Joshua Nelson, 24, is a student at the University of Tennessee and works as a real estate agent at Century 21. He has lived in District 3 his entire life.
Read other candidate interviews at our 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.
On July 14, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to sit or lay on public sidewalks downtown. One month before that, Judge Stephen Bushong in Oregon ruled that a similar Portland law was unconstitutional. He based his ruling on Oregon state law, but he also told the city’s attorneys that enforcement of the law could very well be challenged as a first amendment violation. Similarly, the lawyer arguing against the ordinance and citizens seeking its removal said that it was discriminatory, since it was specifically designed to target the city’s homeless population. If you are elected, will you support any action to repeal this ordinance in Knoxville?
Nelson: I do not agree that the homeless should be fined $50 just for lying on the street. I am against that law, and I would repeal it because the homeless don’t have $50. I don’t think it’s right to send people to jail just for being poor.
Converting South Knoxville’s Flenniken Elementary School into a supportive housing facility has been a controversial project since its inception. In the candidates’ forum on August 27, many candidates said we ought to, so to speak, “spread the burden” of supportive housing throughout the city rather than concentrating it in a few core areas. Do you have any ideas as to places where we could put more supportive housing? What happens when its neighbors almost inevitably have the same concerns? Does the need for this type of housing and the fact that the Fair Housing Act does not seem to permit the city to deny this type of housing simply based on these types of objections outweigh business and political interest here?
Nelson: That’s a big problem, and the issue I see with it is that if you spread it out throughout the city, there are going to be certain parts in the city that are better than others, that might be more appealing to the homeless. You’re going to get more people migrating or wanting to go to those areas. You might see people who might try to get off the streets, but it’s more appealing to them to stay homeless and be in certain areas. I think we need a program to get people off the streets rather than just a place to put these people. Supportive housing is a step in the right direction, but it’s still a work in progress. Yes, I think it should be spread out, but at the same time I believe that putting them in places is not the right thing to do. We need to help them get off the street.
People who are homeless are people, too. Anyone who says that they don’t want homeless people in their area, they need to be concerned with these people because they could be in the same spot. You and me could be homeless tomorrow. The whole community needs to reach out and help the homeless. I don’t think that anybody should say that we don’t want homeless in our area, and everybody should be concerned with helping them. But we need jobs in the area. We need business. We can’t have these things interfering with businesses. There needs to be a balance, and we need to find a way to co-exist.
You’ll be coming in to an iffy real estate market if you’re elected. Foreclosures continue to be high in the area and around the country, and recently, City Council lowered the property tax rate from $2.81 to $2.46 so as to be in accordance with state tax equalization law. On top of that, a lot of people continue to be unemployed or at least a bit more careful with money, leading to decreases in sales tax revenues. All of this seems to spell potential revenue issues in the future. Given all that, are local incentives, particularly for higher-end projects, a wise idea right now, especially considering the recent foreclosure of a partly TIF-financed project like Cityview at Riverwalk?
Nelson: I’d like to see more business. Bigger business creates more jobs for more people. I’m not opposed to TIFs, but there are a lot of entrepreneurs and small business in the area. That’s what Knoxville’s well known for. I’d like to see that everybody has a fair shot. When it comes to some of those residential projects, the fact of the matter is that there just isn’t enough money to back that sort of thing. That sort of thing needs to be evaluated before it happens. I think I would support TIFs for projects like that in the future, but there needs to be a certain percentage of funding dedicated before they go in and get that kind of financing. They need to have at least 50 percent of the property paid for or bought, or a promissory note, so we don’t see them get to the point where they’re 80 percent done and have to quit construction. That is a real shame when that happens.
Give us a for instance: What would have to be on the chopping block in order for you to support a tax increase in a budget?
Nelson: Police and fire, bottom line. Otherwise, before I’d like to see anyone laid off, I’d like to see an across the board decrease in salary. I hate to say that, but if it comes down to cutting everybody’s salary in the city by one percent, I’d rather see that than let anybody go. And, I’d support that before I’d support a tax increase.
What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city’s nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?
Nelson: It’s hard to say. I love the parks. I love the greenways. I love those services; I use them every day. It’s one of those things that I couldn’t say for sure. I’d hate to cut anything. I wouldn’t want anything to be let go. I would not support raising taxes, but if it came down to something having to go, it would depend on what would be at risk.
Is the city’s plan for a HOPE VI replacement for the Walter P. Taylor homes a good one? Is it a priority for you to maintain the same level of KCDC housing units as we have now?
Nelson: I do think it’s a good idea. What’s been going on over there, it’s a generational thing. People have just fallen into this kind of resolve where that’s where they grew up, that’s where they’re from, that’s what they’re going to do. And it’s not good. There’s crime, there’s drugs, and there is a lack of responsibility in that area. If we put people in their own homes, then they’ll move forward in the right direction, and I think that’s a good thing.
People who live there need better housing. Walter P. is old and dilapidated. It might be time to just start over from the ground up.
Is the Magnolia Avenue Corridor plan a positive sign that the city is putting its attentions toward an area that has arguably been politically neglected? What else can or should be done beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?
Nelson: That’s a blighted area, and I want to see more done for the Magnolia area, yes. But, there’s a lot of programs over there already. KCDC supports a lot of them, but there’s only so much the city can pay for. It’s low-income housing. It’s low-income families. It’s people who can’t do for themselves, and the city does an awful lot for them. I would like to see more done, but there’s only so much that the city can do.
Planned Parenthood recently backed out of a move to move to a facility in Bearden following a large and well-organized movement protesting its move there. Now, before I get to the question, let me present two givens so they will not have to be included in your answer. (1) People have every right to protest Planned Parenthood if they feel that what they do is wrong. (2) What Planned Parenthood does is perfectly legal. So should city government have taken a greater role in perhaps mediating this dispute?
Nelson: That’s a touchy subject, isn’t it? Well, people are going to do what people are going to do, and the city can only step in and mediate so much. Just let people do what people are going to do. I’ll just leave that alone.
An attendee at the August 27 forum expressed some concern that, as she sees it, City Council is too often a “rubber stamp” for mayoral policy. It was a comment that really seemed to resonate with the audience. In your opinion, have what some have categorized as an overly friendly media environment when it comes to the mayor, as well as his family’s deep and significant connections, and now his gubernatorial campaign, produced a situation where it is politically difficult for City Council to go against mayoral policy? In other words, is it at all possible that the mayor's too popular for our own good?
Nelson: No, I don’t think the mayor’s too popular for our own good. I think everyone gets their own voice, and we shouldn’t let what one person says influence us any more than what any other person says. So, the voice of what the common man says should weigh equally as what the voice of the mayor says. We should use our own discretion to figure out how we feel about certain issues.
Have you seen the Hillside-Ridgetop Task Force’s preliminary recommendations? Would you be in support of policies that, in the interest of the long-term benefits of environmental stewardship, might limit a property developer’s ability to “maximize” a hill or ridge property?
Nelson: We need to preserve the environment for future generations, but I support the idea of bringing new housing in new areas, if those will help bring new jobs and growth into those areas. Ultimately, this ordinance needs to be created in such a way so that it will preserve the environment for everybody. It doesn’t need to just level it and make it how we need it for construction. It needs to be environmentally friendly. I think that it’s good for the city. Hillside development is fine if it’s watched very carefully. So I support what they’re doing.