Affordability in Knoxville: A Housing Crisis

April 29, 2019 Mitch Jones

Affordability in Knoxville: A Housing Crisis

Image from Google Maps

By Mitchell Jones

CJ McCullough has been “couch-homeless” for two years, following the eviction of his roommate and some legal problems of his own. “The housing market — it’s very difficult to meet their standards and still live healthfully, mainly the price and location, because if you want something near the hustle and bustle of downtown with more opportunities, if you don’t have a car it makes things immensely difficult,” McCullough said in an interview.

Couch homeless — the state of being without your own home, but dependent on the goodwill of others — afflicts about 1.7 percent of the American population, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. McCullough, 21, dropped out of college to pursue his artistic talents. The nomadic lifestyle is familiar to him. The little money he has is from making art, his passion in life. He makes music on his laptop and carries a drawing pad with a box of markers. He carries a wood burning kit along with whatever else he needs in his backpack and takes it with him wherever he goes. He lives a portable life but suggests that it’s what he’s comfortable with.

He says he is lucky to not rely on homeless shelters, yet the money he makes from his artwork isn’t exactly sustainable. He doesn’t really have a job aside from commissions for his artwork and it’s hard for a young  independent artist to sell his work.

Of the nearly 30,000 households in Knoxville with incomes less than $20,000, the number of rental units within their budget is only about 9,000. Of those, at least 5,500 are section 8 provided by services such as the KCDC and/or financed by Low Income Housing Tax Credits. This means that, at best, 21,000 are living outside their affordable budget or simply living outside in general, according to the Knoxville Mercury’s reporting in 2015. This is a local crisis and one that is simply not being paid enough attention to in the public eye, especially since the issue of low-income housing and homelessness can often be an invisible issue to most.

Knoxville is in the midst of a housing crisis, specifically affordable housing for low-income individuals.  

Vanessa Hensley, MSSW of The Volunteer Ministry Center in Knoxville works directly with individuals affected by the crisis. “ There’s not enough affordable housing either [sic], I mean even the low-income housing it’s just not out there” stated Hensley. She mentioned the establishment known as, Minvilla Manor, which was beforehand an old Fifth Avenue motel that is now permanent supportive housing. She also mentions an upcoming establishment, “South Knoxville Flats is the name of the new place that’s supposed to open may be as early as fall”. While these buildings are a good supplement for a few, it doesn’t carry the true scope of the issue and doesn’t solve the underlying factors associated with this issue.

The Volunteer Ministry Center that Ms. Hensley has worked with for seven years, helps connect the homeless and low-income individuals based on their needs, the severity of the individual’s circumstances, and then helps refer them to either KCDC aka Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation or HUD the Housing & Urban Development department.  However the situation is crowded: they are running low on units they can refer people to and as a result, these organizations have to set up waitlists for new individuals.

Volunteer Ministry Center, Knoxville (Image from Google Earth)

This begs the question of what happens when we run out of housing for these individuals. Hensley explains that we are already in such a scenario, “I can’t give you a number, but several folks who are just waiting. So what they’re doing is they’re waiting on someone to either get evicted out of their apartment or basically die to take over that apartment. So a lot of folks that you see that are homeless, like, they’re literally just waiting like they’ve been approved they’ve done everything.”  

Above: Audio clip from Hensley’s Interview explains the housing situation currently

Zane Smith, a rising senior in The University of Tennessee Knoxville’s architecture department is proposing solutions for affordable housing in the Knoxville area.

“I was trying to make it a property where the people who would buy could have a stake in the community to avoid being a victim of gentrification because as property values in an area increase, the rent does as well and it eventually pushes out these low-income people,” he said in an interview.

“If they owned the land the property value would increase and they could actually build wealth for themselves.”

It’s very easy for these low-income individuals to sort of fall into a loop, he said, “so it becomes a cyclical thing where you rent and you’re in an area that’s going to grow then it will get harder for you to live there as time goes on as rents rise.”  

Above: Zane begins a rough structural layout of his design

Other options do exist, he says. “So a good solution is to build multiple units on one lot and sell the individual units to people,” another way to cheapen the construction he explains, “if you had all the knowledge to do parts of it yourself , you can cut costs when building because the final product goes through fewer people who are taking a profit off the top and would be cheaper directly for the people buying.”

Smith mentioned the proposed recent changes to Knoxville in the city’s zoning code that has been trying to push through into legislation, “There’s a thing they’re trying to push called Recode Knoxville and it’s trying to allow for Knoxville to grow because the zoning code hasn’t been updated in like fifty years.”

Recode Knoxville is exactly that, it is a proposed zoning ordinance that would replace the old code from over half a century ago and update it with simpler. easier-to-understand language to help bolster Knoxville’s growth. Knoxville’s “zoning ordinance was written decades ago, for land-use patterns of a very different era – the post-World War II suburban model,” Mayor Rogero wrote on the city’s website. “The ordinance may have made sense then. But as we’ve grown, and lifestyle choices have changed, the ordinance no longer fits our needs in 2016.”

The website lists the proposed goals of this zoning ordinance beginning with one of their main points “simple and easy to use”. Recode Knoxville also recognizes the city’s population as becoming older and more diverse, emphasizing that these changes in demographics have a huge impact on the city. Lastly that it focuses more on increased mobility and public transportation opportunities in mind with its growth going forward to connecting destinations and neighborhoods.

While it’s we can’t be sure yet exactly what kind of impact these new codes will make for Knoxville’s affordable housing issue, it seems to be, at the very least a step forward in the right direction for the city.

McCullough says he was not aware of the resources in the community to help the fight against homelessness and had never heard of the KCDC before, but also says that he’d rather not have to need to depend on them. “I’m sure they [Knoxville] has a couple [of shelters] but I wouldn’t know where they are”.