urban_renewal (2006-32)

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Subsidize This

1000 Thompson Place

Subsidize This

by Matt Edens

Affordable housing is disappearing across the country. And it’s not just due to the housing bubble pushing up prices. The term itself is falling out of favor.

“Workforce housing” is the new buzzword being adopted by housing agencies and the nonprofit sector. The idea is to avoid the increasing stigma increasing attached to the phrase “affordable housing”—although I’m not sure that “workforce housing” really works any better, conjuring up visions of coalmining camps and the company store (for me, at least). But then, the old terminology of “affordable housing” always struck me as odd, too. Aren’t we all in the market for affordable housing? It’s our individual definitions of “affordable” that differ, depending on whether you’re a neurosurgeon or stocking shelves on the night shift.

Not so long ago, “affordable” prices were one of the things that attracted buyers to areas such as Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville, when a young couple could buy even a nicely-restored house for substantially less than in suburbia, or pick up a fixer-upper for a fraction of the cost, invest a little sweat equity in it and wind up with a huge house and a tiny mortgage. Nowadays, thanks to a proliferation of price tags pushing a quarter-million, property values present budget-conscious buyers with two options: They can push out a little farther and pioneer in neighborhoods like Oakwood Lincoln Park, Old Sevier or Parkridge, or they can come up with some creative subsidy.

And the sort of subsidy I have in mind isn’t government money, either. The persistent urban legends about government grants to fix up old houses are precisely that—urban legends. But, over the years, I’ve known quite a few folks who have become homeowners by also becoming landlords.

It works something like this. You buy a house like this foursquare on the corner of Armstrong and Thompson Place in Old North. Nicely redone with heart pine floors, original fireplaces, staircase and even the old servant’s stair off the original kitchen still intact, it’s also currently divided into a duplex (both up and down, 2 bdrm/1 bath units). A young single or couple shopping for a first home could buy this place, live in half and rent out the other to subsidize the mortgage. And, as the family grows, so can the owner-occupied portion. Need a nursery? Simply flip the apartment’s second bedroom. Having a second child? Suddenly the apartment’s an efficiency, or say goodbye to being a landlord altogether.

However the details work out in the long run, buying this house and renting out half of it could, in a series of affordable, sustainable stages, put you in that historic home you’ve always wanted. m

1000 Thompson Place

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