It was cold in Khadeja Al-Khelaifi’s house. In winter, she paid as much as $250 a month to heat the 800-square foot home—to 40 degrees.
“We would sit in one room with three space heaters all winter,” she says.
The house, built in 1899, had been in Al-Khelaifi’s family for generations. But the wiring, floors, and walls were in bad shape, and she and her two kids (now age 10 and 13) slept in the single bedroom dormitory-style. The single mom’s job working the front desk at a medical practice is their primary source of income, and she couldn’t afford a better place.
A relative told her about Knoxville’s Owner Occupied Rehabilitation Program, which helps low- to moderate-income homeowners make significant home repairs. The program determines what improvements are needed, provides low-interest and forgivable loans, and coordinates the work.
Al-Khelaifi’s home needed so much improvement that city officials decided it would be cheaper to tear it down and rebuild. The program paid for her to rent another place until it was finished, and in January she and her kids were able to move into an Energy Star-certified home with a bedroom for each person.
“It’s such a blessing,” Al-Khelaifi says. “I couldn’t have done this without the program…. I can’t even begin to explain to people that don’t know how hard it is.”
The program that helped her is funded through the federal HOME Homeowner Rehabilitation program and Community Development Block Grant funds. Those are two of many programs—along with Energy Star—that would be completely eliminated in the 2018 federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump.
Many of the agencies and programs that would disappear are those that help the kind of working-class voters whose support helped propel Trump into office. They also improve the lives of the poor, often by using a public/private partnership approach that normally meets with enthusiasm from Republicans, who control the U.S. Congress and the White House.
In Knoxville, the budget cuts could end everything from community gardens to services that help senior citizens live independently. Among the programs with the biggest footprints in East Tennessee are the Community Development Block Grant Program; the Appalachian Regional Commission, which helps pay for infrastructure and create jobs in Appalachian counties including Knox and those that surround it; and Legal Services Corporation, which provides free legal help to abused, disabled and poor clients in civil cases.
That’s just a sampling of agencies on the chopping block, many of them not well-known because they quietly help lower-income folks keep decent housing and jobs, improving the economy.
Housing and Neighborhoods
The Community Development Block Grant Program that helped Al-Khelaifi has become a cornerstone of neighborhood redevelopment efforts for many cities. During the past five years, the $7.1 million in these grants awarded to the City of Knoxville paid for 548 households receiving emergency home repairs.
These repairs are especially important because Knoxville already has a drastic shortage of affordable rentals, says Barbara Kelly, executive director of the Knox County Community Action Committee. “It has a three-pronged benefit,” she says. “It’s for the individual, the housing stock, and for the neighborhood.”
According to the city’s Community Development Department, the grant funds saved 62 senior citizens from homelessness by providing new roofs, and made homes accessible to 32 disabled residents who needed modifications like ramps and rails. A ribbon cutting will be held Thursday at Columbus Home, which used the grant funds to install new flooring in its Dameron Avenue group home for teenage boys.
Ending the CDBG program would halt 150 rehabilitation projects over the next three-and-a-half years, and scupper plans for 232 new affordable rental units, according to the community development department.
Similarly, the HOME program has used $3.9 million to help 183 Knoxville households over the past five years, according to the department. It issued a fact sheet noting that HOME is one of the few gap-financing options available to encourage developers to build new, affordable rental units.
The city released a draft Community Development Annual Action Plan last week that would allocate almost a third of its 2017 budget—the last budget in which HOME and Community Development Block Grant funds are a safe bet—to construct 167 affordable rental units for low-income residents.
“I think the loss of these programs would be devastating for the city,” says Becky Wade, director the city’s Community Development Department. “We certainly see the value in them and understand it does keep people in their homes. It prevents them from having to go to some sort of institutional living or be homeless. Their homes are more energy efficient, their quality of life is better, and it improves the neighborhood.”
The Trump budget also defunds other programs that help people stay in their homes: the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Weatherization Assistance Program, both of which make utility bills more manageable.
The Home Energy Assistance Program, administered locally by the Community Action Committee, provides about $450 once a year to help low-income Knoxvillians with utility bills, Kelly says. She provided data showing that between July 1 and March 30, the program had helped 5,259 people, including 694 in crisis situations. Within those households were 4,191 children and 4,438 disabled people who benefited.
“It’s truly unbelievable that anyone would consider cutting that program, because that comes down to the ‘heat or eat’ choice: Do I pay my utility bill or put food on the table?” Kelly says. “For many people, the inability to pay a utility bill can be the first step on the slippery slope to homelessness,” especially since renters in subsidized or government housing can lose their apartment if their utilities are turned off.
Homeowners can reduce their reliance on heating assistance by making physical improvements like adding insulation and installing more efficient heating systems. Knoxville is unusual for having three programs to help with this: the federal Weatherization Assistance Program as well as a KUB Round-Up program and a two-year TVA program (although that ends this September). Surrounding counties have only the Weatherization Assistance Program that Trump wants to shutter.
Many of these housing-related initiatives work with each other, or with state and local funds, to leverage private investment. According to the city, for every $1 of HOME spending, $1.27 is provided by another source.
The Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (operating under the name NeighborWorks) claims to leverage even more: $91 for every federal dollar in fiscal 2016, according to its website. The Congressionally-chartered nonprofit relies on the federal appropriation for 80 to 90 percent of its budget, says NeighborWorks communications manager Douglas Robinson.
NeighborWorks, which held a national conference in Memphis this week about relieving persistent rural poverty, funds local groups that create affordable housing and help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Its website states that the $127 million spent by NeighborWorks in Tennessee in fiscal 2016 led to 360 homes being preserved or renovated, and created 938 new homeowners.
In Knoxville, NeighborWorks supports projects of HomeSource East Tennessee, formerly known as the Knox Housing Partnership. The partnership emerged in the 1980s from a community redlining protest, and went on to fight slum housing.
HomeSource now operates in Knox, Blount, and Campbell counties, focusing on preserving affordable rental housing, says president and CEO Jackie Mayo.
Many landlords that once provided subsidized housing are converting to market-rate apartments, driving out long-time tenants, she says. HomeSource renovates run-down units and then continues to manage them for low-income residents and seniors, keeping rates affordable.
HomeSource is using NeighborWorks funds to leverage bank investment in a housing complex—tentatively called the Village at Holston—for people coming out of nursing homes or closed group homes, Mayo says. The supportive housing includes two houses and 30 apartments, but she says the last dozen apartments might not be built if NeighborWorks is killed.
HomeSource is also planning to rehabilitate the Normandy Chateau apartment complex in North Knoxville, a project that relies on both NeighborWorks and Community Development Financial Institution funds—which Trump also proposes to eliminate—to attract private investment, Mayo says.
NeighborWorks funding is especially important to HomeSource because it not only provides construction money but also operating dollars that pay salaries and keep the lights on. May says HomeSource earns enough to cover 65 percent of its budget, but most of the rest comes from federal programs Trump proposes to end.
“We would certainly have to scale back on a major level,” says Mayo, who spent a week in March visiting elected officials in Washington to argue for maintaining the funds. “We’ve been very actively going after rental units, trying to preserve them for affordable rentals, and that would just come to a screeching halt.”
That could affect not only residents but neighborhoods. For example, HomeSource completed an unfinished apartment complex in LaFollette that had become a major hub for criminal activity. The project not only provided housing but made the neighborhood safer and saved taxpayers money by relieving police of constant surveillance.
Help for Seniors
Other Trump budget cuts target programs that help elderly and disabled stay in their homes instead of being forced into an institution. The Community Services Block Grant pays for case managers at the Community Action Committee. They arrange shopping assistance, food delivery, transportation to doctor’s appointments, and other services to help people remain independent.
“It’s cheaper and better to let people live as long as they can in the safety of their homes,” Kelly says, adding that the fastest-growing population segment is the “very old” [over 75].
Gaines Clabough thinks he might not be alive if it weren’t for a case manager whose salary is funded by the Community Services Block Grant program.
Gaines, 84, has liver cancer, and his wife Darlene, 69, doesn’t drive and has her own health issues. Gaines was already receiving hospice care when he and his wife were notified in February that they were being evicted from their apartment of 17 years. The new owner had decided to no longer accept Section 8 housing vouchers. The voucher program subsidizes the cost of rent for low-income residents; without it, the Clabough’s rent was set to rise from $271 a month to $679, Darlene Clabough says. They were given a month to vacate.
A doctor referred the couple to Project LIVE (Living Independently Through Volunteer Efforts) at the Community Action Committee, and case workers Jennifer Tackett and Carol Lamb helped them find a first-floor apartment in a quieter area.
“I love it ever since I’ve seen it,” Darlene Clabough says. “I couldn’t have found a place by myself.”
It wasn’t easy even for Tackett, because there are so many more Section 8 vouchers in town than landlords who will accept them, she says. Tackett and Lamb helped two other seniors who were forced to move out of the same apartment complex as the Claboughs.
“The past few years, we’ve had a crisis of senior evictions, and the number of seniors becoming homeless is really high,” Tackett says.
Tackett and Lamb can often help seniors resolve conflicts with landlords by setting up housekeeping services or finding a representative to handle paying bills for a senior with dementia.
Gaines Clabough guesses that without Tackett’s help, he’d have ended up in a nursing home. He looks at Darlene, his wife of 35 years. “We’ve never been away from each other” except when one was in the hospital, he says. “If I was in a nursing home I wouldn’t last a week, and she wouldn’t last much longer.”
With the help of movers paid for by the Community Action Committee, Tackett and her father spent all day settling the Claboughs in their new apartment. But the stress took a toll on Gaines, who was convinced he wouldn’t survive the day.
Almost two weeks later, he was sitting up watching a Western. “I been much better since I got over here,” says the retired Baptist minister. “Now I sometimes have two or three days I feel good in a row. That never happened before.”
The Community Action Committee operates several other programs that benefit seniors using federal programs Trump wants to defund. Among them are the retired senior volunteer program, the foster grandparent program (in which seniors act as tutors and role models for at-risk children), the senior community service employment program (which provides on-the-job training preparing seniors for unsubsidized jobs in the private sector), and the senior companion program.
Last year, the senior companion program paid 100 low-income seniors a small stipend to become a trained helper to 360 other elderly people. The companions fix meals, help pay bills and clean up, and give caregivers a break—but they also build friendships.
Rhonda Brooks, 60, spends four days a week reading, taking walks, and coloring with an elderly woman who has dementia and lives with her working daughter.
“If I weren’t to do it, I don’t know what her daughter would do,” says Brooks, who has been a senior companion for five years. “She’d probably have to quit. And if she quit, how would they live?”
Brooks looked forward to aging herself because she had seen her own mother, who is now 84, enjoy being a senior companion for going on 20 years.
Brooks’ first client was a man whom everyone told her would not speak. She talked to him anyway, and when she told him about her military service, he perked right up and started swapping stories.
“They tell you not to get close, but you can’t help it,” says Brooks. “I’ve had many jobs before, but this is a job that I love. Just being with them and hearing their stories—these people need you and want you there. It feels so good.”
Many low-income seniors who live in the city also benefit from the Green Thumb Community Garden Program, which provides free vegetable seeds so people can grow their own food and provides gardening space near high rises, senior homes and food pantries.
In Knoxville, garden program coordinator Adam Caraco tills and cares for 19 gardens in places like Lonsdale Homes, St. Mary’s Riverview, and Northgate Towers, in addition to helping maintain another four. He says he provides seeds to 113 households, including more than a dozen gardeners who share their bounty with older neighbors.
“I have people who cry in the spring when I come to bring seeds and they talk about their plots,” Caraco wrote in an email.
Appalachian Regional Commission
After Trump promised to bring back coal and manufacturing jobs, some of his most ardent supporters were former industry workers from Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. So one of the most ironic proposed cuts would completely kill the 50-year-old Appalachian Regional Commission, an agency that has been funded at a higher level the last few years precisely because of its focus on helping coal communities shift to other industries and income streams.
Created to provide a better quality of life and economic opportunity in the mountain region, the commission has now invested $75.5 million specifically to diversify the economy in 236 coal-impacted counties across nine Appalachian states, including Tennessee. Together, these investments are projected to benefit more than 23,000 students and workers and leverage nearly $142 million into the region’s economy.
The commission announced on March 28 an additional $2.4 million to keep or create jobs in these communities and “build a workforce pipeline” through community colleges.
According to the agency, every dollar it has spent since 1978 has leveraged an average of $6.40 from the private sector.
Between October 2015 and this January, the commission supported 58 projects in Tennessee with $14.7 million in grants, according to data provided by Ted Townsend, Tennessee’s representative on the commission. The federal money was matched by $14.2 million from other sources.
Tennessee prioritizes commission grants for adding infrastructure, training workers and developing the tourism industry in Appalachia.
In Fiscal 2016, the Appalachian Regional Commission contributed $35,000 (half the cost) to develop a plan for implementing the Maryville-to-Townsend Greenway; $500,000 for a medical clinic for Cocke, Campbell and Scott Counties; and $245,00 to development of the Cumberland Trail. It also provided $2 million of the $2.9 million needed for design of the Oak Ridge Airport.
Over the years, commission grants have been key in bringing new companies and educational opportunities to Tennessee’s 52 Appalachian counties. For example, an ARC grant extended sewer service to establish the Hardin Valley campus of Pellissippi State University, says Terry Bobrowski, executive director of the East Tennessee Development District. Another allowed the Clinton Utilities Board to upgrade sewer lines that helped attract and serve Aisin Automotive Casting, which now employs 580 people. A similar sewer extension in Claxton, partly funded by the commission, helped Anderson County support a commercial business district there, Bobrowski says.
The East Tennessee Development District itself receives about $130,000 a year from the commission to help member counties with economic and community development, Bobrowski says.
“The ARC is very active in our 16-county region,” Bobrowski says, especially in five counties identified as “distressed”: Union, Scott, Claiborne, Campbell and Cocke. But he adds, “Every community has benefited from ARC funds. They’re very efficient—every penny goes into the ground. The money is not lost between agencies and contractors.”
Although Tennessee’s coal jobs mostly disappeared a long time ago, many Appalachian counties count coal-fired power plants and companies that transport coal as significant employers, Bobrowski notes. He says a fear remains that more plants will close.
In Scott and Campbell counties, which had been big coal producers in the past, the East Tennessee Development District had been hoping to pursue ARC grants for Highland Telephone to provide broadband access, Bobrowski says.
“One of the big initiatives ARC been involved with is broadband expansion: giving tools to local governments to create their own jobs, improve education systems, and enable folks to work from home,” he says. “In some rural areas you see kids having to go to McDonald’s to do their homework because it’s the only place they can log in.”
Local and state leaders have found ways to pair Appalachian Regional Commission funds with other federal programs on the chopping block, for maximum impact. Townsend, who is also chief operating officer of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, said in an email that the Appalachian Regional Commission, Community Development Block Grants and the Delta Regional Authority have helped his department provide about $347 million in grants since 2011. (The Delta Regional Authority, also slated for elimination, provides incentives for airlines to serve small markets.)
“In several cases, [these] grants have played an integral role in the expansion of existing companies as well as the recruitment of new businesses to the state,” he wrote.
They helped start Launch TN, a program that has helped more than 500 companies start or accelerate their growth since 2012. One of its components is the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center on Market Square, which provides mentoring to small businesses on marketing, product development, intellectual property and more.
It will be up to Congress to decide how to hone the proposed 2018 budget, and whether to support the suggested cuts.
In March, the co-chair of the commission presented Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander an award on behalf of the Development District Association of Appalachia for being “a stalwart champion of ARC’s mission and vision for Tennessee and across the region,” according to its March newsletter. Through a spokesperson, Alexander declined to share his position on eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission. Representatives of Sen. Bob Corker did not respond to the same question.
Alexander provided a prepared statement listing his budget priorities as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee: national defense, national laboratories, the National Institutes of Health, and national parks. He added that reductions should be aimed at “entitlement spending” like health care and Medicaid. “We will not balance the budget by cutting discretionary spending, which is only 31 percent of spending and is already under control because of earlier budget acts,” he said.
As always, the budget will evolve.
“The situation is probably going to be difficult in the best-case scenario, but we want people to remember this is the first step, not the last,” Kelly says. “We need to keep on doing the work and tell the story and make sure the impacts are understood by the people who hold the ultimate authority to adopt the budget.”
Featured Photo: Darlene Clabough (right) settles into her new apartment with help from caseworker Jennifer Tackett. Photo by Tricia Bateman.
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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