When Jon Lawler spoke at the Vestal Community Center in South Knoxville Feb. 5, the director of the Mayors' Office of the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (TYP) focused solely on the future. He methodically described what needed to happen and when so that the former Flenniken School on Martin Mill Pike, a block West of Chapman, could become 48 efficiency apartments of permanent, supportive housing (PSH) for the chronically homeless, starting with the $1 million Affordable Housing Program grant it recently received from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta against its $6 million reconstruction price tag.
Lawler's audience, though, was intent on re-examining the past, particularly the question, "How did the TYP settle on South Knoxville?"
"These South Knoxville neighborhoods are fragile, they're struggling," said Joe Minichiello, a retiree who lives on Lindy Drive off Chapman Highway, near Kay's Ice Cream. "You can't sugarcoat the clientele we're dealing with. The last three instances that made the newspaper about the homeless, one was a man who killed a customer at Hooters, one was a man who heard voices from the shower drain and killed a waitress, and one was a man on Magnolia who tried to burn a place down. This program is designed to serve people like that. You cannot force anyone to take their medication. You cannot lock up people in a project like Flenniken, put a gate around it. My concern is what happens if we have 50 people with these severe problems dropped into a neighborhood that's struggling to maintain itself?
"I keep asking, ‘Where are the projects for Sequoyah Hills?'" Minichiello's words were greeted with spontaneous applause from fellow audience members at the meeting.
Lawler and TYP spokesperson Robert Finlay countered many such objections, emphasizing, for example, that people housed in any such unit would have the support of on-site case workers and round-the-clock security, that all residents would have a verifiable source of income, sign a lease and pay rent, that certain criminal backgrounds (including the ones described by Minichiello) preclude acceptance into PSH, and that failure to abide by regulations would lead to eviction.
David Arning, head of the Southeastern Housing Foundation (SHF), which acts as housing coordinator for the TYP and will be in charge of purchases and remodeling, also reassured the upset South Knoxvillians that West Knox will house some homeless at some point. "I have at least half a dozen potential sites identified out west, but none of the ones we have evaluated would qualify for historic tax credits," says Arning, who declined to name the addresses. "Another possibility is a master lease, by which we would lease suitable efficiency and one-bedroom units in existing multifamily properties and sublease them to former chronically homeless individuals. SHF is considering this option throughout the Knoxville area."
And, noted Arning after the meeting, South Knoxville's unoccupied Parkway Hotel site, once a prime contender as a source of PSH, is not being considered at this time. "And we would not consider it in the future should the Flenniken project proceed," he says.
The audience continued to be skeptical all evening, though, and 1st District City Councilman Joe Hultquist, who hosted the meeting, forcibly questioned how the TYP could proceed with Flenniken. In his view, when Lawler agreed at an open meeting Dec. 10 to place a moratorium on site developments until a new Site Consideration Task Force, which Hultquist will be part of, could be formed and evaluate existing and proposed sites and make recommendations (tentatively scheduled to happen by April 1), the process should have come to a halt.
Punctuating his remarks with finger jabs, Hultquist raised his voice a number of times and at one point rebuffed Lawler's attempts at breaking in to his speech with a very loud, "Jon, I'm not done!"
Lawler and Arning both countered Hultquist and other objectors with the argument that Flenniken was a "pre-existing" project, though it was rejected for initial tax credits applied for in the spring of 2008. "We made it clear already that we had projects ongoing that would proceed—this is that project," said Lawler. "I think we can go down both paths at the same time."
Lawler also said waiting on the task force would be fundamentally impractical, since the once-a-year-only application for a 9 percent Low Income Housing tax credit is due May 1. "The developer [SHS] must be successful in getting those tax credits to make this happen at all."
Failure would be fine with the South Knox residents and business owners in attendance at the Feb. 5 gathering, about 25 in all. Around 10 speakers made it clear that, process aside, they were firmly opposed to any housing for the homeless in the South Knox neighborhood, with objections ranging from having known drug addicts in the area to homeless services becoming "big business" in the area. Minichiello, for example, referenced the website charitynavigator.org's report that Burt Rosen, director of the Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries, receives around $100,000 annual salary. "For the size of Knoxville, that salary makes him a captain of industry," says Minichiello, who moved to this area from the Northeast around two years ago. "I think these [homeless service providers] have a certain amount of good motivation, but they're also self serving. It is in their best interest to promote and expand the homelessness industry."
The TYP's Flenniken school project will face a "pass or fail" challenge Thursday at the Metropolitan Planning Commission meeting. Currently, part of the Flenniken property is zoned C-3 (general commercial) and part is zoned O-1 (office, medical, etc.). On the advice of MPC, Arning's people have applied to down-zone the C-3 portion to O-1 so that the entire parcel is zoned O-1. "If rezoning is successful, we will apply for a Use on Review to permit multifamily use in O-1 zoning," he says. Without the re-zoning in place by the May 1 application deadline, it's unlikely that Southeastern's application would score enough "points" to receive the all-important 9 percent tax credit.
Minichiello says he and other members of the South Chapman Highway Business Association, which formed last summer, will request MPC postpone the re-zoning decision, pending the task force's input. "Personally, what I would like to see is a limit on the number of homeless we'll provide services for and a transparent criteria on what success would mean on these projects," says Minichiello. "We all have a scriptural dictum to provide for the homeless and the faith-based community in Knox County would I'm sure agree with that. But the question is, how do we do it? That's up for debate."