Norton Commons is shaping up to be everything Jeff Nally envisioned.
He moved to the planned, mixed-use neighborhood more than a decade ago with his husband, Robert Johnson. At the time, the now sprawling community was just a few streets and scattered homes on a farm at the northeastern edge of Jefferson County.
But there was promise, he said. At a focus group back then, developers talked about creating a diverse neighborhood with shared public spaces and no gates to keep people out. And that’s what appealed to Nally.
“Everybody’s welcome,” he said.
But now, he said, that plan is being threatened.
A group of residents is fighting to stop a plan to build a 21-unit affordable housing apartment complex on a vacant lot just a few blocks from the town square. The effort comes as Louisville struggles with an inadequate supply of such housing.
Nearly 60,000 households here spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and nearly 24,000 of those spend at least 50 percent of their income on housing, according to U.S. Census data.
Families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing are considered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to be cost-burdened. They may struggle to afford other necessities such as food, clothing and medical care.
Last May, Mayor Greg Fischer announced a $12 million revolving loan program intended to help bolster the city’s stock of affordable housing. The Norton Commons project is one of the first such projects to be funded through the program.
The apartments planned for Norton Commons would be set aside specifically for people earning a certain income — between $28,000 and $44,000 annually, according to a market study of the project prepared by the Gill Group, a Missouri-based consultant.
Residents fighting the project claim Norton Commons isn’t designed for poor people — that they can’t afford to live in such a neighborhood.
“I believe it is an injustice to place people in an area that afford [sic] them little to no accessibility to the essentials of everyday living,” said Paige Massey in an email to Fischer.
The project developer, Steve Kersey, dismissed the notion of lower-income people being trapped in Norton Commons.
“Just because it’s an available option doesn’t mean they’re going to choose it,” he said in an interview with WFPL News last month.
Just as about a dozen people have emailed Fischer’s office and that of Metro Councilman Kelly Downard, whose district includes the neighborhood, to voice opposition the project, roughly the same amount have expressed support.
In emails obtained through an open records request, a group of supporters said “those speaking in opposition to the development do not represent the entire community.”
“An inclusive neighborhood strengthens, not threatens, our community,” the email states.
“This is a welcoming community, and we’re not going to shut people out,” Nally said.
Nally and Johnson spent a recent weeknight lounging outside a restaurant in the heart of Norton Commons. A band played live music. The two wore matching T-shirts that read “People For The Commons.”
The two are part of a group of residents that formed since the fight against the affordable housing project erupted. They call themselves “People For The Commons” and want to see the neighborhood continue on the path they say it was meant for, one formed by inclusiveness, diversity and a spirit of acceptance.
“The point is that there is no criteria for who my neighbors are going to be, and that’s the way it should be,” Johnson said. “You don’t move to Norton Commons if you don’t like people.”
And city leaders support the project, too.
Downard has said the effort to kill the project is misguided.
“You can’t just say you’re going to build a wall around your neighborhood,” Downard said in an interview with WFPL News last month.
A spokesman for Fischer said the mayor would meet with a group of residents opposed to the project next week. But Fischer, who allocated $2.5 million in the city’s current budget for more affordable housing, does not share their views, said spokesman Chris Poynter.
“Obviously, we support it,” he said.