insights (2007-12)

Upgrading Run-down Neighborhoods

Of the 54,036 single-family dwellings within the city of Knoxville at the time of the last property assessments in 2004, 13,311 or 25 percent were classified as substandard. Within the 14 census tracts that comprise the city's Empowerment Zone (EZ), a much higher percentage (6,572 out of 11,816) were so classified.

Whether viewed in the broad or in the narrow, the cost of rehabilitation or, in extreme cases, acquisition and demolition of blighted properties far exceeds the city's resources for remediation assistance. The $3.5 million or so in federal funds the city receives for housing and other improvements in low income neighborhoods may sound like a lot. But with rehabilitation costs that average close to $50,000 per dwelling, even if all the federal money went into the city's residential rehab program (which it doesn't) that's only enough to bring about 70 houses up to standard.

So when the city's Director of Community Development Madeline Rogero says, "My goal is to be strategic," she then poses the question: "How do we target our resources so we're doing as much as we can to revitalize low-income communities, which is really what our goal is?"

Three months after taking the helm of what had been a very troubled department, the former mayoral candidate is quick to say she doesn't have all the answers yet. "There's a lot of stuff I'm still learning, a lot of stuff I had to sludge through, but we've gotten to the point where we can really start looking toward the future and thinking through what we want to be next year and five years from now," Rogero says.

While housing programs get the biggest share of the funds at her disposal, they are only one of many facets of the Community Development Department's neighborhood revitalization efforts. Others include improving sidewalks, parks, community centers and the visual appeal of neighborhoods, helping strengthen neighborhood organizations, and a leading role in the city's 10-year plan for eliminating homelessness.

For the duration of the decade that commenced when Knoxville gained designation as an Empowerment Zone city in 1999, outlays under other federally-funded programs as well are being concentrated within that center city zone. (The bulk of the $27 million in EZ money the city received has already been spent, but some remains to complement ongoing funding under the two other federal grant programs--CDBG and HOME--that comprise 90 percent of the Community Development Department's budget.)

The Five Points area, Lonsdale and Vestal are at the top of the priority list because they are also the subject of redevelopment plans under which Rogero's department is collaborating with Knoxville's Community Development Corp. (KCDC). Eliminating blight starts with targeting vacant, unkempt lots and dilapidated dwellings. If their owners fail to redress the problems, then the city (through KCDC) moves to acquire the property using condemnation as a last resort.

The $460,000 in CDBG funds allocated to blighted property acquisitions in this year's budget was only deemed sufficient to cover 15 parcels, but the city also has a $1.9 million allocation of EZ funds for this purpose--money that had languished until Rogero took the reins of the department. Properties thus acquired are typically sold to non-profit Community Housing Development Organizations (CHDOs) for construction of new affordable housing with the city, often subsidizing the cost to low-income buyers. Another $725,000 was allocated for CHDO projects in this year's budget.

The new construction program works in tandem with a rehabilitation loan program for low-income homeowners. Yet the $2.1 million allocated to this program was only deemed sufficient to cover 45 home rehab loans, which are subject to forgiveness over a 10-year period if the owner/borrower continues to reside in them.

City funds alone can only make a dent in the substandard housing problem even when concentrated in target neighborhoods. But Rogero believes that they can serve as a catalyst that will spur other redevelopment. "We can come into a street where, say, there are 10 houses in bad condition. We can just do a few of these houses and end up turning that neighborhood around because there's a tipping point where other owners feel they can invest," Rogero ventures. Parkridge is a prime example of a neighborhood that has undergone a city-spurred transformation in recent years.

In the case of Lonsdale, more stimuli could come from a $1.2 million EZ allocation that remains mostly unspent. An EZ advisory committee had recommended a $1.2 million Lonsdale redevelopment plan whose centerpiece was a neighborhood commercial center. But when KCDC solicited proposals for such a development it got no takers and no longer considers it realistic. However, Rogero is "absolutely, definitely" clear that the money remains committed to Lonsdale and is looking for "community guidance" on how it should be spent.

Rogero is sensitive in talking about the changes her department has undergone since the abrupt departure of her predecessor Renee Kesler last November and the three other resignations that ensued. "We've got people here who are talented and want to get the job done in a positive work environment, and I have some new people coming in with unbelievable backgrounds," she enthuses.

One new position that has her particularly excited is the director of an Office of Neighborhoods, whose creation Haslam recently approved. Its reach will extend throughout the city, serving as a liaison with and helping strengthen neighborhood organizations. It's almost ironic that the woman who ran against Haslam for mayor four years ago as a champion of neighborhood betterment is now spearheading his administration's efforts to fulfill that pledge.