citybeat (2006-14)

Spring is the season for protesting stuff, and things

When it comes to housing, dictionaries need not apply

Fair-Weather Activism

You’ll smell it: the sweet patchouli scent of activism, tangled up somewhere in the aroma of azaleas and mulch and tender sprigs of grass. This spring, activists throughout the area will rise from hibernation, check the East Tennessee Progressive Network’s community calendar (online at, and reunite with their various causes.

Along the banks of the Tennessee River, green-thumbed volunteers from Ijams Nature Center clean up a winter’s worth of trash. In Oak Ridge, a small group of peaceniks cluster at the gates of Y-12, pleading, as they always do, to “stop the bombs.” Members of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition meet to determine the specifics of their next protest, to be held the following week. Should it be a march? A sit-in? A walkout?

The downtown/campus area seems an especially hot bed of activist activity—although some events are better attended than others. At the World’s Fair Park, four protesters decry the high price of gasoline, flagging down the occasional passerby to sign their giant banner. Of the mess of loudspeakers and video equipment surrounding them, the young man clutching a camcorder explains, “We’re making a documentary on the issue. We want to know what it’ll take for the American people to say they’ve had enough. Three dollars a gallon? Four?”

Meanwhile, farther west, UT’s Progressive Student Alliance and United Campus Workers are set in staid picket-posture in front of UT president John Petersen’s Sequoyah Hills residence. Having sent hundreds of angry postcards and more than 5,000 faxes to Petersen’s offices—all of which went unanswered—the PSA has decided to abandon their wintry papering tactics in favor of a good, old-fashioned protest, complete with chants and a visit from a friendly police officer who’s more concerned with smoking cigarettes than busting heads.

A young, twentysomething lady strolls by with her dog and asks what all the hubbub is about; she’s told that this picket is designed to raise support for UCW’s ongoing struggle to get a living wage for all campus employees. “What?” she asks, almost instinctively. “Do they want them to pay for their houses or something?”

But the chanters continue to make their voice heard: On the one side, John, there’s poverty/on the other side there’s you/we got to narrow this wage-gap/’cause folks are falling through. Of course, in addition to some original, apropos cheers, the picketers pull out the old, timeless favorite: What do we want?/ [Insert gripe] !/When do we want it?/Now! (In this case, the PSA is currently asking for a flat raise of $1,200 for all university employees, from the tenured professor to the residence hall janitor.)

Intrepid PSA activists Anne Barnett and Harrison Wulford brave the well-kept lawn to ring Petersen’s doorbell; he promptly appears and tells them that he “needs to finish something on the Internet,” according to those who were within earshot.

Rejection never quite loses its sting, but such is the life of the activist. You’ve just got to take a hit for the team and move on, ad infinitum, ad absurdum. That’s why organizations like the PSA and UCW continue to sponsor efforts to promote their living-wage campaign, perpetually upping their ante of marches, pickets and letter writings until a compromise can be reached. But, when the weather’s nice, the fight’s at least bearable.

An octogenarian in an SUV drives by and yells, “Get a job!”

A quick-thinking protester responds, “It’s Saturday.”

The Semantics of ‘Family’

Twenty or so college students share a single-family residence in South Knoxville. Each morning, a fresh crop of crumpled beer cans lends the patchy lawn an aluminum-hued sheen.

In North Knoxville, 38 people sleep shifts in a single-family home. At any given time, no fewer than seven cars are parked outside, sprawling thoughtlessly into neighbors’ yards.

Stories like these are nightmares for residents concerned with the integrity of their neighborhoods: Such occupants are an annoyance at best and a catalyst for declining property values at worst. In response, several area residents and homeowner associations have become outspoken in their efforts to tighten regulations on who can and cannot inhabit single-family housing.

Jim Bletner, president of the Sequoyah Hills-Kingston Pike Homeowners Association, and Dr. Bruce Walker, a representative of South Knoxville’s Lakemoor Hills neighborhood, spearheaded the effort to revise single-family zoning standards last September after observing an increase in complaints from their neighborhoods’ residents. Not all are as extreme as the examples cited above; mostly, they stem from college students and young professionals moving into the area, throwing loud parties and neglecting their lawns. But for the traditionally family-minded, middle-class neighborhoods Bletner and Walker represent, theirs is an undesirable presence.

Bletner says, “I think it’s been an issue for at least 10 years, but the newer phenomenon, to some degree, is that it is now creeping into residential areas.” Walker traces the problem further back, to zoning codes that were put in place before the 1982 World’s Fair to accommodate the mass of visitors expected to descend upon the city. “That didn’t materialize, but those code changes are coming back to haunt us now,” he says.

In the city, zoning codes dictate that single-family housing may be occupied by any number of people “related by blood, marriage or adoption” or no more than five people “not all related by blood or marriage.” In the county, the definition is looser; a family is defined as “several individuals living together and cooking on the premises as a single housekeeping unit.”

But as family composition becomes increasingly non-traditional on account of shifting demographics, such definitions have come under fire. According to 2000 Census data, Knox County’s percentage of married couples with children has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to 21 percent in 2000, while the number of non-family households has grown from 8,716 in 1960 to 57,146 in 2000. In addition, fast-growing enrollment at the University of Tennessee has made it necessary for many students to seek off-campus housing, further bolstering the trend of unrelated persons occupying single-family housing.

Walker points to the University of Connecticut as an example of college institutions that use university-owned housing as “a measure of student control”—a way of keeping tabs on and policing student activity—as opposed to UT’s reliance on privately built, multi-unit housing. “And with the private builders, there’s a considerable leak-over into single-family housing,” He says. Many students have found that off-campus single-family house rental, wherein rent is split between roommates, may be their least expensive housing option. And, naturally, the more roommates there are, the lower the rent is.

Immigrants, often illegal, comprise another demographic that has been seen as problematic when it comes to abuse of single-family housing. “You see a lot of that in East Knoxville—huge numbers of people hotbunking [a Navy term for making the most of limited space by sleeping in shifts],” Walker says.

But if homeowners like Walker and Bletner get their way, such housing situations could soon become obsolete. They suggest limiting the number of unrelated persons who may cohabitate to two, instead of five. Their model is based on a Supreme Court-validated zoning ordinance passed in 1974 for the village of Belle Terre, a wealthy seaside community on Long Island, Conn. The new definition of “family” would read: “One or more people related by blood, adoption or marriage, living and cooking together; or no more than two unrelated people.”

Bletner and Walker agree that implementing such an ordinance would be a good place to start. “It’s concise and short and clear and enforceable,” Walker says.

Others aren’t so sure. One Fort Sanders-area landlord MP spoke with, who preferred to remain anonymous, is critical of the ordinance. He points out that in a densely populated area like Fort Sanders, many of the houses have three or more bedrooms (this is true on a broader scale as well; Metropolitan Planning Commission estimates that 51 percent of single-family houses in Knox County are three-bedroom or greater). If only two unrelated people were allowed to occupy these houses, hundreds of students would be evicted from their homes and forced to move further away from campus, increasing commuter traffic. Those who remained would pay higher rents to compensate or, if rents were lowered, their landlords would suffer lost revenue.

He also questions the relevancy of Belle Terre, a small community of less than 1,000 residents on one square mile, to a college town like Knoxville. “Unruly students having out-of-control parties are a legitimate concern for all the residents of the community. However, it is unwise and counterproductive to impose a suburban standard on an urban community like Fort Sanders,” he wrote in a letter to MPC. Instead, he suggests doing a better job of enforcing the laws that already exist.

Knoxville’s GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender) community has also offered suggestions on how MPC should proceed without alienating members of their community. GLBT spokesman Robbie Arrington explains, “I honestly don’t think anybody is trying to keep gays and lesbians from living in Knoxville, but if they ignore the community out there, it would be writing discrimination into the city and county laws.”

Though he admits he “can’t think of a more controversial word to define than ‘family,’” Arrington suggests writing a clause into the definition that allows for domestic partners as well as married couples, since the state of Tennessee will not allow same-sex couples to marry.

However the definition of “family” winds up being articulated, some compromise will almost certainly be in order. “In my mind, Belle Terre doesn’t fit our situation very well right now,” says Mark Donaldson, executive director of MPC.  More likely, he says, “The definition used by the county may move closer to the one used by the city. Maybe we’ll tweak the numbers in city, or maybe we’ll throw it all out and start fresh.”


Wednesday, March 29

Thursday, March 30

Friday, March 31

Saturday, April 1

Sunday, April 2

Monday, April 3

Tuesday, April 4