Knoxville Awarded Funding for Sustainability Studies

A HUD grant could change how Knoxville thinks about development

Last Friday afternoon, Jeff Welch was feeling a little conflicted. On one hand, the director of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization was still elated by the news that the Obama administration had approved a $4.3 million sustainability grant that Welch’s agency had helped apply for. On the other hand, the prospect of three years of time-consuming, complicated work suddenly loomed.

“We found out about it when everyone else found out about it,” Welch says of the award, which was announced Oct. 14.

It’s not just that the Knoxville metro area—comprising Anderson, Blount, Knox, Loudon, and Union counties—was one of 45 winners selected by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, from some 225 applicants. The grant to Knoxville was also the fifth-largest of any awarded. The only cities or regions given more money were Seattle, Salt Lake City, St. Paul/Minneapolis, and St. Louis. Knoxville’s grant is larger than those bestowed on New York, Houston, Chicago, or Boston.

The program comes through HUD’s new Sustainable Communities office, created to take a more wide-ranging view of housing issues, including the environmental and economic impacts of where and how people live. For example, one factor considered in weighing the need for regional planning is how many residents spend more than 45 percent of their income on combined housing and transportation costs. In the Knoxville metro area, Welch says, that’s about 87 percent of households. It’s a product of East Tennessee’s sprawling development patterns, and a hidden cost in the region’s low housing prices.

Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for HUD in Washington, D.C., says a more holistic perspective is important to understanding the economic realities of a regional population. “Every time you fill the tank, that’s a housing cost,” he says. And he says the strong response to the grant program shows that many cities and counties are starting to think in those terms.

“It was incredibly competitive,” Sullivan says. “This generated an awful lot of interest all over the country.”

The local application was filed in Knoxville’s name, but Madeline Rogero, the city’s director of community development, says credit should go to the Metropolitan Planning Commission and the TPO, as well as supportive governments across the metro area. She says the money will support a three-year planning process to identify ways “to integrate dealing with concerns such as air and water quality, economic and workforce development, housing issues, land use, and transportation.” She adds, “The idea is to look at all these systems and make sure they’re working together to preserve our natural resources as much as possible, and grow in a sustainable way.”

At the end of the three years, the goal is to set up one “demonstration community” in each of the five counties—which could be a neighborhood, a subdivision, a district of a city—to showcase sustainable living that addresses specific East Tennessee needs.

Welch says the planning will include public meetings across the five counties (maybe similar to the kind that were held during the 9 Counties, 1 Vision process), as well as support from local entities like the University of Tennessee, Maryville College, and the East Tennessee Community Design Center. There is also $2 million budgeted for studies by consultants on a whole range of issues.

Sullivan says the applications were rated on five different measures: the capacity of local governments and groups to do the planning; the actual needs of the area; the “soundness” of the proposed approach to sustainability; other local resources that can be leveraged (like the universities and Oak Ridge National Laboratory); and how results will be evaluated.

In arguing for local needs, the Knoxville application says that according to figures from 2000, local households spent an average of $829 per month on housing and another $875 a month on transportation—a big chunk of the median household income of about $46,000. It also discusses local air and water quality problems, noting that Anderson, Blount, Knox, and Loudon counties are all designated as “non-attainment” areas under federal clean-air guidelines. “These four counties registered some of the highest numbers of days for particle pollution and high ozone comparatively among all counties in the state,” the application says.

It also makes a case for “more transportation choice” for the many low-income residents of the area who do not live near major employment centers: “[T]here are limited transportation options across the region, with personal automobile travel the predominant mode available. This presents a difficult circular challenge: can’t get a job without a car, but can’t get a car without a job.”

Of course, workable solutions to any of those problems could be hard to come by even with a few years and $4 million to work on them. “The proof is in the implementation,” acknowledges Rogero (who is a candidate for Knoxville mayor in next year’s election, and potentially one of the local leaders who will be presented with the results of the plan). “Hopefully during this three-year planning process we will come up with a plan that can be implemented and that we have the community and political will to implement.”

The HUD funds will go only so far. But Welch says that much of what comes out of the plan might not require more money so much as a different mindset. “It might be looking at a development ordinance or a zoning ordinance or form-based codes or some strategies that don’t require an infusion of funding.”

Rogero says she doesn’t know exactly why Knoxville’s application was successful. But between energy-efficiency work already being done in Oak Ridge, assorted local solar initiatives, and the concentration of research and resources at UT and TVA, she thinks the area is a good choice for the grant.

“We’re well on our way as a region in addressing sustainability issues, but we’ve got a long way to go,” she says. “So I think that was part of the attraction.”

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