If the Metro Council approves a zoning change for a 260-unit complex called Unity Place in Okolona on Thursday evening, it will be in contrast to its decision to reject an East End proposal called Prospect Cove a year ago.
The projects were different in some ways. Unity Place will include housing for refugees, while Prospect Cove would have been senior housing. But both proposals were for affordable apartments near single-family residential neighborhoods. And in both cases, many of those nearby residents turned out to speak for — and especially, against — each of them.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said some people have misconceptions about affordable housing, which may be inhabited by people early in their careers or those in lower-paying professions. He called for such housing to be dispersed across the city.
“When people hear this term, they’re like, ‘My neighborhood’s really going to change.’ Well, it might change for the better,” Fischer said. “What you see is everybody does better when our communities have different housing types interspersed throughout every neighborhood.”
Preventing affordable housing from going up all across Louisville would exacerbate historical housing issues, said Cathy Hinko, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.
“People in protected classes who have been discriminated against in housing forever continue to be discriminated in housing if we’re not going to allow the housing that they can afford and use to be everywhere in Jefferson County,” she said.
A WFPL review of official records and videos of meetings related to zoning approval changes for multi-family projects since 2014 found that residents often provided feedback on proposals near their homes. But when it came to affordable projects, the comments also sometimes related to the people who would live in the apartments, rather than just the developments themselves.
At public hearings for Unity Place, some spoke in support of refugees and others who might live there. But others expressed concerns ranging from traffic to the feeling that their neighborhood was already diverse.
“I’ve heard once before and it makes a great movie, ‘Build it and they will come.’ Sounds like that’s what we’re doing,” said Don Waltrip at an October 2018 meeting. “I’m not sure we have the need to build such a nice facility close to my home so that my home’s value will be devalued.”
By law, those who serve on the Metro Planning Commission and the Metro Council cannot consider these comments about potential residents. Instead, they’re supposed to base their decisions on whether proposals comply with Louisville’s Comprehensive Plan, and council members may rely on the official record provided by the Planning Commission to review citizen feedback and other materials.
If council members wanted to reject the Planning Commission’s recommendation to approve the rezoning for Unity Place, they would need to take more than a simple vote. Metro Council Assistant Clerk David Wagner said to vote down the proposal, someone would need to introduce alternate findings of fact, which would then require 14 votes to pass.
Short of that, the state law says the Planning Commission’s recommendation will go into effect 90 days after the Commission’s final vote, which took place in October.
Lessons From Prospect Cove
Late last year, the Metro Council was successful in overturning a recommendation from the Planning Commission to approve rezoning for Prospect Cove, a proposed affordable senior housing complex near Prospect. That move, like the proposal that preceded it, drew a large public response, with some suggesting the decision was discriminatory.
Four months later, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the Metro Council to look into whether that body unlawfully discriminated on the basis of race in that decision. In November, the Department of Justice informed the Jefferson County Attorney that it had determined no further action was warranted at this time, according to a letter shared by the County Attorney’s office. The developer is suing the council over the decision as well.
Councilman Bill Hollander of District 9, who serves on the planning and zoning committee, said he is concerned that there could be heightened scrutiny of proposals at the council level due to public outcry. Representatives must listen to constituents’ concerns, but ultimately decisions have to be based on the official record and Louisville’s Comprehensive Plan, he said.
“Particularly in the affordable housing context, when a concern is raised, I think we need to say, ‘Is this something that we would have required or that would have stopped a project if it was market rate?’” Hollander said.
Balancing Citizen Comments With Law
Land use lawyer Jon Baker said Metro Council members can be put in a tough position when they receive many impassioned calls from constituents. He is representing the applicant in the Unity Place zoning change proposal. He also spent 13 years in the office of the Jefferson County Attorney, which represents Metro government and guides its officials to make decisions within the law.
Baker said the most appropriate way for council members to handle that kind of feedback — and to preserve their votes — is to stick to the official record and the Comprehensive Plan.
He said people are sometimes driven by fear or misinformation to oppose certain projects. But he thinks having conversations about how officials should handle proposals and feedback is helpful.
“I do believe in this overall conversation, we are getting better as a community, from the council to the Mayor’s office to all of our departments, but we still have a long way to go,” Baker said.
According to Baker, zoning changes related to multi-family housing in general — and affordable housing in particular — tend to draw a lot of feedback.
But Jeff O’Brien, director of the city’s real estate development arm Develop Louisville, said it seems more citizens are participating in the process overall, both nationally and in Louisville. This year, he said, citizen requests led to almost a third of Planning Commission meetings taking place at night, so that more people could attend.
“It’s not just affordable housing developments or commercial developments, it’s really the gambit,” he said. “We’ve seen in this community an increase in the number of night hearings that we’re having on everything from a standard subdivision to a proposal like Unity Place.”
O’Brien said he thinks that kind of interest and participation is a good thing.
But concerned officials and advocates continue to hope decision makers can balance hearing public concern with making fair calls.