Knoxville Takes Aim at Derelict Properties With New Ordinances

"I remember going by this one piece of property in Mechanicsville," Polly Doka says. It was an empty, abandoned house, and she noticed two people hanging out by the side of it. The next time Doka drove by, she saw a group of people hanging out on the porch.

"They had just taken it over," Doka says. Not long after that, she noticed the aluminum siding disappearing from the house, sold for profit. Then the boards of the house itself began to disappear, burned for fuel to keep warm in the winter. Meanwhile, neighbors sat by powerless, unable to do anything, until finally one day when the house was torn down.

"It's just really, really sad," Doka says. And houses like the one in Mechanicsville aren't as rare as their neighbors might wish—there are over 1,000 blighted properties in the city of Knoxville. Doka is a member of the Council of Involved Neighborhoods (COIN) and on the city's Neighborhood Advisory Council, and she says that in the past, the city hasn't been as responsive as it could have been in dealing with blight.

"By the time the city gets control, the house is too far gone to save. Then what happens? You have a vacant lot that no one wants to build on," Doka says.

But all of that is set to change. After spending eight years in development, the city will soon have four new ordinances to deal with cases of extreme blight. City Council voted unanimously to approve the measures on first reading Tuesday night. After the vote, Mayor Madeline Rogero thanked the Council for its support.

"We're not finished yet, but this is a good move," Rogero told the councilmembers. After the meeting Rogero said she was very excited about the changes.

"This gives us stronger tools to use against the worst offenders," Rogero says.

One of the new ordinances will allow the city to appoint an administrative hearing officer to hear certain building and property code violations, and another one will make the Better Building Board an appellate board. This will allow the city to levy $500 fines instead of $50 fines. A third ordinance will allow the city to charge interest on nuisance lot liens, and the fourth will allow the city to sell acquired lots for less than the delinquent taxes owed, if necessary.

The city's director of public service, David Brace, says Knoxville spends $1.2 million annually dealing with blighted properties each year, and most of those properties are delinquent on their taxes.

"I hear people say, ‘The city takes over.' The city doesn't take lots. We sometimes have lots that are defaulted to us in a tax sale," Brace says. "Property rights are both about the individual and the individuals on both sides of the property. Most of these properties sit for years before anything happens. There are so many opportunities for an owner to correct this."

Brace says blighted properties can result in a 10 to 30 percent loss in the property values of nearby homes.

"Before you know it, you can't sell your house," Brace says.

The mayor herself lives next to a blighted property, and she points out that three houses have been for sale for months and months near the same property. "It happens all over the city," Rogero says. "It's a problem for adjacent homeowners."

Brace says the new ordinances, assuming they are approved next month, will help the city modernize the way in which it deals with blight by taking a more holistic approach.

"This isn't a codes issue, it's a community issue," Brace says.

Doka says the new ordinances will help prevent what she calls a domino effect in certain neighborhoods, in which one blighted property leads to multiple ones.

"This is an effort by the city to protect the people that are doing the right things and being good neighbors," Doka says.

But one problem the new ordinances won't fully solve is the city's swath of rundown rental properties.

"How we address rental properties is still an issue. We're still looking into it," Brace says.