commentary (2006-23)

Can’t afford your downtown dream loft? Look east

The (Missing) Middle Class

by Matt Edens

Now topping $200 per square foot, downtown lofts have quickly become some of the most expensive residential real estate in town.  These days a homebuyer pretty much has to be shopping on the water, or the Boulevard (as in Cherokee Blvd.), in order to pay more per square foot. And it’s no coincidence that all three—whether downtown lofts, lakefront views or the cache of a Cherokee address—are relatively rare commodities. Of the 283,000 housing units in Knoxville and Knox County, not quite 1,500 are downtown (and the biggest single chunk in that figure, despite the recent building boom, remains the 278 senior apartments at Summit Towers).

To meet the increased demand, developers are frantically building —or rebuilding, since almost all of downtown’s recent residential growth has been in long vacant retail and industrial buildings or largely vacant office buildings. But, contrary to the seemingly simple laws of supply and demand, each new project seems to push the price threshold higher. Commanding prices that even downtown’s boosters sometimes find hard to believe, the success of each new project nudges up the asking price on the next one, as developers grope their way toward downtown’s price ceiling.

One result of the rising prices has been a subtle shift in the rhetoric of downtown and “affordable housing.”  Where the term was once invoked in the name of artists, students or the homeless, nowadays you’ll often hear it from reasonably well-off wage earners, lamenting that the days of a two-bedroom loft for under 200 grand have largely come and gone. That condos downtown command prices on par with the big houses being built in West Knoxville may be great for the city’s bottom line. But it’s rather bad news if you want to live downtown and have just been pre-approved for a $150,000 mortgage.

Now, that kind of money could buy just about any house in most of the neighborhoods immediately around downtown—a fact more people are discovering as downtown becomes more desirable, but its prices put it out of bounds for many potential homebuyers. Rippling out from downtown, demand is perking up, not just in long-gentrifying Fourth and Gill or Old North Knoxville, but even in more transitional places such as Parkridge and Oakwood-Lincoln Park as they are “discovered” by would-be downtowners of modest means.

As much as I love both those scrappy and still somewhat scruffy ’hoods, Parkridge and Oakwood-Lincoln Park do have one drawback for the wannabe downtowner. While pretty pedestrian-friendly, neither is really within walking distance of downtown. Knox Area Transit, does, however, provide pretty good service—unless you want to stay out after around 11 p.m. or so.

There is, however, one ’hood immediately adjacent to downtown that, assuming TDOT ever finishes its frenzy of viaduct rebuilding, is actually a surprisingly easy walk from Gay Street. The trick, for the perspective homebuyer, will be finding a house to buy there. Because, while it is only a quarter-mile across the Church Street Viaduct from Gay Street to Hall of Fame Drive, and the area abounds in affordable housing, none of it is for sale. 

According to the 2000 census, the area across James White Parkway from downtown—from the Old City to the north to the river on the south and Morningside Park to the east—contained 1,068 housing units. But only 20 of those units, primarily the handful of high-dollar townhouses at Volunteer Landing, were owner-occupied. The rest, whether in private or quasi-public hands, consisted of low-income rental apartments. Downtown is hardly the only inner-city neighborhood that’s missing the middle class.

But there are opportunities to change that. The area around the Coliseum and Safety Building, or further north along Hall of Fame and E. Summit Hill, contain surprising amounts of open land. Why not fill it with townhouses like Nashville’s Row 8.9n? (See .) Developed in 2003 by a non-profit builder, this 29-unit complex of two- and three-bedroom townhouses a few blocks north of the Capitol sold for $130,000 to $172,000 (with 20 percent of the units subsidized as true affordable housing for low- to moderate-income homeowners). And their loft-inspired open interiors proved so popular that the non-profit quickly expanded to build another 28 units around the corner. A similar strategy, in Knoxville, wouldn’t just ease downtown’s “affordable housing” shortage, it would help integrate East Knoxville into the ongoing development boom.