Home Economics: Knoxville's Dwindling Supports for Supportive Housing

Even if Knoxville had the political will to provide more large-scale supportive housing for the homeless, which is doubtful, it's even less likely that funding could be obtained for any more projects on the order of Minvilla Manor and Flenniken Landing.

Cuts in federal funding for HUD's Section 8 voucher program, which pays the rent for Minvilla's 57 residents and Flenniken's 48, severely crimps the city's ability to cover any more. Indeed, Knoxville's Community Development Corporation, which disburses the vouchers locally, had to phase out more than 200 of them last year to absorb a $1.2 million funding cut. And it's facing an even steeper one in the year ahead. Turnover within the ranks of KCDC's some 3,500 voucher recipients has permitted absorption by attrition while protecting 150 slots that KCDC has set aside for supportively sheltering the formerly homeless. But Helen Ross McNabb Center has spoken for most of the rest of the 150 for several smaller group homes it operates for the mentally ill.

At the same time, the city has sustained a 34 percent reduction (from $3.4 million to $2.25 million) in annual funding from the two other HUD programs (CDBG and HOME) that are the mainstays of its affordable-housing efforts. A central tenet of a recently released "draft plan" by a Mayor's Roundtable on Homelessness is the need to "Create and Maintain Access to a Variety of Decent, Appropriate, Affordable Permanent Housing." But it's hard to see how the city can do much more with less.

That's not to deprecate the efforts of the city's Department of Community Development and its able director Becky Wade. Despite the funding cuts, Wade has somehow managed to initiate a rental-housing rehabilitation program that offers $475,000 in forgivable loans for upgrading substandard dwellings. A majority of this year's outlays are due to go to McNabb for renovation of an apartment building on Washington Pike to provide 15 units of supportive housing for mentally ill veterans.

Wade also insists that adequate funding is being maintained for the city's ongoing rehabilitation loan program for low- to moderate-income homeowners and for acquisition of blighted properties that are then sold to developers who commit to build affordable housing on them within a year. Some 25 to 30 residences will benefit or result from each of these programs this year. And their sustainability is helped by the fact that rehab and construction loan repayments revert to the city for reinvestment.

While the "aspiration" of the Mayor's Roundtable is to "prevent, reduce, and end homelessness in Knoxville," it seems clear that progress toward achieving it will be incremental rather than the more transformative approach exemplified by Minvilla and Flenniken.

"Right now, that is not the approach the city is taking," Wade says. "What's worked most successfully," she continues, "is housing folks that are homeless in existing properties, either KCDC housing or subsidized private-housing developments. The largest number of people have been housed that way rather than in Minvilla or Flenniken."

Unlike the Section 8 vouchers for private rentals that are subject to federal budget cuts, the federal funding that supports KCDC's stock of public housing is statutorily protected against reductions (conversely, federal law doesn't permit any expansion of public housing). Similar ground rules govern another category of HUD vouchers that subsidize privately developed rental housing for the low-income elderly and disabled, of which Summit Towers and Townview Towers are the two prime examples in Knoxville.

Homelessness prevention is another important facet of the city's efforts, working primarily with tenants of KCDC housing who have been identified as in danger of eviction. Case-management services are provided primarily by the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee (CAC), which also has a combination of city and federal funds at its disposal to make temporary rent and utility payments.

"The cost of these services can save a lot of money down the road and certainly a lot of human tragedy, because it's very difficult for people to get back into housing once they have an eviction record," says Mike Dunthorn, longtime coordinator of the city's Office on Homelessness. He reckons that hundreds of evictions from KCDC housing have been averted and adds that, "We hope to identify others throughout the community who are in danger of losing their housing and work with them as well."

Heading an extensive list of goals and strategies contained in what's labeled "Knoxville's Plan to Address Homelessness" is a need for leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement. "To successfully implement this plan, our elected political leadership must commit to these goals and strategies and must actively lead the community though the sometimes difficult decisions that will be required, taking into careful account the rights, needs, and wishes of all stakeholders who will be affected," it states. Yet it seems a little tentative for the mayor's own roundtable to be presenting them as a "draft" and exhorting her to take the lead.