Knoxville’s Affordable-Housing Crisis Is Getting Worse

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

Melissa is a single mother of three whose telemarketing job pays a little more than the minimum wage. Last fall she felt compelled to move out of her mold-infested apartment because her asthmatic 13-year-old son couldn’t tolerate it. But she was fortified with what’s known as a Section 8 housing voucher issued by Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. The voucher entitled her to a federal subsidy of the amount by which her rent exceeded 30 percent of her income, which is the most that’s deemed affordable, up to a KCDC-set Fair Market Rent (FMR). For the three-bedroom apartment she sought for her family, the FMR in Knoxville is $1,057 a month. So the voucher would be worth $607 a month atop the $450 representing 30 percent of her income.

However, after looking at more than 30 sites, with assistance from Knox CAC’s Homeward Bound program, Melissa hadn’t found a single landlord willing to rent to her at the going rate. Because four months is all the law allows for a newly issued voucher to be outstanding, hers expired unused. Melissa and her family have remained relegated to living mainly in her 13-year-old van, interspersed with short stays in a hotel after each paycheck.

While Melissa’s plight may be more dire than others whose vouchers have expired, her inability to make use of it is anything but uncommon. Out of 246 vouchers issued between July and December of last year, only 87 recipients have succeeded in making use of them according to KCDC’s Section 8 director Debbie Taylor-Allen. Yet there is also a waiting list of 1,653 others who are seeking to receive one from a supply that remains static.

All of this is symptomatic of a severe shortage of low-income affordable housing both locally and nationally. According to Census Bureau data compiled by the Knox Metropolitan Planning Commission in 2015, there were more than 30,000 households in Knox County with incomes of less than $20,000. But the supply of rental units deemed affordable to them was only about 9,000. This includes some 3,500 units of KCDC-managed public housing and on the order of 2,000 units in privately owned complexes that were financed with Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and in return committed to keep their rents affordable for 15 years.

Lessening the shortfall somewhat, there are 3,596 Section 8 vouchers now in use whose holders are enabled to have apartments that would otherwise be affordable only to people in higher income brackets. Most of these must go, by law, to households with incomes below 30 percent of the Knox County median, which is $61,000.

Several factors are at work to make the shortage increasingly severe. One is the fact that ever since the housing market crash of a decade ago, more households have been renting instead of owning all across the income spectrum. This trend has both been driving rental rates up and putting a premium on building new apartments that cater to the more affluent.

In Knoxville, average rental rates have climbed nearly 10 percent just within the past year, according to the authoritative For two-bedroom apartments, the average monthly rental is now $892, putting it well above the FMR of $811. That gap acts as a deterrent to renting to Section 8 voucher holders.

At the same time, affordable housing complexes built with LIHTCs have an added incentive to convert to higher-market rent properties once they have fulfilled their 15-year commitment to keep their rents down. That’s been happening big-time in Knoxville where at least seven complexes with a total of more than 1,000 units have come off the affordable rolls, often with new owners and renovations that make them much higher priced.

“Landlords and developers are seeing the market for higher-end rental units so that’s what they are developing. If they can get more higher-end tenants, they are going to get more profit,” says Becky Wade, director of the City of Knoxville’s Department of Community Development.

The department recently produced a PowerPoint presentation entitled, “The Affordable Housing Crisis in Knoxville.” But it’s long on documenting causes and manifestations of the problem and short on identifying solutions.

Here, as nationally, one of the worst effects is that very-low-income households are being forced to pay far more for housing than they can afford. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that 75 percent of those with incomes below 30 percent of the median are paying more than half of everything they earn for housing to the sacrifice of other needs. “For these households an unforeseen expense such as a car repair can turn into a disaster,” states a coalition report.

An approach that many cities, including 170 in California alone, have taken in an effort to augment the supply of affordable housing is called inclusionary zoning. It either requires or incentivizes developers to make a certain percentage of units in new projects affordable to low-income residents. When Nashville’s Metro Council began considering an inclusionary zoning requirement in 2015, the state Legislature quickly enacted a bill forbidding it. But Nashville Mayor Megan Barry last year committed $16 million of city funds to a trust fund that facilitates affordable development.

About the only funding that Knoxville has available for such purposes is derived from two long-standing federal programs, Community Development Block Grants and HOME. But the $2 million available from these programs for 2016 is little more than half of what it was a decade ago. And the Trump administration has recommended their elimination.

Still, with city assistance, two new LIHTC developments are in the works: a 38-unit project on Holston Drive and a 170-unit complex just off Chapman Highway. Moreover, developer Rick Dover has committed to low-income affordability for 12 of the 60 units at the assisted-living facility that’s going into his renovation of the former South High School.

As meaningful as these projects are, they are little more than a drop in the bucket in relation to the total need.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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