Starting in Reconstruction and continuing through the Jim Crow era, formerly enslaved black people moved to Louisville, Kentucky’s urban center neighborhoods like Russell and Smoketown. In many cases, their descendants lived there for generations — until recent years, when thousands of black residents started being displaced by foreclosures, evictions, and spiking housing costs. Developers have swooped in, selling the areas’ homes to mostly white, higher-income buyers.
This story of Louisville’s gentrification is similar to that of many US cities. But Louisville’s black community and allies aim to write a different ending. The Smoketown Neighborhood Association and other community organizations formed the Historically Black Neighborhood Assembly, which teamed with City Councilor Jecorey Arthur to draft a proposed Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance (HBNO).
The HBNO targets an Achilles’s heel of the gentrification process: it is often deeply reliant on government funding. Developers have received millions of dollars from both the Louisville Metro Government and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop market-rate or nearly market-rate housing on the same sites where affordable housing once stood. The HBNO aims to cut off that supply. It would block the Louisville government from providing any resources — including money, land, or staff support — to development projects unless those projects can prove that they will be creating truly affordable housing.
The ordinance also addresses a core flaw in many communities’ programs to develop so-called affordable housing: the housing subsidized by the government is still far above the means of the people in need.
For example, a 2019 Housing Needs Assessment commissioned by Louisville’s local government found that the city is short over thirty thousand housing units that are affordable for families at 30 percent area median income and below. Yet the local affordable housing trust fund spent most of its millions subsidizing housing that is targeted at households at 80 percent of area median income, enriching developers who end up renting out housing at nearly the market rate.
So the HBNO would require that a proposed development prove that its proposed rent or selling price is truly affordable housing for those living at the neighborhood’s median income, which in many historically black neighborhoods is far below the overall area’s income. If the proposed development cannot prove that its housing will be affordable for those already living in the area, it is denied access to any city resources.
The ordinance would also prioritize existing residents of historically black neighborhoods for down payment assistance, home repair funding, small business assistance, and other programs.
Jessica Bellamy, one of the organizers of the Historically Black Neighborhood Assembly, grew up in Smoketown and wanted to return as an adult. “But both nonprofit and for-profit developers started inflating the cost of living in Smoketown,” Bellamy says. “It was a great financial opportunity for the developers, because our land was cheaper and they got access to subsidies by saying they were going to build affordable housing.
“I’m unable to return; I’ve been priced out. The rents and property taxes have skyrocketed.”
The Louisville HBNO is one example of national anti-gentrification efforts that include Boston changing its zoning code to require that developers assess projects’ impact on area residents who have been historically discriminated against and the District of Columbia launching a Black Homeownership Strike Force designed to close the racial wealth gap. Chicago charges developers $15,000 for tearing down existing housing, blocks the replacement of dense housing with single family homes, and funds some repairs for existing homeowners in gentrifying neighborhoods. And the disproportionate number of black households who rent means that broader tenant protections like rent control, requirement for good cause before eviction, and inclusionary zoning all combat racism in housing.
But Louisville’s HBNO may be the nation’s most precisely targeted effort to prevent further displacement from historically black communities. Brook Hill, a fair housing and community development attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is one of several national housing experts who applaud the Louisville campaign. “Bold steps like this by local governments are necessary to negate gentrification’s tendency to uproot communities with rich histories and create racially exclusive neighborhoods,” he said. Hill and others see the Louisville ordinance as potentially setting a powerful precedent. “If this is successful, other jurisdictions will likely be inspired to follow suit, because gentrification is a threat to historically black neighborhoods in cities across the country.”