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Black Lives Matter starts housing programs to ensure low-income families can stay in West End

Chanelle Helm pictured in a vacant home on 37th Street that Black Lives Matter is remodeling for a low-income family. | Courtesy of Black Lives Matter

Lisa Thomas-Lewis’ family was relocated from the Beecher Terrace Housing Complex to an apartment near Hurstbourne Lane in August. Thomas-Lewis said she was told by Louisville Metro Housing Authority officials that the city did not have housing in the Russell neighborhood large enough to accommodate her family, which includes five children.

Living in the East End is inconvenient for her, Thomas-Lewis said, because her family and friends are still in Russell, though she has come to enjoy the easy access to retail and fresher food. But she is looking to move out of subsidized housing because the authority will not let her husband Michael Lewis live with her because his criminal record bars him from public housing. He is working with the Louisville Urban League to get his record expunged.

So, last month, the family turned to Black Lives Matter Louisville for help.

Chanelle Helm, Black Lives Matter Louisville’s core organizer, showed Thomas-Lewis and her husband a vacant home the organization had acquired at 22nd Street and Standard Avenue. The family is still considering if it will work for them, but Thomas-Lewis said she appreciates the organization’s effort to help.

“Black Lives Matter is helping me keep my family together and get back downtown. That is where I want to be,” Thomas-Lewis added.

Helm told Insider that Black Lives Matter Louisville has five homes, three in west Louisville and two in south Louisville, and intends to acquire more properties in the coming months, specifically in the West End where the 2018 State of Metropolitan Housing Report found families like Thomas-Lewis’ are at risk of being displaced by gentrification.

A volunteer works on a home that Black Lives Matters Louisville is renovating in west Louisville. | Courtesy of Black Lives Matter

“We bought our first home at 644 S. 37th St. for $5,000 in January, and some of the others were donated to us. We have raised about $50,000 so far to buy more homes and help renovate the ones we have now. We are focusing on vacant houses in the West End because that is where these mommas and babies need help,” Helm added.

The Black Lives Matter movement was born in 2014 during the national unrest that resulted after a string of police shootings involving unarmed African-American men. Although much of the attention the local group gets is for protests, Helm said affordable housing has always been a part of its agenda because many of local Black Lives Matter members got their start in social justice at Women in Transition, a defunct grassroots organization that helped poor women with housing and healthcare.

The 37th Street home is registered to Stand Up Sunday, a social justice organization affiliated with Black Lives Matter Louisville. The groups are accepting donations to the project online.

The labor for the home renovations is provided by volunteers and the family the home is for. Their work is overseen by contractor Michael Harris of Pride Consulting, who is also donating his time.

They don’t have a specific application process but are working with people and families who reach out to Helms or Stand Up Sunday.

Risk of involuntary displacement

Louisville Metro officials have often touted the $1 billion in public and private investments in west Louisville that has occurred since the city received a $30 million federal grant to redevelop the Beecher Terrace Housing Complex into a mixed-use community.

The ongoing projects include: the construction of a new YMCA and a Passport Health Plan campus at 18th and Broadway; the Louisville Urban League’s $30 million development of the Heritage West sports complex; developer Gill Holland’s Portland Investment Initiative; and the expansion of Simmons University in the California neighborhood.

The Metropolitan Housing report released on Nov. 14 found that that West End development has increased the risk of minority and female-led households being involuntarily displaced by means of eviction, foreclosure or increased rents and property values due to gentrification.

Via Metropolitan Housing Coalition’s 2018 report

“These investments will increase pressure on existing residents that are vulnerable to displacement and induce demographic change,” the report asserts.

Insider reached out to Interim LMHA Director Lisa Oksana for a comment on the housing report. She sent a statement that said the city is making efforts to involve the former Beecher Terrace residents in every phase of the redevelopment.

“Beecher Terrace residents have and continue to play a critical role in shaping the Transformation Plan that is helping to guide the changes taking place within Russell. Ensuring that residents are able to benefit from the improvements being made throughout the neighborhood, including the redeveloped Beecher Terrace site, is a top priority for the Louisville Metro Housing Authority (LMHA) and Louisville Metro Government (LMG). This is why LMHA is providing relocated Beecher Terrace residents with a lifetime right to return to replacement housing,” the statement said.

Helm said current residents cannot depend on the city to make sure they can stay in their communities, especially once rents and property taxes start to increase.

There are more than 4,000 abandoned properties in the city, most of them located in west Louisville. Helm said Black Lives Matter Louisville is asking west Louisville homeowners to donate their property to it rather than the Louisville Metro Landbank Authority, which has received criticism for its handling of vacant properties.

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found nearly a third of the properties that the Landbank has sold since 2010 were vacant and in violation of the city’s property maintenance code, including 31 that were sold to the property management company Mirage Properties LLC for $7,100.

“The Landbank is for investors, not people in these poor communities where the vacant houses are located. You need the renovation money in the bank to get one of those houses,” Helm said. “The families we are working with can’t do that. With all of this development going on, the current residents need to be proactive about protecting their communities. We believe housing is a right, not a luxury.”

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