Familiar Feeling

Locals worry what a possible low-income housing project could bring to St. Mary's neighborhood

Low-income housing does not mean poor people," says Mercy Health Partners' Metro CEO Jeff Ashin. He made the comment on WBIR the other day, addressing neighborhood concerns about the possibility that some portion of longtime North Knoxville landmark Saint Mary's Hospital could be converted to low-income housing. I don't know that Ashin's argument won over many skeptics, especially considering he was the one who first floated the idea of low-income housing on the Saint Mary's site a few days earlier in the News Sentinel. Still, he has a point. Depending on the nature of the subsidies and programs involved, a single person could make as much as $30,000 a year and still be considered "low-income" as far as the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is concerned.

HUD's benchmark, in case you're wondering, is based on 80 percent of area median income. And while many rental subsidy programs are based on lower percentages, that particular figure is often the qualifying cutoff point for a number of low to moderate-income housing subsidies aimed at first-time buyers. And at $30,000, I'd say a fair number of twenty-something singles in their first "real" post-college job could qualify. That's one reason why, over the years, I've nudged folks that fall into that category toward such non-profit housing agencies as Knox Housing Partnership.

But there was something else that struck me about Ashin protesting that "low-income housing means affordable housing." You see, when guys in ties start talking about low-income or affordable housing, particularly in Knoxville, it almost goes without saying that the housing in question is going into a relatively poor neighborhood. I've yet to see a zoning fight that pitted Habitat for Humanity against Farragut. Which seems odd to me. When the median home price in Farragut is almost four times that of the neighborhood surrounding Saint Mary's, which community needs more "affordable housing?"

Old North Knoxville does abut Saint Mary's to the south, so there are some higher-dollar homes in the area. Gentrification has also gained a few footholds above Woodland, but mansions—even hundred-year-old ones—are few and far between in Oak Hill and Oakwood/Lincoln Park. And the small bungalows and cottages of both seem likely to remain relatively blue-collar in the near term.

If not, if, say, tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars in private redevelopment and public infrastructure improvements were coming to the immediate area, resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of upper-income households, that'd be a different story. In that case it might make sense to set aside a portion of the Saint Mary's site for affordable housing, to provide for a broader mix of incomes in the overall development and, in the process, help ensure that all the city's low-income housing—and residents—don't become concentrated in a handful of communities.

On the plus side, Ashin did promise, whatever the reuse might be, it'll be something compatible with the community. The landlocked site is in the middle of a neighborhood. It is also directly adjacent to the equally landlocked Fulton High. Too bad the city and a few well-heeled citizens can't step in, as they did when Lakeshore drastically downsized, and convert the acreage into a first class amenity to serve the school and the surrounding neighborhood.

Yet somehow, I doubt that sort of "compatibility" is in the cards. After all, the word came up in the context of low-income housing, or maybe "psychiatric services." Taken together, those two phrases might give any homeowners' association pause. But I suspect that, considered in the context of the city and county's "Housing First" quest to provide permanent, supportive housing for the chronically homeless, they produced the same familiar sinking feeling among many Old North and Fourth and Gill residents as they did in me.