Who’s Gentrifying Northeast Lexington?

The discussion around gentrification in Northeast Lexington continues to be dominated by those who are profiting off of it. But lost in all of their attempts to make the supposed ‘positives’ of gentrification outweigh the disproportionate negatives is any attention to what’s actually happening in these property markets. Though one really needs only to peruse recent issues of the Herald-Leader to see whose efforts at buying up and selling off property in long-neglected parts of town are being celebrated by Tom Eblen, the full extent of this process — who’s buying (and selling) what, where and for how much ?— has gone unexamined.

If referring to the Fayette PVA’s website for information on who’s been buying up property, one is confronted in many cases not with the names of these prominent individuals or business entities, but a bevy of different LLCs used to distribute liability and, at least in practice if not intent, hide the traces of predatory activity from the public. Even if someone does happen do all of their business under their own name, the PVA requires a paid account to be able to search property records by the name of the owner, rather than just one address at a time, making it difficult to understand (and quantify) the exact scope of the problem. That is, while some bits of information are readily accessible, the PVA attempts to prevent any more thorough look at these processes, intentionally or otherwise.

But through our research, we’ve been able to pick out some of these names, cross-reference data from the PVA with the Kentucky Secretary of State’s FastTrack Business Organization Search and some other ancillary data sources in order to provide this snapshot of seven prominent individuals and companies driving the gentrification of northeast Lexington. We are able to identify a total of 187 properties in northeast Lexington — not to mention a number of others throughout the city — that either (a) are currently owned by these individuals, companies they are affiliated with, or other individuals associated with these companies (b) were previously owned by these individuals, companies they are affiliated with, or other individuals associated with these companies, or (c) had transactions facilitated by these individuals (we plan to provide more details on these tangled webs in future posts). It’s worth noting, however, that this may even understate these actors’ involvement in gentrification, as many could be — and likely are — involved in gentrification in ways that can’t be tracked through the PVA’s ownership records alone.

This snapshot reveals the power that just a small handful of individuals and companies are exercising over housing and property markets in northeast Lexington. While there are thousands of properties in northeast Lexington, this map reveals that a not insignificant chunk of these neighborhoods are controlled by just a handful of people. On some streets, it is not uncommon for more than 30% of the properties to be (or have been) owned by just a few different individuals or private entities. Indeed, throughout the Northside and East End, this pattern of concentrated ownership is consistent, even in areas that haven’t experienced such significant influxes of capital in recent years. So far from a ‘natural’ occurrence driven by the consumption preferences of young white people, gentrification in northeast Lexington is engineered through the deliberate actions of a select few seeking to profit off of the area’s marginalization.

Whether the properties are residential or commercial, held onto and rented or flipped, the concentrated ownership of property by a relatively small number of private actors is important because it only serves to further entrench the inequalities between the city’s rich and poor, allowing the decisions of the affluent and well-connected few to impact the many. Selling properties for five to seven times more than they were purchased for in less than a year’s time — and at price per square foot values comparable to homes in Ashland Park and Chevy Chase — is no way to create a livable housing market for the majority of Lexingtonians; it only serves to line the pockets of the city’s elites and allow them to re-create the city and these neighborhoods in their image.

And while the concentration of investments within certain smaller areas of the Northside is clear, the map also shows that some of the city’s prominent gentrifiers are increasingly reaching out from the North Limestone and Jefferson Street corridors and into the East End. One can see a cluster of properties along 3rd Street between Eastern Avenue and Race Street — near the recently collapsed building owned by a local slumlord — that have recently been purchased by Chad Needham and Emerge Development, seemingly as a way to capitalize on the East End TIF district and accelerate the process of gentrification in arguably the city’s most historically marginalized neighborhood.

That these individuals are investing in the particular places they are is no accident, and neither is the fact that of the nearly 200 properties associated with this collection of individuals and companies, many, if not most, have been bought in the past seven or eight years following the financial crisis. Even though the more-or-less deliberate disinvestment in Lexington’s Northside and East End goes much further back in time than 2007, the fact that some of these landlords and developers have specifically targeted foreclosed properties points to the fundamental connection between gentrification and longer legacies of government and private enterprise alternating between benign neglect and active predation in their dealings with these predominantly poor and African-American neighborhoods.

Gentrification isn’t a solution to longstanding problems in northeast Lexington; it’s a way of taking advantage of them.