Ray Abbas, 35, works as the employment coordinator for the Salvation Army. A Knoxville native, Abbas grew up in the Fourth and Gill neighborhood. He is a graduate of Fulton High School and the president of the Fulton Alumni Association. He has a bachelor’s degree in academic psychology from UT. Over the past 11 years, Abbas has worked in the employment placement field, helping to open one of Knoxville’s first career centers.
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?
Abbas: I would be in support of repealing the current law that is on the books. When the ordinance was being constructed, one of the initial topics was that there be alternatives to it. One of the alternatives proposed was that there was a green space that was supposed to be constructed on the side of the building there at KARM. That has yet to happen, and that does not have a timeline, as far as I know, to happen. So, that is one issue.
As someone who has worked with the homeless for a number of years, I think we have to develop a system that develops an alternative to being homeless. We cannot criminalize homelessness, but we can work toward alternatives other than the sidewalk but also ensure access to the services we provide. I mean services that the Volunteer Ministry Center provides to assist them with housing. The alternatives will allow us to succeed at the ultimate objective, which includes promoting economic development in Downtown and Downtown North.
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?
Abbas: I don’t have any specific areas in the city in mind, but I do believe that the only way we can succeed with the Ten Year Plan is to demonstrate that we can—economically and geographically—place permanent supportive housing throughout the city and the county. This Ten Year Plan was an agreement, a partnership, with the county. Permanent supportive housing, which is essentially the crux of the plan, has to be economically and geographically spread out.
I think, speaking to the question as to what to do about neighborhood concern, I think some things need to happen in order to try to avoid what some of what we experienced with Flenniken. One, that the Ten Year Plan Office needs to do a more adequate job in communicating the objectives and ultimate results that we want from the plan. I think that if we demonstrate to the neighborhoods that we are not targeting neighborhoods that are vulnerable or are at risk for economic problems— I think if we demonstrate to those neighborhoods that we are sincere in working to promote permanent supportive housing that is, again, economically and geographically, fairly distributed throughout the city and county, we’re less likely to have a repeat of this experience.
I think that one of the questions you hear from these neighborhoods is, “Why us?” as if it’s a punishment. “Burden” should not be a word we use in discussing the homeless. I think if you worked with the homeless, you’d be less likely to use the word “burden.” I think in a lot of the public forums, even our own Council members, say, “We don’t want to burden that neighborhood,” or “We’re sorry for burdening that neighborhood.” I don’t think that’s the right word to use in this context.
Ultimately, we have to do what is legally right. However, I also believe that it’s both morally right and it’s cost-effective to continue to support permanent supportive housing. Every study you examine will show that it’s cost-effective to provide permanent supportive housing for the homeless because otherwise, you are utilizing city resources—police, fire, what have you—in order to care for the homeless. I believe that it is the body—the council and the Ten Year Plan Office—it’s their responsibility to disseminate this information. And I believe, if done well, we’ll eventually reach a tipping point where you won’t see the firestorm. How many people out there know that the Jackson Avenue Apartments is supportive housing for 16 chronically homeless men and is doing just perfectly well? It has been for over a decade. If someone were to name the top five places in Knoxville that are chronically problematic, crime-ridden properties, that wouldn’t be on the list. The first few years of this plan should have been spent communicating the realities of the homeless and dispelling the stereotypes about them. If it were, I don’t think we would be having these types of controversies.
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?
Abbas: I believe the PILOTs and the TIFs were intended to help economic development and residential development in areas that are struggling. And I think that we’ve gotten away from that somewhat. We need to get back to the original intention of these programs, which were intended to encourage rational, responsible growth. I feel like the TIFs and the PILOT programs are tools in the toolbox in order for the city to strengthen itself. However, in areas that have maybe reached that tipping point, some of these decisions have been unwise.
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?
Abbas: I think that if at any point, we looked at any cuts in police or fire protection, then we might have to look at a tax increase. Aside from that, I think that there are small, incremental ways in which we can be more cost-effective and look for ways we can save money that would occur before a tax increase. Before considering a tax increase, I would look at all the ways we can continue to save money and eliminate waste. The city has done—in comparison, of course to the county—a fantastic job of being stewards of the taxpayers’ money. That said, in a crunch, you could probably find other ways to pinch a penny before going to 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?
Abbas: I don’t know that they would be worth a tax increase at a time when we’re in a serious bind. As we’ve been good stewards of our money, we do have a reserve. We have to be very careful with hypotheticals, but in an example where you’re describing a real serious situation where the economic downturn continues for many more quarters—a rainy day—I wouldn’t be opposed to going into the rainy day fund to keep our essential services where they are. I think, though, the debate becomes about which services are essential services. The amounts of money contributed to the public grants, for example, may fall into that type of debate. Our rainy day fund six or seven years ago was $16 or $17 million. Our fund balance is now something in the neighborhood of $49.5 million. I’m not encouraging the use of it. However, if you’re describing to me a rainy day, then I would suggest the possible examination of using the rainy day fund.
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?
Abbas: I am in favor of the eventual demolition of Walter P. and the eventual completion of a HOPE VI project there. To me what outweighs that concern about the number of units is that those well versed in economic development in East Knoxville believe very strongly that continuing the status quo of Walter P. has been the downfall of development there. The Five Points development that essentially failed in its original form was attributed somewhat to the current status of Walter P.
When you talk to folks who have been here a long time and are experts in economic development, they’ll tell you that Walter P. is a large contributing factor in the economic woes of East Knoxville. So, I feel that concern outweighs the one you’ve mentioned. I do believe the best you can do is replace one unit per unit. But, I believe that this, if done well as it was in Mechanicsville, can be the catalyst for economic development in East Knoxville.
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, if anything, should the city, as a public entity, be doing beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?
Abbas: Absolutely, it’s a good sign. As for the second question, we must as a city, be more pro-active in dealing with the chronic problem properties, the vacant lots. I believe the number thrown out was, I think, 31 percent of the properties up and down Magnolia are either partly vacant buildings or empty lots. We must be more pro-active in order to reverse that. When Mayor Haslam was elected, prior to him being sworn in, I met with him at the Love Kitchen—I’m president of the Love Kitchen—and these were the very ideas we discussed. We must begin to look at even the smallest of actions that will begin to turn around East Knoxville. East Knoxville is one quarter of the city. It’s east, west, north, and south. There’s no quarter of the city that should be neglected. We ought to be just as pro-active with East Knoxville as we are with Downtown North—which is may I add where I live—the South Waterfront, the plan for Cumberland. We have to be just as pro-active in all quarters of the city. This is a very good start. I would have liked to see this come about earlier, but this is a start.
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?
Abbas: I think that if the opportunity presented itself, as it appears it did, I’m not opposed to the city taking the role of mediator. There’s no legislative role there, but certainly some mediation, just like the city might do if it wasn’t such a controversial item.
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?
Abbas: I would say it depends on each individual Council member. I believe a strong, committed, ethical Council member would have no problem disagreeing with mayoral policy. If they disagree, then they disagree. I think someone who may not have the best interest of their constituents in mind, someone who may have their own political aspirations in mind, might have a problem disagreeing with mayoral policy. I can say that I would not have a single iota of a problem disagreeing with mayoral policy. I have a great deal of respect, however, for Mayor Haslam and how he’s conducted himself. However, with that said, that does not mean that I’ve agreed with everything he has done. I believe he’s done many great things for this city and genuinely has its best interests in mind, but I have definitely not agreed with everything he’s done.
I was struck by this question when it was asked as well. And again, I believe that’s an individual Council members issue. I think that some have no problem whatsoever, expressing their opinion, whether it’s in line with the mayor or not. Councilman Becker proposed adding $1 million out of the fund balance to add to the HOPE VI grant because he felt so strongly we needed it. He knew it wasn’t going anywhere, but he did it anyway.
I think if that question was asked, which it was, and if the public feels that way, then they need to keep that in the forefront of their minds as they’re deciding who their new Council members will be. They need to pick people whose commitment and whose loyalty is to their constituents, the people of the city of Knoxville, and not to any mayor. I stress the word “any.” This is not a referendum on Mayor Haslam. City Council works as a check and balance on the mayor, and it should not be a rubber stamp on the administration.
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?
Abbas: I’ve seen their presentation. And yes, I would be committed to adopting fair ordinances that balance conservation and development. My initial impression is that we may have to look at reducing density on some projects in order to achieve that balance.