Knoxville's War Against Blight Heats Up

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero's war against blight opened a new front on Monday with two community meetings.

"The city is redoubling its efforts to fight blight," said Office of Neighborhoods Coordinator David Massey at the second meeting at the Cansler YMCA. "This is not a process that happens overnight."

Around a hundred people were in attendance to listen to a panel of neighborhood association members and others who have been involved in rehabbing blighted properties. Also present were consultants Alan Mallach and Kim Graziani of the Washington, D.C., office of the Center for Community Progress, which has worked to fight blight in cities like Detroit and Baltimore.

The evening meeting followed one in the afternoon about the problems and challenges that face developers interested in salvaging blighted urban commercial property. But much of the conversation of the day focused on neighborhoods, and what can feasibly and affordably be done to turn blight around.

David Nix said he bought and rehabbed a blighted Parkridge house in 1997. "It wasn't an up-and-coming neighborhood then. It was a down neighborhood," he said, describing times he'd chase prostitutes off the corner with a baseball bat. Nix has now rehabbed two other properties and is about to get started on his fourth. The main problem, he said: "Very few banks will lend you money on a condemned house."

This sentiment was echoed by almost everyone on the panel. "Financing can be hard," said contractor Jonathan Ball. "But it's what really moves the project forward." Ball was the contractor on a LEED-certified rehab of a Victorian house on Cornelia Street in Old North Knoxville last year; now he's getting started on a blighted house on Gill. "It's not hugely profitable," he said. "But it's good for the neighborhood and the city."

Laurence Eaton led the Cornelia project. He said he solved the financing problem by executing loan agreements from a number of neighbors who shared his vision. Still, he said, "The acquisition of the property was particularly challenging."

But the blight issues facing Knoxville aren't just decrepit houses and overgrown lots in otherwise gentrifying neighborhoods. Susan Hardin, a resident of Westview, spoke about the challenge her neighborhood has faced keeping six cemeteries in shape. "We uncovered over 1,000 graves, and we find more every day," Hardin said.

Randal DeFord spoke at length about the particular challenges Fort Sanders faces. He has led the push to found a non-profit development corporation to help decrease blight in the area and increase owner-occupancy, but the number of rental properties has made it a tough haul.

Several audience members questioned the University of Tennessee's lack of involvement. "UT is still sending people out west to live," Jeff Talman said. "We need to get the university involved in redeveloping our neighborhoods." Another speaker pointed out that the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga recently offered $15,000 towards loans for its employees who became homeowners in certain downtown neighborhoods. Massey said the city hadn't been aware of that program and would investigate whether something similar could be done here.

Others questioned why teardowns were happening in historically significant neighborhoods at all and why the city doesn't do more to market those houses to potential redevelopers. Mallach responded, "A vacant house is more of a nuisance to neighbors than a vacant lot. ... Some demolition is a fact of urban life."

Bentley Marlow, who has rehabbed several properties on the same street in Mechanicsville, said he doesn't understand why he has to hire licensed contractors to work on condemned properties when he can do all the work himself up to code. "I think the city should work with individuals," he said.

Although Monday's meetings opened a new dialogue with the city and neighborhoods, the frustrations with the length of time it takes to deal with blighted properties were obvious. One man wondered why the city's tax collection department isn't more aggressive the way a credit card company is. "We're working on tax collection reform," said David Brace, the city's Director of Public Service. "But credit card companies are governed by different rules. We're governed by state law."

Mallach suggested Knoxville follow the lead of Wilmington, Del., and other cities that have adopted ordinances requiring vacant property registration. Every year a house sits empty, the owner is required to pay a fee, one which doubles or triples as the years pass. He said this can help the city more easily keep track of absentee landlords. With tools like that and others, Mallach suggested, the city will have an easier time fighting blight.

Still, Massey did admit that at some level, there's only so much the city can do. "There are social challenges we face dealing with blighted property, and the city is not equipped to deal with them." But the best way to start your own battle, he said, was to be active in your neighborhood association and call 311.

"If we don't know about it, we can't do anything about it," Massey said.