Underwriting the Suburbs

Late last week, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported on a house fire at 460 Kenton Street in north Lexington, near the Transylvania University campus. While details were scarce beyond the unfortunate loss of a pet, all signs suggest that the fire was a simple accident. Given that no one was more seriously hurt, the event doesn’t seem particularly remarkable. Indeed, compared to the collapse of a long vacant building at the corner of 3rd and Race Streets in the East End just a couple of summers ago, last week’s house fire has warranted considerably less attention. Despite these differences in reception, closer inspection reveals that these two cases are actually remarkably similar.

Like the collapsed building at the corner of 3rd and Race, the burned house at 460 Kenton Street doesn’t stand in isolation from its surrounding context. Just as our research showed that the collapsed building at 500–502 East Third Street was one of many dilapidated properties owned by Charles Finnell, 460 Kenton Street is just one of 36 different properties around the city owned by one Jill Travis through two different corporations, I&J Investments and J Life LLC.

The majority of these properties — valued at a total of $1,815,800 in 2016 — are located in north Lexington. While over half of these properties are valued at under $50,000, the house at 460 Kenton Street has a fair market value of just $12,000. That its value has been basically unchanged in the last fifteen years since Travis took ownership of the house suggests that it’s seen little, if any, upgrading in that time. And just as in our earlier work, it should come as no surprise that the rents from these properties flow out of the historically poor and predominantly black neighborhoods where they’re located and into places like the ritzy Lakeview Estates neighborhood on the other side of town, where Travis’ $900,000 home is located.

Properties owned by Jill Travis, in relation to her home address

While the fire at 460 Kenton Street seems to have been entirely accidental, it’s important to recognize that the broader circumstances of this event are neither accidental nor unfamiliar. Jill Travis is certainly not the only wealthy landlord living in one of Lexington’s most exclusive enclaves profiting off of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Indeed, without predominantly poor and minority neighborhoods like those on the Northside and East End, those pockets of affluent whites elsewhere in the city wouldn’t be able to exist in the first place. From early 20th century redlining that cut off access to capital for black neighborhoods to the contemporary concentration of property ownership in the hands of a relative few, the uneven power dynamics of the housing market mean that the few are enriched while the many are further impoverished. As the geographer Jim Blaut put it succinctly some 40 years ago: “the ghetto truly underwrites the suburbs”.

All of that is to say, even the most minor and random tragedies aren’t isolated incidents, but very much connected to and shaped by broader processes. This is especially true when it comes to housing, where the overriding desire for some to turn a profit has subsumed the necessity of a safe and secure home for all.