been a decrease in drugs and crime in the area. It has to do with the housing and the business activity. A centerpiece of that community was a minority owned cafeteria, Jay's. We were able to help financially support the complete renovation and new construction of an expanded facility. The social climate itself created an environment that decreased the drugs and crime in the area, and we can prove that statistically.

HS: Some community development plans call for bringing in large chain stores. These stores create controversy by creating jobs but competing with local business. Did your plans include inviting in chains?

JA: We've not had that. We're working with small business start-ups through our microloan program to assist indigenous businesses.

Bottom-Up Planning

HS: You've had the experience of going into a community and initiating a program with less than the full participation of the community's members. You've been quoted as saying, referring to Russell, “I never want to be in a situation where I pick a neighborhood, walk in and start a plan.”

But, you've also implemented a very different way of working – The Neighborhood Based Development Process. It's fostered coalition building between local neighborhood organizations and turned the planning process into a virtual public/nonprofit-community partnership. You've also encouraged power sharing to the point where community groups seem to have a de-facto veto over zoning and other issues within their community. How was this process conceived and implemented and how does it differ from the process used to develop Russell?

JA: The process was very different in each. What we did in Russell gave folks in other neighborhoods a feeling of hope that this administration was going to deliver rather than do a lot of talking that, unfortunately, happened for many, many years.

Our community services department in city government put a full-time person into the current Smoketown/Shelby Park Neighborhood Development as a facilitator. The gameplan for Smoketown/Shelby Park is structured solely as a grass-roots, bottom-up organization. Interestingly, Smoketown has three different organizations that, for one reason or another, are each going through some maturing pains. But our facilitator, backed-up by a lot of staff, is holding them together and keeping them going.

This process takes a little time. You know, small “d” democracy is pretty messy. But ultimately, when its all said and done, you have a much better product.

HS: Can this process work in other cities?

JA: I think it can and it is. Other communities have been doing these kinds of things and have found it to be successful. You need, from City Hall, its focus and commitment in term of the infrastructure and the public services. But, you've got to listen a lot and follow the lead of those in the area while at the same time trying to get them to stretch in their thinking beyond what they have unfortunately experienced for the last twenty-five years.

It's a process that we started in our community – somewhat in Russell, significantly so in Smoketown/Shelby Park – and then it was skyrocketed through the empowerment zone program which gave us the real opportunity to bring a hundred folks together for three months of concentrated and concerted efforts to lay out a gameplan and map out everything from childcare to education, housing, road repairs, and so on.

I'll never do another Russell the way it was originally done. The Mayor sat in his office one day and said ‘you know, that's a neighborhood that can make it, it's contiguous to the downtown, nothing's happened, let's go do it.' That will never happen again.

That empowerment zone process has opened the bottle and the genie is out, at least in this community. I would suspect that, after hearing from my colleagues from around the country, it has created situations that you will never be able to back of from.

As a result of the process of the empowerment zone application, folks have seen their role in their destiny.  And, as a result, I am a facilitator now. I am a fundraiser. I am a seeker of private investment and/or development. But, we are strategizing for the future of neighborhoods.

HS: At the intersection of stretching and listening, is the city willing to abide by decisions that the city might not have made?

JA: Yes. But, there is a reality check here. People who have lived in poverty and who have had nothing may be much more focused in their analysis on providing nothing but low-income housing opportunities. When, in fact, the city – to have texture and to insure stability and a future – needs mixed income families living in a community and in a city. And so, there is always a tug to insure that we are not simply building new, impacted poverty areas, but instead are providing opportunities. As I said, in Russell you've got $80,000 homes and you've got $49,900. $49,900 is low-income families, $80,000 you've got market-rate opportunities for middle-income families.

HS: How did you learn that your first way of working in Russell was wrong?  What was the lesson and who did the teaching?

JA: We will take a different approach in the future, but not because the way we jump-started development in Russell was wrong. In fact, it has been very effective. We now realize that getting the people who live in and near a neighborhood involved in its revitalization is a much better, and ultimately speedier way, to kick off redevelopment.

We learned this as a result of the process of developing our application for an Empowerment Zone. We put together a group of folks who cared about West Louisville who were so energetic and creative that we are going to pursue many of the initiatives we created even if Louisville isn't designated an Empowerment Zone. So, the people who participated in the process taught us how their involvement made a tremendous difference in the outcome of the project.

HS: What do you think the fate of Empowerment Zones/Enterprise Community Legislation will be in the next Congress?

JA: Prior to November 8th, I was hopeful that there would be another round. I would suspect that if whichever cities become the six empowerment zone cities, if they are not able to immediately implement significant changes in these neighborhoods so as to show vividly to those in Washington the success of this concept, we're in trouble.

That's why I think Louisville ought to be one of those cities. We continue to meet with our community groups and are already developing – with the meager resources we have available – the next steps toward implementing the empowerment zone.

Our empowerment zone strategy and program will be implemented. The only variable is time and the variable of time is dictated by money. If we receive the $100 million we will be able to implement the program in a significant way within the next year or year-and-a-half to be able to show Congress that they need to do another round.

This is the seamless approach to responding to inner-city disinvestment because we have a transportation component, an economic component, a housing component, a childcare component and an education component. We've got all these disparate groups sitting around the table; a hundred folks that range from third generation welfare mothers to a head of a major corporation based in this area.

HS: It really is welfare reform on-the-ground. By giving people what they need – decent homes, safe neighborhoods, good schools, livable-wage jobs and so on, the need for welfare diminishes.

JA: I had not thought of it that way, but it is. But, you're not giving them what they need. You're challenging them to join with you in providing what will ultimately create a better quality-of-life.

HS:  What kind of a commitment has the city made to the poor in public housing and the non-working poor who can't afford single family homes?

JA: Part of the philosophy of creating affordable housing is to give families and individuals living in public housing a chance to own their own homes, and to make way for families on the waiting list for public housing. In addition, the City of Louisville has been involved in numerous projects which have built affordable rental units, many of them with two or three bedrooms, which can be very hard for working families to find at affordable rents. We also paid attention to the need for affordable apartments for disabled persons.

Affordable Housing Benefits Everyone

HS: Affordable housing is rarely a popular issue for most politicians. It's an issue usually avoided, yet you embraced it and made it a centerpiece of your campaigns. What is the relationship of affordable housing to the prosperity of the city and how did you manage to convince the majority of voters – who are probably quite content with their homes and don't want to be spending any more tax money than they already are – that affordable housing for their fellow citizens is good for them too?

JA: I think you have to paint a very vivid picture about the alternative, which is obviously increased crime, increased homelessness, increased disinvestment, increased family breakup, etc., etc. Once you're able to paint that picture, then you must reach out to the middle-class in your community and say ‘it's your fight too. If one part of the community fails, the rest of the community is at risk, and your funds need to be used to provide a catalyst for change.'

And that's what we did in Russell too. I think government's money should be used to take the risk that the private sector won't. But, once you show it's successful, you step away and let the private sector and community move forward.

I've received very little negative response to my commitment to enhanced quality of housing in our community.

HS: How do you define the impact of poverty and race on the availability of affordable housing and does affordable housing lead to long-term solutions to these problems?

JA: Well, what is that old cliché that the best welfare program is a good job? If people have good jobs and roofs over their heads, they might even have an opportunity to ask their kids how their day was at school. By enhancing neighborhoods that had never had the opportunity for good quality-of-life living, and creating training and job opportunities, we create a level playing field for all races and all families.

HS: While you clearly are supportive of affordable housing and community development, surrounding suburbs may have quite a different agenda. What kind of relationship do you have with your neighboring cities, have there been tensions and how have they been resolved, if they've been resolved?

The county is now in the process of building two significant affordable home projects in the outskirts of our county, to be built near where business and industry has grown. And that's good.

HS: It sounds good, almost too good. Are there no conflicts at all?

JA: I don't have the wherewithal to place a Section 8 or an affordable housing unit in any other jurisdiction. The best I can do is jawbone. I was able to do that with the county and they were prepared to step forward and, as I say, they now have two projects under way.

HS: What is the extent of the homelessness problem in Louisville and what action is the city taking to reduce homelessness?

JA: Louisville participates in the Coalition for the Homeless, which has strengthened the community's response to its need for more transitional shelter space for the homeless. While tracking the number of homeless is always difficult, it is estimated that Louisville has as many as 7,000 or more who either stay or pass through the community.

Public/Nonprofit Partnerships

HS: In Louisville, the amount of community involvement is incredible; the energy, excitement and hope is really palpable. It seems to translate into meaningful guidance for city planning and scores of nonprofit groups working to revitalize the city. Nationally, there has been a corresponding growth in nonprofit community development groups – from a handful ten years ago, to over 5,000 now. What is the role of nonprofit developers in your city? What should the relationship between the public, private and nonprofit sector be?

JA: The nonprofits are doing affordable housing – exclusively low-income housing. A Central Community Center has been set up, which is doing their own 20–25 homes in the Russell neighborhood. New Directions, a nonprofit that has been in our community for years and years, was just given by the city a school that was closed so it wouldn't have to be boarded up. They're going to renovate it and make it into affordable housing. They do a fine job. We've got three or four of those types of entities in our community. We've supported them financially, both in terms of in-kind with land and buildings, as well as some of our HUD funding – CDBG grants and rental rehab.

I'm a big supporter of nonprofits. In this community they play a tremendous role and they provide a good product. At the same time, this is my personal opinion, you need to have a balance, especially if you are attempting to insure a mixed, economic constituency.

HS: What do you mean by balance?

JA: You need to have someone building a home for the middle socio-economic family, so that there is a mixed economic neighborhood and not just simply taking one area that was fine, went into a disinvestment period and came out at the other end with nothing but low-income, poor folks.

HS: No rebuilding ghettos.

JA: Amen, I do not want to do that!

HS: What can affordable housing advocates do when their local government isn't responsive; how can they bring their local government around?

JA:  It helps to have elected officials who understand the dynamics of adequate housing and a city's future vitality. Housing advocates should look at cities which have done a good job of providing affordable housing and how that has helped improve the vitality of neighborhoods and the city in general, and make that part of the case for increasing the community's stock of affordable housing.

Putting Housing on the National Agenda

HS: The Enterprise Foundation said that they believe “that housing is the essential platform for the pride and self-respect that helps families and neighborhoods change.” And yet, it is barely on the national agenda. How can housing advocates and progressive city governments bring affordable housing to the national agenda as a positive issue that benefits everyone?

JA: We've run the gamut of homelessness; disinvested neighborhoods have been in Newsweek, in Time and on 60 Minutes. We've gone through all the ‘oh-my-God the sky is falling' explanations to the average citizenry. But those who have are now attempting to keep their jobs, provide for their kids and cover their own mortgages. I'm not in any way saying that the HUD Secretary should stop his strong advocacy and financial support, but, if it is going to happen, it is going to happen with the local bankers and the local nonprofits and the local elected officials who understand the direct effect it has on their local community.

I've been a strong advocate as President of the US. Conference of Mayors arguing for this program or that program, talking about it in the big picture concept. But, some of the best things we ever do are local. For example, each and every year CDBG is under fire, so we create a Community Development Day, providing an opportunity to have a Congressman or Senator come and see the projects and take credit – let me underscore that – take credit for having delivered federal dollars to provide these projects: they might be enhanced recreational facilities for a community center in an inner-city neighborhood; they might be housing; they might be indigent healthcare. That Community Development Day has become a way of putting a face on those programs.

We're not going to go through what we did with revenue sharing, where they took it away from us because we forgot to say thank you each and every time they sent it and we forgot to make sure that everybody in the community knew that everything we did with that money really was done for them by their Congressman, etc.

We have to make it more local and we have to connect it at the local level with our Representatives and Senators.

HS: Thank you.

Louisville at a Glance

Population: 270,000
White: 186,000
African-American: 80,000
Asian, Hispanic and other: 6,000

Housing Units*: 124,000
Vacant Units: 11,000
Owner Occupied: 62,000
Renter Occupied: 51,000

Median Income**: $37,200
Median Home Value: $94,300
Median Rent: $244

% of rental units subsidized***: 25%
Total subsidized rental units***: 12,000

Source 1990 U.S. Census, figures rounded to nearest thousand.
*: Includes 6,000 public housing units
**: 1994 data.
***: Includes 1,600 section 8 certificates/vouchers; subsidized households having income ranges from 0 percent to 65 percent of median


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