Ben Bentley stood before a crowd locals who were not shy with their questions during an East Knoxville Community meeting in May.
Four months into his tenure as CEO of Knoxville’s housing and redevelopment agency, Bentley seems at ease in the face of the barrage, which focuses mostly on the replacement of Five Points’ aging public housing. He intends to speak to every community or business group that invites him.
“What can you do to make sure contractors working on this project look like the people in the community?” residents asked. “Is there something in facility planning that you’re doing to address crime prevention?” “Is KCDC going to do something to make Section 8 property better, so slum lords have to improve their properties?”
And finally, with a little hesitancy: “How old are you?”
As with all the other questions, Bentley answers this one promptly.
“Twelve,” he says, then laughs. “I’m 33. Older than I look,” he adds in a comfortable drawl. The lanky Bentley has a relaxed, open manner. A boyish grin flashes from behind thick glasses, and the audience laughs with him.
Bentley, the first executive director this century who wasn’t homegrown through the organization, takes the helm of Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation at a time when housing authorities are pummeled by federal funding cuts and grappling with a nationwide affordable housing crisis. His leadership will likely shape how Knoxville deals with that crisis and guide redevelopment for years to come.
Although he’s young, Bentley’s career trajectory has been swift. After earning a master’s in public policy, he was hired by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and quickly became a division director, overseeing finances and regulation in a six-state area. He left in 2015 to take the job of chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency in Nashville.
Its chairman, Ralph Mosley, says of Bentley, “When he came, certainly the idea was he had the ability, knowledge, vision and drive, that at some point he could lead a housing authority. We didn’t think it would be as quick as it was.”
Bentley steps into the shoes of Art Cate, a member of KCDC’s leadership team for 38 years. Before that, the CEO job was held by Alvin Nance, who left after 14 years to become CEO of Lawler Wood Housing Partners (later LHP Development), a private firm that specializes in low-income housing projects in multiple states.
Although Bentley is new to Knoxville, he was familiar with KCDC from his days overseeing it at HUD. With a $19.3 million operating budget, KCDC owns, manages, and maintains about 3,500 low-income rental units and runs the federal Section 8 program. Section 8 provides vouchers that pay private landlords a portion of monthly rent for about 3,500 families in Knoxville and Knox County.
KCDC also researches and makes recommendations about redevelopment projects seeking special tax considerations from the city. Its seven-member board, appointed by Knoxville’s mayor, is the first stop for approval of tax increment financing or payments in lieu of taxes. Bentley nevertheless emphasizes that the city, not KCDC, spearheads the redevelopment process by directing which projects KCDC should pursue and research.
Despite KCDC’s broad mandate and powers, the agency Bentley will lead is entering a new era of challenges. The federal housing money that flowed freely two decades ago is gone, even as the gap between working-class incomes rental housing costs grows historically wide. Can Bentley point the way to a new, nimbler, more creative KCDC from this crossroads?
The Affordable Housing Crisis
Mayor Madeline Rogero says Bentley brings fresh eyes, high energy, and larger-market experience, and many local leaders say he’s responsive to community needs.
Becky Wade, Knoxville community development director, says Bentley has seemed eager to help fill the gap in affordable rental housing. Bentley notes that nationwide, the housing supply—but not demand—stopped growing after the 2008 recession.
The affordable housing market has continued to tighten, with the Section 8 voucher program hit especially hard. Since March 2016, landlords controlling 774 apartments in Knoxville have stopped accepting the vouchers, says KCDC Section 8 director Debbie Taylor-Allen.
Many apartment developers were eager to take the vouchers 15 years ago in exchange for tax credits, but those contracts are ending. New companies are buying and renovating the apartments, then renting them to college students at about twice the rate, Taylor-Allen says.
A Harvard housing study released last month found the nation’s rental stock shifting toward higher rents. In Knoxville, the share of renter households considered “cost-burdened”—that is, paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing—is 44 percent, or about 48,900.
“Even in the markets with the smallest shares (of severely cost-burdened renters), such as El Paso and Knoxville, six out of 10 lowest-income renters face these burdens,” the report states. Severely burdened renters pay more than half their income for housing.
The exodus of properties from KCDC’s Section 8 program leaves almost 250 people with vouchers searching for apartments, often for months—the greatest scarcity Taylor-Allen has ever seen. And that number doesn’t include people who are trying to find a new home because their landlord quit accepting vouchers.
“What I am hearing is that there is one complex that has vacancies right now, and it has very few openings,” she says. Some took their vouchers to Nashville, only to find nothing there, either.
“Three out of 10 vouchers we issue actually get leases,” Bentley says. “That is extremely low no matter what market you are in.”
Rakisha Thompson relocated with her four children, ages 3 to 8, from Indiana to Knoxville in March. They are living in a homeless shelter while she searches for a place to use her voucher, but all she finds are long waiting lists.
“I’m used to it, but I’m frustrated,” says Thomson, who doesn’t want to move on because she is trying to create a stable environment for her kids.
To expand low-income rentals, KCDC is likely to work closely with Knoxville in administering a new $2 million affordable housing fund that Rogero included in her budget for the first time this year.
Although details are still being developed, the money will likely be used to fill financing gaps for private developers seeking loans to create new affordable apartments, Wade says. Bentley says the fund could help replace financing long provided by other federal programs, such as HOME and Community Development Block Grants, which President Donald Trump has proposed for elimination in 2018.
Rogero says she hopes to budget money annually for the housing fund if it’s effective. (This approach is being used in many states and cities; Nashville started a similar fund in 2013.)
Federal public housing funding, which fluctuates wildly depending on Congressional appropriations, is also drying up. The Trump Administration’s budget proposes slashing public housing capital funds by 67 percent next year, Bentley says.
“The magnitude of the proposed cuts for 2018 is the scariest and most challenging thing for me and most housing directors,” he says.
The federal public housing program has other downsides: Public housing complexes are owned by HUD, so local housing authorities like KCDC can’t borrow against them to afford renovations. (Bentley points to Austin Homes as “a classic example of not being able to reinvest in a site that needed it.”) And the federal government claws back any unspent public housing money, which led KCDC to lose $5 million in 2012.
So KCDC is following a national trend by shifting most of its housing stock to the Rental Assistance Demonstration program (400 apartments so far, with 705 more converting in August, Bentley says). RAD basically converts public housing complexes to a special type of Section 8 voucher system. This allows housing authorities to access public and private debt and equity markets to afford capital improvements, rather than relying on federal appropriations, which have left the nation’s public housing with a $26 billion backlog of deferred maintenance. Unlike traditional Section 8 housing credits, apartments managed under RAD can’t be withdrawn after 20 years.
Bentley says he didn’t initially plan to pursue a career in housing after completing his master’s in public policy. But HUD is one of the few federal agencies with offices outside Washington, D.C., where he didn’t want to live.
“A lot of times the opportunities you are offered in life take you in a direction you didn’t expect” he says. “The reason I think it stuck is: Most people go into public policy because they want to make things better, and I can’t think of a more fundamental need for individuals than a place to call home.”
KCDC’s biggest project right now is the replacement of the old, barracks-style Walter P. Taylor Homes and the Williams Senior Complex with more open, modern housing configurations with park space. Ironically, given the current affordable housing shortage, KCDC started the project in 2012 by demolishing about 50 more units that it replaced—as it also did at other major housing complex overhauls in the last decade—with the idea of increasing safety. Many of the replacement units were homes and duplexes in the neighborhood or apartments elsewhere. Displaced residents received priority placement in Five Points or other KCDC housing, or a Section 8 voucher. Bentley says KCDC actually increased the total number of subsidized housing slots as a result, although all weren’t in Five Points.
In fact, one of the original goals of Five Points Master Plan was to reduce the number of apartments. That has changed, Bentley says. The current phase of the Five Points project will require a one-to-one replacement of apartments, as will future projects built under the RAD program, he says.
Residents are about to move in to the 90 senior apartments built during the first phase of Five Points. The complex includes computer stations, laundry facilities, a meeting room and green space with picnic pavilion and a dog park. KCDC broke ground in May on the $13.7 million second phase, which will include 84 apartments and 10 buildings.
In the long run, Bentley’s hopes not only to improve housing at Five Points but more broadly improve quality of life for residents, through a coordinated effort to increase access to educational, work, transportation, health and other opportunities. Partnerships among KCDC, local governments and community organizations could help achieve this vision of true community revitalization, he says. He wants to eventually expand the most effective approaches to other KCDC complexes.
KCDC’s next big housing rehabilitation projects will be at The Vista, Lonsdale Homes, and Northridge Crossing, for a total of about $30 million to replace 705 units over 18 to 21 months.
It’s still uncertain how KCDC will approach Austin Homes, another old, shabby complex with historic crime problems. Bentley says the agency is trying to strike a balance between improving it and investing too much while the area is continuing to evolve. Mixed-use developments are spreading out from downtown, and baseball team owner (and gubernatorial candidate) Randy Boyd has reportedly considered a stadium in the area.
“If in five years new development changes that whole part of town, we could do mixed-housing with affordable workforce and market-rate housing,” Bentley says.
Besides replacing existing apartments, Bentley says he wants KCDC to build new low-income complexes and work with private developers. The agency is about to issue a request for proposals, offering a guaranteed rent subsidy to developers who agree to keep rents affordable for 20 years. New construction would be preferred, followed by significant rehabilitation, Bentley says.
Using its redevelopment powers, KCDC has also negotiated tax deals to enhance affordable housing. For example, the agency worked out a payment in lieu of taxes for Big Oak Apartments on Middlebrook Pike, which also received state low-income housing tax credits. Together the tax breaks are helping finance the upgrade of 150 units that will remain affordable for 30 years.
A House Divided
Some community members in East Knoxville, Lonsdale, and Mechanicsville say KCDC’s historic approach to redevelopment and public housing has tended to splinter neighborhood networks and institutions.
Local activist Zimbabwe Matavou says he has approached the KCDC board several times since last fall with a proposal to split the agency into two, with one organization responsible for housing and KCDC handling redevelopment.
Matavou, who says he represents the Knoxville Rescue & Restoration Caucus as well as the Knoxville Black Business/Contractor’s Association, says KCDC officials told him that change would have to be approved by the state Legislature. Redevelopment is not mentioned in the KCDC charter, but it’s an ability granted to all housing authorities under state law.
“I think they can separate those things on their own. Even if they can’t, I think they should support it,” Matavou says. He argues KCDC’s redevelopment duties emphasize increasing the city tax base—and in the process, moving low-income families out of areas ripe for redevelopment.
KCDC has “failed to do what we see as their primary mission, that is to preserve and advance those communities that the housing authority was given responsibility for,” says Matavou, who blames its “urban renewal” policies of the 1950s and ’60s for draining residents and black-owned businesses from historically-black neighborhoods like Mechanicsville.
“There’s a lack of effort on part of KCDC to redress the historic problem, and what it’s doing currently is extending the damage done and implementing policy that is complementing it,” he says.
At public meetings, some East Knoxville residents have complained that the Five Points project, paired with city streetscape improvements on Magnolia Avenue, may lead to gentrification that drives out current, mostly black, residents.
“Gentrification is about displacement, and on Magnolia there are a lot of vacant buildings and a lot of places businesses can come,” Rogero says. “People who live in East Knoxville deserve to have places to shop and eat and be entertained nearby.”
She adds that the city’s goal is to improve the neighborhood, not increase the tax base, although she acknowledged that can be a result. She says there is no conflict between KCDC’s roles in redevelopment and affordable housing.
Matavou has not approached Bentley, whom he calls “inconsequential” because policy is set by the KCDC board. Although Bentley says he recognizes the perceived tension between KCDC’s dual roles, he notes that since 95 percent of its business is affordable housing, KCDC is more likely to focus on the needs of low-income residents than an independent redevelopment agency would be.
“Both housing and redevelopment get at the heart of community revitalization, which is the goal of projects such as Five Points,” he wrote in an email.
Matavou has also proposed that KCDC administrators and directors be required to take long beaks before shifting to jobs with its partners, contractors or the City of Knoxville. (Nance’s move to Lawler Wood is not mentioned, but would have been forbidden under such a policy, because the firm works closely with KCDC and even partnered with it to buy Townview Towers the previous year.)
Matavou’s argument may have had some impact. Bentley’s contract stipulates that he can’t take a job with any “entity” or person that provided services to KCDC for one year after leaving. (This is much less time than the 10 years Matavou had proposed.) That would even prevent Bentley from leaving to work for HUD again.
“I was agreeable to the language because I plan on being with KCDC for a long time,” Bentley says. “You don’t want a real or perceived revolving door.”
Bentley acknowledges residents may have had some early uneasiness about the Five Points project because of KCDC’s history. For example, the federal Hope VI grant KCDC used to demolish College Homes in Mechanicsville in the early 2000s did not require that its residents be given the chance to move into the replacement homes and duplexes. (Wade says KCDC chose to offer this option anyway, and some residents took advantage of it. But a smaller number of units were built than the number demolished, and many moved elsewhere.)
“The lack of a right of return was a problem from the standpoint of community fabric and tearing it to shreds,” Bentley says of the old method. The RAD program requires that every unit demolished be replaced, and that families who live there be given first shot at the new apartments. “Those have had a huge impact in terms of trust,” he says.
Redevelopment at Five Points has been staged over time to avoid even temporary relocation of families. The first phase was built on large vacant parcels, so residents could move directly from their old apartment to the new one. The old apartments are torn down as they are vacated. In complexes like Lonsdale, which has no large vacant parcels, the authority will wait until 30 to 40 units are vacant through people moving out on their own, Bentley says.
“It takes longer, and we get no rents for a while so it’s more expensive, but we feel it’s important… so community support networks remain intact and kids remain at the same schools, because we know that’s the right thing to do,” Bentley says.
He adds that this strategy is somewhat new in the industry, but was the approach used in Nashville. There, Bentley oversaw a period of the years-long redevelopment of Cayce Homes from an outdated 1940s-era public housing project into a huge “purpose-built community,” possibly the first of its kind created by a U.S. housing authority. It’s planned to be a mix of affordable and market-rate housing, plus grocery stores, a school, and a job training center. Mosley says that to create the Cayce design, Bentley worked with some 50 people who live in Cayce and surrounding neighborhoods as well as staff and an architectural firm.
“People were at ease with him from the neighborhood, as were the professionals that we were seeking input,” Mosley says. “You could always count on him to do what he said he was going to do.”
Bentley says the key is learning early in the process what residents and the community want from housing “and getting people at the table to make those priorities happen.”
For many Knoxville public housing residents, the priority is safety. Ronnie Thompson, president of the Montgomery Village Residents Association, named safety as his biggest KCDC concern during an interview the day before a daylight shooting there killed two men in a parking lot, just as children at vacation Bible school were headed outside.
Thompson, who hasn’t met Bentley personally but likes him so far, says he would like the new director to institute better background checks on residents and find ways to speed the months-long process of evicting people who pose a security threat. He says the complex would also benefit from a more active police presence, with more random ID checks after dark.
After repeated drive-by shootings at Lonsdale Homes, the non-profit Thrive Lonsdale this spring began calling for security cameras in common areas and parks. Bentley says KCDC has begun preliminary discussions with the Knoxville Police Department about whether it would monitor camera feeds if KCDC installed the equipment. But the housing agency is still trying to find money for that.
“We are willing to raise the money for the cameras and install them,” says Clayton Wood, executive director of Thrive Lonsdale, which provides after-school programming for kids. He adds that even if the cameras aren’t monitored in real-time, he believes they would deter crime.
“If you live in public housing and your kid can’t play outside because he might get shot, it’s devastating,” he says.
Wood says the city hasn’t responded to his offer. (Rogero said in late June the police department has not approached her about it. She added that she believes the construction of a planned Lonsdale youth sports complex on property donated by the city will help decrease crime there.)
Bentley says sight lines and other safety measures are a major factor in the design of the KCDC complexes being rebuilt, including Lonsdale Homes.
Wood says he feels encouraged by Bentley’s interest in improving safety.
“I’m really excited he’s here,” Wood says. “He seems like a great listener, and I’m thankful for that. We’ll have to see what happens.”
No More Section 8s
Apartment complexes that have stopped taking Section 8 rent subsidy vouchers:
Adair Manor = 46
Knoxwood Hills Apts = 14
Londontown = 49
Meadowwood = 71
Norwood Manor = 44
Prestwick Ridge = 134
Robert Greene = 29
Sutters Mill = 52
Tillery Ridge = 57
West Hills Village = 59
Black Oak = 11
West Vista = 89
Willow Creek = 119
Total loss of units = 774
KCDC Revitalization and Rehabilitation Projects
• The Residences at Five Points ($10.5 million revitalization; opening summer 2017)
• Five Points Phase 2 ($16 million revitalization; anticipated opening summer 2018)
• Five Points Phase 3 ($15 million revitalization; anticipated opening summer 2019)
Projected in the next two years:
• Lonsdale Homes ($11 million rehabilitation)
• The Vista ($11 million rehabilitation)
• North Ridge Crossing ($7 million rehabilitation)
Featured Photo: KCDC Director Ben Bentley at The Residences at Five Points, a 90-unit development for seniors and people with disabilities that’s opening soon. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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