urban_renewal (2007-08)

Look north to get more bang for your buck

Gentrification by the Numbers

by Matt Edens

Gentrification, according to New Urbanist architect Andres Duany, is the "newest of social sins." And that's unfortunate, says Duany, since "such thinking raises obstacles to the revival of American cities." Sure, there are a small number of cities--San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C.--where housing has become unaffordable to the vast majority of inhabitants. But, as Duany points out, "cities such as Detroit, Trenton, and Syracuse could use all the gentrification they can get."

Knoxville is hardly a Trenton or Detroit, but it clearly isn't Manhattan, either. Downtown condo prices may be climbing, but in most of the center city, disinvestment and abandonment are far more pressing issues than affordable housing. According to the 2000 census, the median value of owner-occupied homes in many inner-city census tracts hovered around $50,000. Those values have increased somewhat since, but the "housing bubble" largely bypassed Knoxville's inner city.

At the end of last year, the median sales price for an existing single-family home in the Knoxville metropolitan area was $153,600. Currently, according to realtor.com, 206 of the 248 homes for sale in close-in North Knoxville's 37917 zip code are listed for less than $150,000, 94 of them priced at less than $75,000 (interesting since the area includes what's supposed to be some of Knoxville's most gentrified real estate: Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville). Over in 37914, encompassing much of East Knoxville, 162 of 207 homes for sale cost less than $150,000, more than half of them under six figures. By comparison, of the 540 homes for sale in 37922, deep West Knoxville, a mere 10 are on the market for less than the metro median of $150,000.

Gentrification, in other words, has had little large-scale impact on inner-city Knoxville's housing market, largely because it has been concentrated mostly in a handful of neighborhoods--as is often the case in other cities. "These inner city neighborhoods," writes Duany, "were usually built originally for the middle-class, and it is their quality that eventually attracts subsequent gentrification." There are exceptions--Cabbagetown, in Atlanta, comes to mind--but in such traditionally blue-collar Knoxville neighborhoods as Vestal, Lonsdale or Beaumont, gentrification has barely been a blip and is only beginning to take root in places like Oakwood-Lincoln Park. And housing stock, as Duany suggests, is the primary reason.

A two-bedroom bungalow or shotgun might have hardwood floors or even a handsome fireplace or two, but this house on Freemont in Old North Knoxville has more than 3,000 square feet of gorgeously refinished hardwood and a total of eight original fireplaces, each with lovingly restored mantles and tile. Then there are the 10-foot ceilings, two big bay windows and handsome woodwork such as the original three-story staircase and pocket doors. But, while the fit and finish of this house easily rivals the finest of those 540 homes for sale way out west, even at $339,900, it's still priced for way less than most of them.

1523 Freemont Place