15-1 How the Louisville Tenants Union Won the First Anti-Displacement Policy in the South

By Gabby Ross, NLIHC, and Jessica Bellamy, Louisville Tenants Union

Three years ago, poor and working class Black tenants from across Louisville, Kentucky’s historically Black neighborhoods started writing legislation. “We were tired of waiting for our politicians to write policy that would keep us in our homes and in our communities,” explains Jessica Bellamy, the tenant organizer and co-founder of the Louisville Tenants Union who led the campaign to write and pass the first anti-displacement policy in the southern U.S.

As a child growing up at the intersection of Clay and Lampton streets in the city’s historically Black neighborhood of Smoketown, Bellamy developed a strong sense of community. The intersection was a popular place for residents to convene, because Bellamy’s grandmother had opened a soulfood restaurant on the corner named Shirley Mae’s Cafe. Shirley Mae also later opened a juke joint across the street that served as a club house for many people in the community. Every member of Bellamy’s family, including Jessica herself and her brother, have worked in the family businesses.

Catty-corner from the juke joint is Sheppard Square Apartments, formerly Sheppard Square housing projects, where Bellamy’s father grew up. Sadly, at the age of eight, Bellamy and her family suffered his loss. His murder displaced Bellamy from the community, but that didn’t stop her from growing up in Smoketown. Bellamy stayed connected to her community by attending schools in the neighborhood (or within walking distance), by working shifts in the family businesses from the age of 12 on, and later by organizing residents in the neighborhood to fight against the gentrification of Smoketown. By the time she had become an adult, Bellamy had been priced out of the community. Even though she had been given the house she grew up in, she couldn’t afford to renovate it to make it livable again. Contractors whom she hired to do the work gave her construction bids of as much as $300,000 because houses in the area were being flipped for skyrocketing prices. Rents and real estate prices in Smoketown had begun to shoot upward with the renovation of the original Sheppard Square housing projects, which displaced hundreds of deeply rooted families from their community.

In 2020, Bellamy started organizing with tenants from across multiple historically Black neighborhoods, and together they discovered that all their communities suffered from similar problems. Bellamy was on fire to organize more tenants on the basis of their shared self-interest in protecting and restoring their communities. With support from the office of Councilman Jecorey Arthur, Black poor and working class tenants worked together for over two years to write the “Historically Black Neighborhood Ordinance.” In year three, the Louisville Tenants Union launched its campaign to pass this crucial legislation, and along the way, the members realized that it was not just poor and working class Black neighborhoods that were vulnerable. As a result, they expanded their legislation to cover the whole city, started organizing more tenants, and invited them to take action with the campaign. This grew their base extraordinarily. As a result, they renamed their ordinance the “Anti-Displacement Ordinance.” People from all over the city were joining the campaign by signing the petition, sending postcards and emails to their representatives, showing up at City Hall whenever the ordinance was being discussed, participating in actions, giving addresses to the metro council, and taking on roles within the campaign to strengthen its efforts.

In June 2023, five months before the vote, only one council person was for the ordinance. But after months of organizing constituents in all 26 voting districts of Louisville, council members jumped on board with the ordinance one by one. Finally, on the day of the vote – November 9, 2023 – Louisville’s mayor and every major developer in town spent the entire day calling representatives to kill the ordinance. That night, the Louisville Tenants Union packed City Hall, and together they unanimously passed their policy. Louisville’s mayor, who was previously a luxury hotel developer, wouldn’t sign the ordinance, and he allowed it to become law without his signature.

Now, at the start of year four, the Louisville Tenants Union is recruiting members of its base to step into their power and hold seats on the Anti-Displacement Ordinance commission. This commission will defend Louisville’s communities that are vulnerable to displacement from housing discrimination and gentrification. This commission will have the power to offer remedies to support individuals and their households to live in their communities for the long term, and they will be able to impose consequences on companies, organizations, and individuals with documented cases of discrimination in communities vulnerable to displacement.

Tenants living in areas that are vulnerable to displacement will be able to access the benefits of this crucial legislation in the fall of 2024. Outside of recruiting strong candidates for the community, the Louisville Tenants Union is also raising community awareness about this legislation. The group aims to prepare communities all over the city for the activation of the ordinance. Their success proves that effective organizing requires base-building, community relationships, and resilience.