Well, it’s finally official that scattered-site housing for Knoxville’s homeless has been suspended. As a practical matter it has been moribund for some time. Trying to find a site for a new housing unit during the city mayoral campaign this year would have been suicidal. No new initiatives can be attempted until the next mayor takes office, almost a year from now.
The only question that remains is whether the Ten-Year Plan housing component is dead or merely in hibernation. It is ironic that it was the supporters of the plan that pulled the plug, not its opponents. They realized that continuing the current path would punish their friends and allies in public office and reward critics.
The overwhelming motive in the suspension was to remove the homeless issue from the current mayoral campaign. It will be up to the next mayor to do a reboot, kill it completely, or go in another direction. If the issue had continued to be debated in a political campaign, candidates would have been locked into positions for or against and deny the next mayor any flexibility going forward.
Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy and former city department head Madeline Rogero are considered by many observers to be the front runners in the mayor’s race. Both have city experience; Rogero has name recognition, and Roddy has money. Both could have been hammered on the homeless issue, Roddy for her Council votes for existing housing projects and Rogero for being a member of the Haslam administration.
The biggest mistake in the Ten-Year Plan thus far was making it a high-profile operation run out of the mayor’s office and putting it into the hands of people inexperienced in dealing with the homeless, people who ignored neighborhood buy-in. Jon Lawler was wise to step aside; he had become a lightning rod for the opposition.
A quiet, efficient program run without fanfare or press releases could work directly with neighborhoods to build housing for the homeless that wouldn’t adversely impact the areas, and it could be accomplished without huge public controversy. It wouldn’t be splashy, it wouldn’t be monument building, and it would take time. It would need to be done by people with long experience in public housing, people who have worked with the homeless, and people who work with neighborhoods. If you continue to make it an issue all over the city, engendering opposition even from people not affected, you cannot be successful. Hell, the way the program has been run, you have people in Powell mad about the Flenniken project in South Knoxville.
The most effective way to choke off a public issue is to assign it to a committee that is told to go away and come up with a solution. The suspension of the housing plan and its assignment to a committee with at least a dozen members kicks the can down the road and gets the issue out of the way of the mayoral campaign. Candidates can dodge questions on what they will do by saying they will wait for the community “process” to come up with a plan.
As a practical matter, the future of the program depends on who gets elected mayor. It will require the city administration, city funding, and city support if it reboots and continues. It will also depend on the makeup of the City Council, which elects four new members this year. Given the opposition to scattered-site housing by Council members who will still be in office, supporters of continuing the housing component need four Council candidates committed to making it work.
Without five votes it is unlikely even a committed next mayor can restart the process.
The issue may become low profile, but the outcome of the election will determine if the program continues. It’s still an issue. But while the public meetings will provide a distraction, supporters will quietly be working to elect the people they need to continue the project.