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Housing

Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

Building at Kareday ApartmentsQuestion 4 from the Progress PAC is about housing. My responses are below. For blog posting, I’ve inserted a couple of hyperlinks into the plain-text response that I provided to the PAC.

Question: Healthy housing is important to a healthy community. What three specific actions would you take to enhance housing in the city?

Response:

Three actions:

1. We need greater demand for housing in Oak Ridge in order to stimulate investment in housing. The marketing study (and its followup) that I mentioned in response to question 2 is an important step toward building demand for housing in Oak Ridge. Increased investment in existing neighborhoods, particularly in the central part of the city, is particularly important. The plans to redevelop the mall property as “Main Street Oak Ridge” should make a contribution to stimulating demand for homes, particularly in the center of the city.

2. Owners and buyers of existing homes are in need of practical assistance and financial resources so that Oak Ridge homes from the 1940s through the 1970s (the majority of our housing) will have greater appeal to the next generation of homeowners. To help with this, I recently contributed many hours of my time to a cooperative initiative that developed a grant proposal to TVA to obtain funds for “extreme energy makeovers” on about 300 older homes in lower-income neighborhoods in Oak Ridge. If the proposal is successful, this program will reduce living costs for some lucky residents (more…)

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Work session on housing

citysealHousing is the topic of the June 18 City Council work session.

Safety is the housing-related topic that got me writing about this.

Fire chief Darryl Kerley is telling about safety issues related to houses. He is saying that ad hoc renovations around the city over the years have created situations that put residents at risk. Unorthodox wiring splices can create a fire hazard. Landlords use adapters to allow air conditioners with three-prong plugs to plug into two-prong outlets — it works, but it isn’t safe.

He also says that many rental houses have no working smoke detectors. Renters take the batteries out.

Loose electric outlets create high-resistance connections that can start fires. He had to replace several outlets in his house in Briarcliff after noticing that the plugs often fell out of the outlets.

In many houses, the windows are too high or too small to work as a fire exit. To be a suitable exist, the window must be no more than 44 inches off the floor, but many windows are higher than that.

It’s not just older neighborhoods and older houses.  A recent fire in Emory Valley destroyed a two-level home that had only two ways out.

The fire department can inspect rental properties when the utility account changes over, but not if the landlord charges a rent that includes utilities (as many do).

I’ve wondered if a fire sprinkler system would be a wise investment in a house like mine, because our bedrooms have small windows that are pretty high from the floor — and some of them are high above the ground on the outside. I figure a sprinkler system would probably cost less and have less impact on the structure than changing the location and size of our windows. Sprinklers are something I need to ask Chief Kerley about. [Edited June 21: I measured and determined that our windows are 44 inches off the floor.]

Mark Watson says there are 256 housing units believed to be vacant based on their lack of utility consumption. (It’s unclear if these are houses with active utility accounts but no consumption, or if they don’t have active utility accounts.) Vacant units have a big impact on fire and police.

All this raises policy questions about what a city government can do to require  existing homes to be improved to have safe wiring, etc.

Discussion (What is the issue? Is it “blighted property”? Or what?)

Chuck Hope is asking if the issue is eliminating blighted homes or if it’s creating systems to help and encourage people to correct code violations and make other important changes. Need to know more about the nature of problems in our housing stock and the number of homes affected.

Mark Watson says there’s a lot of potential in our existing housing, but it’s often too expensive to bring that housing up to standards.

Anne Garcia Garland supports a landlord-licensing ordinance, but says the city needs some “carrots” in addition to “sticks”. Don’t just say negative things about problem housing, also talk about the positives and how to leverage limited resources beneficially.

Trina Baughn says that $500,000 could buy about 25 dilapidated homes. Is that the right use of this money, or should it be used to help 50 homeowners upgrade their property? It would help to know how many of the 14,000 homes are a problem, and how many are rentals. Mark Watson says it’s been very difficult to determine how many rentals are in town, but it sounds to me like he’s talking about subsidized rentals, not total rentals. He’s been trying to figure out how many Section 8 rental vouchers are being used in the city because not all of them are managed through the Oak Ridge Housing Authority — there are many Section 8 renters in town who got their vouchers come from other housing authorities. Council members were given maps, generated by staff, that show rental housing percentages around the city as reported by the U.S. Census.

Tom Beehan says that Oak Ridge offers great opportunities for affordable starter homes for new homebuyers. He wants the money to be used to start something positive to encourage people to invest. Charlie Hensley wants incentives to help people improve their homes.

Leonard Abbatiello provided information about property tax assessments in the city. He’s saying that this discussion is way overdue. A few years back, 750 of 1000 units in Highland View was a rental, and the number is probably more like 850 now. Rentals are a source of blight; the city needs to get more private ownership in place. He also says that appraisals are not always tied to selling prices, as they are based on a state appraisal manual. Many homes sell below the appraised value. Even in new high-end neighborhoods, some homes are selling at a big discount. He expects Oak Ridge appraisals to go down in the 2015 reappraisal, which means the tax rate will go up. He says the measure of whether you’re fixing the problem is whether it reduces the number of people who work here but don’t live here.

The information distributed to Council members before this session apparently includes some information on what it takes to institute a rental inspection program. Chuck Hope would like to see about putting property maintenance violations into a state administrative hearing officer’s courtroom and take it out of city court, where fines are limited by state law to just $50 per violation. Mark Watson says that an administrative hearing officer probably would be set up in cooperation with other jurisdictions, to share the cost. Watson and City Attorney Ken Krushenski say that city court is now treating each day of violation as a separate violation, which can lead to fines much higher than $50 (more likely to get a property owner’s attention). Chuck Hope is wondering if there are enough cases to make an administrative hearing officer cost-effective for the city. The state’s Neighborhood Preservation Act has features that would be useful for the city, but it applies to only a few jurisdictions in the state.

Mark Watson says that Oak Ridge needs to act upon its unique authorization to set up a land bank, rather than ask the state for some other opportunity. Other communities around the state are eager to see how the land bank works out in Oak Ridge, but the city has been slow to get started.

City staff has drafted a sample land bank ordinance (distributed to City Council) and has applied to the state for a charter for the land bank organization. Mark Watson sees establishment of a land bank as a top priority.

Financing for builders is an issue in his economy… Homeowner’s associations have legal and financial challenges dealing with their responsibilities in this economy… There are about six such associations in the city that are “limping along”.

Anne G.G. wants to know more about how a landlord ordinance could work. The city isn’t very effective in enforcing the ordinances on the books now, so how can we handle this additional burden on staff? Mark Watson says that several city departments would be involved. Volunteers are suggested, but that’s similar to the complaint process that already tends to turn neighbor against neighbor. Trina Baughn says that some landlords are saying that the city’s policy on utility deposits is making it harder to get people to rent property here. She doesn’t want to create additional costs that will be passed on to renters.

Trina Baughn wonders why CDBG funding isn’t proposed to be used for the land bank program. Staff points out that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has rules how that money can be used.

Tom Beehan is ready to support both ordinances that are proposed (on landlords and on land bank). He thinks there are a lot of positives regarding Oak Ridge housing, and he doesn’t want to forget those. As a real estate professional, he’s very aware that Oak Ridge doesn’t always have the “product” that prospective buyers are looking for. That’s something the city needs to work on.

Chuck Hope wants to emphasize residential rental inspections, not just landlords. He also wants to incentivize people who are doing the right thing, not just punish people who aren’t.

Charlie Hensley says the city shouldn’t penalize the city’s good landlords. One house with a bad tenant can spoil a whole neighborhood. Jane Miller points out that the city has offered training on how to screen tenants; that could be done again. She recalls (and I remember the same) that the last time a landlord ordinance was proposed, owners of large complexes were concerned about the high cost of the per-unit fees that were proposed for the licensing.

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How should Oak Ridge deal with homelessness?

Homeless man in Memphis

Homeless man in Memphis

Homelessness is the topic of the Lunch with the League (sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge) on Tuesday, March 5. As I wrote two years ago, there are homeless people here — and by now social service agencies know more about who they are and where they are than they did in 2011. In late January, the 24-hour “Point-in-Time Count” for Anderson County counted 72 people in the county who were “literally” homeless (both “unsheltered” homeless, who might be sleeping outdoors, in cars, in vacant buildings, or in all-night businesses, and “sheltered” homeless who were staying in shelters or supportive housing) and another 68 who were “precariously housed” (otherwise known as “couch homeless”). The homeless count has increased from year to year, probably because local agencies now have a better idea where and how to find the homeless here. I volunteered for this year’s count (because I wanted to learn more about the situation of this population and because I wanted to help) and participated in the midnight to 3 am shift, which looked for unsheltered homeless.

The lack of emergency shelters for the general homeless population in this county reduces the number of homeless here (local people lacking shelter are likely to end up in Knoxville shelters), but the numbers from this annual survey indicate unmet needs. The fact that their needs aren’t being met doesn’t mean they aren’t costing us money — a University of Tennessee study that found that in East Tennessee a chronically homeless person (the survey classified 56 of the Anderson County homeless as “chronically homeless”, based on a federal government definition of that term) costs the rest of us an average of $37,000 annually in costs for drug and alcohol treatment, jail time, emergency room care, and other services.

Mike Dunthorn is Tuesday’s luncheon speaker. His topic is “Solutions to prevent, reduce and end homelessness”. Dunthorn is an Oak Ridge native and ORHS graduate who is Program Manager for homeless service in the City of Knoxville’s Community Development Department, where he has worked since 1999. He was a co-author of the Knoxville-Knox County Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness and is now working on developing a new revised plan. His presentation will focus on the issues confronting the City of Knoxville and efforts being made to address issues of homelessness by providing permanent solutions. He will address the value of partnering with many other organizations in providing assistance to the homeless, and will discuss how Oak Ridge and Anderson County may be able to benefit from some of the lessons learned in Knoxville. I look forward to hearing his perspectives on this topic.

Note: Lunch with the League is a free public event. It starts at noon in the Social Room at the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, on the corner of Robertsville Road and Oak Ridge Turnpike.

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Repopulating Oak Ridge

One of The Oak Ridge Observer‘s weekly questions for Council candidates was “What do you feel is Oak Ridge’s biggest problem? And how do you plan to try to fix it?”

My answer (75 words or less) was:

Oak Ridge’s biggest challenge is repopulating our neighborhoods to replace our founding generations (the people who arrived in the city’s first decades, built the city, and are now passing on). There is no simple solution. We must continue recent progress against drug crime and neighborhood blight, maintain excellent schools and services, revitalize retail, promote our quality of life, use “land bank” authority to rejuvenate homes and stabilize neighborhoods, and much more (see www.ellensmith.org/blog for details).

Now for those promised details…

Background. Our city’s founders were bright and hard-working young people who came from all over to help win a war, remained after that war in the government-issue neighborhoods and housing that Skidmore Owings & Merrill had laid out, and invented many aspects of community as they went along. They were joined over the post-war years by other young people much like them. Early residents treasured their government-issue homes and the unusually egalitarian neighborhoods (mixed by income, profession, and “social class”) in which they were set. These founding generations have largely “aged in place”, giving our city an unusually large senior population. No one lives forever, though, and these founders are leaving us. Most of their bright and hard-working kids — products of our city’s fine schools — have found opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. and the world, and they aren’t particularly interested in their parents’ homes.

The goal. As I see it, Oak Ridge needs to repopulate itself in the coming years — add new people in both the original neighborhoods and the newer ones that were built over the decades since the war.  Ideally we can find new residents of the same caliber of the ones who are leaving us. In particular, this means increasing Oak Ridge’s “market share” of the people who come here for new jobs, as well as attracting retirees and making this a “community of choice” for people throughout the Knoxville metro area.

Doing this means ensuring that our city is an attractive residential location, particularly for members of today’s younger generations who come to this area for jobs. New residents need to be attracted to inhabit existing neighborhoods, whether in well-kept older homes, homes renovated to meet the needs and wishes of new residents, or new houses built on “infill” vacant lots or to replace homes that aren’t good enough to renovate.

What we need to do. This is a big and complex challenge with no simple solution. (Goodness knows that I’ve attended numerous meetings about measures to help address various pieces of this challenge!) My answer to The Observer outlined some of my thoughts on what can and should be done. Here are some more thoughts:

* Confront the city’s negatives. This is the focus of city manager Mark Watson’s “Not in Our City” initiative — a collection of efforts aimed at eliminating conditions that are “turn-offs” for visitors and prospective residents. Talking to Oak Ridgers in this election season, I’ve been pleased to hear that people all over Oak Ridge are seeing real progress. More effective law enforcement has eliminated hot spots of illegal drug activity and is helping people feel safer. The enforcement of new ordinances on parking (no parking on sidewalks, no regular parking or storage of boats, RVs, and oversize vehicles on public streets, no parking in front yards except on legitimate parking surfaces, etc.) has removed long-existing eyesores from several neighborhoods, reduced parking-related conflicts between neighborhoods, and made it easier to use city sidewalks.

Those are by no means the only negatives to confront. There are other types of eyesores (like kudzu in greenbelts, other types of junk in yards, and weeds growing along the curb) that ought to be tackled. Lack of shopping opportunities is a longstanding concern that the new Kroger Marketplace will help to address, but will not fully resolve. Other types of negatives exist and should be recognized and addressed, such as people’s fears about living in a city that is a center for nuclear activities. I think that city leadership needs to identify and address the city’s negatives. It was to help address some negative perceptions that, during the 1990s, the Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) crafted a brochure and created a website to disseminate a positive message about the quality and safety of the city’s environment. As an EQAB member and contributor to that effort, I felt it was important for both residents and outsiders to know that the serious contamination that DOE is working to clean up is isolated to DOE-controlled areas and is (with few exceptions) not in our residential community. For example, almost all of the land we live on was never used for any kind of industry, the water we drink is clean (and obtained upstream from any federal facilities), and our environment is exceptionally well investigated and monitored, giving us a solid basis for being confident that it is safe (we know more about the safety of our environment than the residents of most U.S. communities do).

The rebuilt Cedar Hill Park playground is a positive feature of the city for new residents and old.

* Maintain and enhance the city’s positives. Positive attributes of Oak Ridge for residents include our excellent public schools, our full range of quality city services, our unique history, an exceptionally large amount of public open space for a community our size, an unusual array of human-powered outdoor recreation opportunities in our public open space and public lakefront (for example, the excellent rowing course, mountain biking at Haw Ridge, and many miles of greenway trails), the diversity of our population (people came here from everywhere and tend to be open to other newcomers), and exceptional arts/culture (think symphony, playhouse, art center, etc.) and adult education (think ORICL) resources for a city of our  size. The local legacy in science and technology is another asset that forms a basis for future job growth — an important ingredient of residential growth.

That’s a partial list of Oak Ridge’s positives — other people would add to it. We need to recognize these positives so we don’t neglect them, so we enhance them when appropriate, and so we can celebrate and promote them. City government has a particularly important part in ensuring that schools, city services, and recreation facilities continue to be positives for Oak Ridge.

*Improve the housing stock and our older neighborhoods. There are many positive qualities in Oak Ridge housing, but there’s also much room for improvement. On the positive side, much of our existing housing qualifies as “affordable” by most definitions of that term. Many homes — in all price ranges — are in locations (quiet, secluded settings; mountain views; etc.) that are prized in most real estate markets. There are many available lots in recently created subdivisions. On the negative side, today’s homebuyers are looking for features that often are lacking in our existing homes, many homes lack off-street parking, too many houses are in a deteriorated state due to neglect, and most of the very temporary units remaining from wartime (I don’t mean cemestos, but the more temporary housing that is concentrated in the Highland View neighborhood) have outlasted their useful life. Much of our existing housing lends itself to renovation/modernization (for example, the interior walls of cemesto homes are not load-bearing walls, so it’s not hard to knock out a wall to reconfigure the rooms), but the high cost of new construction discourages this. Neighborhood blight issues — including properties owned by negligent landlords — can discourage potential buyers, as well as owners’ efforts to improve individual homes.

Legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2012 authorizes Oak Ridge to establish a land bank — essentially, a nonprofit corporation that could own, maintain, renovate, redevelop, or sell under-utilized property in the city. This is not a cure for every issue with local housing, but it offers a means for keeping newly vacated homes from becoming low-end rentals and for reconfiguring existing homes and neighborhoods for new owners. City Council needs to work with staff to formulate a charter for the land bank that will ensure that it can work for the maximum benefit of the city and its citizens.

* Foster change to make the city attractive to new residents, including “millennials” and future generations. Tastes change over time, and a community that seemed ideal to past generations might not have any appeal for future generations. The “millennial” generation, including my 25-year-old son, has an overwhelming preference for walkable urban neighborhoods. Oak Ridge was like that in its early years when few people had cars, housing was clustered around neighborhood shopping areas to which residents walked, and buses took people where they needed to go outside their neighborhoods. Since then, we have lost the buses and most of the neighborhood shopping, and we have spread (yes, sprawled) away from the original compact neighborhoods. I support efforts to reconfigure and revitalize the Jackson Square shopping center and surrounding areas as a means to reinvent that area as the kind of place that younger generations will want to  be. I have been delighted to watch Jackson Square begin to become a center for dining — particularly for unique local establishments like the Soup Kitchen, Razzleberry’s, the Homeland Food Cafe, the Market House, and Dean’s Restaurant. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing — which is one reason why I am supporting amendments to city ordinances to ensure that restaurants that lack liquor licenses (under Tennessee’s difficult liquor laws) can allow patrons to bring wine to enjoy with their meals. The pedestrian improvements that the state and city have made recently around town, waterfront improvements, and expanded greenways also should help make Oak Ridge more attractive to rising generations. One of the reasons I’ve been engaged with the Plan ET regional planning initiative for the 5-county Knoxville region is my conviction that regional cooperation is necessary to position our city for the future.

* Tell our story effectively. If Oak Ridge is a great place to live, we need to tell the world (or at least the Knoxville metro area, particularly including new hires in Oak Ridge) about it. The Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau both are involved in crafting and communicating the city’s message (to businesses, prospective visitors, and potential future residents), but I’m not sure that we and they are doing the best job we could. I think the city needs to hear and consider new proposals (from these organizations and from others) for doing that job more effectively.

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New ordinances for parking, on-street and off

Parking has been a big topic for Oak Ridge City Council in recent weeks, and on Monday evening we made our first final decisions on the subject when we passed two ordinances on second reading (that means they will go into effect soon). A third ordinance passed on first reading (that means it needs to be considered a second time before it becomes real).

A new municipal ordinance enacted Monday evening will prohibit parking of recreational vehicles, such as boats and RVs, and utility trailers on city streets, except for short periods (up to 7 days) for short visits or purposes such as loading and unloading from a trip. In nearly every neighborhood of the city, there have been concerns about long-term-parked motorhomes that impede visibility and sometimes limit access for emergency vehicles, boats stored on the street where residents would like to park, and trailers that haven’t been hitched to a motorized vehicle in any of the neighbors’ memories. This is going to “take some getting used to” around Oak Ridge. Not allowing these vehicles to park on the street will pose a problem for people whose lots don’t allow for off-street parking. However, public streets are maintained for transportation, not for storage of private property, and alternatives (such as “U-store” units) exist for people who have more “toys” can they can accommodate on their own property.

Accordingly, I’ve concluded that this is a good rule, and I hope that people whose boats and RVs are being displaced will be able to find storage for them – for example, in a friend’s driveway or a commercial storage unit.
The original version of that ordinance also would have prohibited street parking of “oversized/commercial” vehicles, but that part was removed on second reading, due to concerns about the way that class of vehicles was defined (I couldn’t be sure what it was intended to do, nor what effect it would have) and about the use of that definition in the associated zoning ordinance. Other amendments on second reading increased the short period of allowable parking from 3 days to 7 days (I’m glad for that, on behalf of residents who entertain visiting relatives and friends who travel with motorhomes) and added a provision (proposed by me at Monday night’s meeting) that vehicles may not be relocated on city streets at the end of the 7-day period. I think that provision should help ensure that the new ordinance works as intended, by preventing people from “gaming” the rules by moving their recreational vehicles from one parking spot to another.

The second ordinance enacted on Monday amends the city zoning ordinance to say that motor vehicles may not be parked on the “front” side of any property unless on a prepared (paved or graveled) parking surface that is connected to the street by a city-authorized curb cut. Additionally, it provides that the city may require the near-street parts of driveways to be paved (not just gravel) if there are problems with gravel or soil washing into the street or storm drains. Vehicles can still be parked on unprepared surfaces in the side yard or rear yard, but not in the setbacks required by city zoning code, and they can be parked in the front yard for unusual occasions (parties). As I see it, parking on the front lawn is mostly an aesthetic concern (although I don’t understand why people want to do this), but it can lower property values for the whole neighborhood, and the city government is justified in regulating this because of the public interest in maintaining an “orderly public realm”. It’s pretty clear to me that there is a city government interest in not allowing gravel to wash into city streets, where it can be a safety hazard and a stormwater problem.

The version of the zoning ordinance that passed on first reading also would have banned those “oversized/commercial vehicles” from being parked anywhere on a residential property, but there were problems with the vague definition and with a widely held opinion that many businesspeople (plumbers, electricians, etc.) should be allowed to have their business vehicles at home — particularly as many people also use their commercial trucks and vans for family transportation. Another amendment on second reading changed the driveway-paving requirement from a mandatory requirement to a discretionary one. Meanwhile, I’ve been assured that the city won’t be going after homeowners who have well-built driveways that apparently were never approved by the city as “curb cuts” — as indicated by the fact that the driveways cross a “rollover” curb.

That brings me to the third ordinance that passed on first reading — and that I expect will resolve a number of issues related to enforcement of existing parking rules (like the ordinance against parking on the sidewalk), as well as well as addressing the on-street parking of truly “oversized” vehicles. I need to run now, though, so I’ll tell that story later.

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Time to catch my breath?

Lately I feel like the airport is my second home, but I may finally be getting a chance to catch my breath after my most recent trip, to the National League of Cities meeting in Phoenix. I returned home with my bags stuffed with handouts and new knowledge and ideas on topics including managing and using social media in local government, possible ways for Oak Ridge to implement the repair of sewer laterals that fail smoke tests (something that will soon be a big deal here) and help residents prepare for future problems with their laterals, ingredients for successful “green” initiatives (more difficult here than in some other regions of the country), how other cities house their community centers to serve youth and seniors, and “much much more.”

City Council meets Monday evening with a full agenda. I expect that many agenda items will be uncontroversial, but several will generate discussion, and there are a few items that I will either oppose or seek to amend:

1. Local Oversight Committee. I believe that regional cooperation is vital for dealing with matters like the challenges our region faces as the host of Department of Energy nuclear facilities, legacy contamination, and the radioactive waste industry that has come here because of DOE. However, I don’t like the proposal to discard the 20-year-old Local Oversight Committee and start all over again with a vague plan for a committee of regional mayors (ironically, the same type of group that set up the Local Oversight Committee in the first place).

The LOC was established to provide technical resources to help the region’s communities with the particular challenges of DOE environmental cleanup and waste management activities. Because these technical matters are outside the expertise and interest of most local governments, technical resources (funded from federal coffers) have been thought necessary to help governments and communities deal effectively with these challenges. The LOC employs a technically qualified professional executive director who works with the organization board of directors (nominally consisting of mayors and chairs of some technical advisory boards) and volunteers on the LOC Citizen Advisory Panel to stay abreast of current developments, determine how situations affect the region’s communities and local governments, and communicate on various matters to local, state, and federal entities and the public. Now several mayors (including Tom Beehan) want to scrap the LOC in favor of a new, apparently politically oriented, entity to be directed solely by mayors.

Whatever shortcomings the LOC has had in recent years are attributable in large part to a resounding lack of interest by the mayors who have nominally been members of the LOC board of directors but chose not to participate — and in several cases (notably, Knox County) did not even bother to designate alternates to serve on their behalf. With little participation from elected officials, it sometimes was difficult for the LOC to stay focused on local government priorities. The mayors’ demonstrated lack of interest in the organization and its functions is not a good omen for the success of their plan to trash the LOC and start all over again. (The mayors have not suddenly developed interest and expertise in technical matters.)

After hearing from citizens about the unique value of the LOC (largely at the September 9th special meeting of the LOC board), including being told by four former chairmen of the Oak Ridge Reservation Site Specific Advisory Board that the SSAB is not a substitute for the LOC, I foolishly thought the mayors recognized that the political damage they would suffer from trashing the LOC — including firing the various citizens who have volunteered their efforts and expertise as board alternates and advisory board members — outweighs the value of any money they could get out of that action. Foolish of me. Now Oak Ridge City Council and several regional county commissions are being asked to sign on to an “interlocal agreement” (effectively a contract) that gives little indication of the purpose and direction of the proposed new entity, beyond saying the mayors will be in charge.

The proposed interlocal agreement is said to be patterned after the charter for the Hanford Communities (see page 21 of this package),  considered by other local governments to be a successful model of regional cooperation among DOE communities, and one that is well-integrated with local government.  The fact that the Hanford Communities organization is well-integrated with local government could be explained in large part by the fact that it is financed  by membership dues from member governments, in contrast with the Oak Ridge LOC, which is funded with federal cleanup money. Accordingly, it makes sense that the agreement under which the Hanford group operates is structured as the charter for a membership organization, but it does not make sense to have copied those elements for the structure of the proposed East Tennessee entity. I also note that the Hanford agreement has many details regarding the purposes and functions of the organization that were not copied into the proposed interlocal agreement for East Tennessee.

I’d like to support continued regional cooperation, but I can’t endorse an “interlocal agreement” that contains little more substance that the statement that the mayors of several entities “desire to meet on a regular basis.”

2. “Not in Our City”. This is a package of ideas and initiatives that our city needs. Still, the proposed program of inspection of residential units before the utilities are turned on, which is a major element of this package, needs to be implemented very carefully to ensure that the city does not act “arbitrarily and capriciously” against the interest of any property owner.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines proposed to be used for this inspection program is long and detailed, and it includes a number of vague or subjective items.  Until the guidelines are tightened up to make them both unambiguous and easier to understand, I am not convinced that this new program is ready to implement, even on a trial basis (as staff proposes). I also have some reservations about the “sewer laterals” element of the inspection, which is a whole ‘nother story.

3. What is “Fast Food”? Staff is proposing a new definition for “fast food” in order to allow “fast casual” restaurants with drive-up service, but not “fast food” restaurants, in the Woodland Center Planned Unit Development. I’m all for the concept, but it appears to me that the staff’s proposed new definition — based largely on restaurant size —  would exclude some small non-fast restaurants (such as Homeland Cafe, Razzleberry’s, and Connie’s Natural Gourmet) by calling them “fast food,” while potentially allowing other businesses with drive-through operations that might not be kind to the adjacent residential neighborhood. I think this proposal should be vetted by the Planning Commission before Council votes on it at first reading, rather than after.  In the meantime, I will ask for more details on the proposed wording changes (the package provided to Council lacks some needed context) .

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Oak Ridge Census data — not as old as we thought, but too much vacant housing

More 2010 Census statistics are available. The Census reveals that as Oak Ridge’s population grew 7.1% between 2000 and 2010, the increase in the city’s average age pretty much leveled off. Our median age in 2010 was 43.5 — well above the state average of 38.0, but (after years of continually increasing) just 0.1 year older than the 2000 median age of 43.4.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that one-quarter of the city is over age 65, the Census found “only” 19.3% of us in that category. For comparison, the Tennessee statewide number is 13.4%.

The Census found that a good share of Oak Ridgers are living to a ripe old age, counting 4.2% of the city as age 85 or older. That compares to just 1.6% statewide.

The Census Bureau also has released some more statistics on housing occupancy. Of those 1,722 vacant housing units (11.9% of the city’s total inventory), 762 (5.3% of the city’s housing units) were for rent at the time of the census. That’s well above the statewide statistic of 3.5% of housing units being for rent. Another 303 units in Oak Ridge (2.1% of the city total) were for sale;  statewide just 1.7% were recorded as for sale . A total of 84 units were listed as “rented” or “sold”, but not currently occupied, and 99 were described as being “For seasonal, recreational, or occasional use.” It’s disturbing to see a large number (474 units, 3.3% of Oak Ridge’s housing) categorized as “All other vacants” — my guess is that many of these are places whose owners have died or moved out, but have not yet come under the care of someone who is committed to moving them into the next phase of their existence by seeking new owners or renters.

According to the Census, 64.4% of Oak Ridge’s occupied housing units were owner-occupied; the remaining 35.6% were classified as renter-occupied. It’s not surprising that Oak Ridge has a little bit higher fraction of renters than the state as a whole; Tennessee’s statewide renter percentage is 31.8%.

The Census calculated Oak Ridge’s homeowner vacancy rate as 3.5% and the rental vacancy rate  as 14.3%. For comparison, the Tennessee state vacancy rates were 2.7% for homeowner property and 11.0% for rental units.  In a city with lots of employment compared the state as a whole, those high vacancy rates underline the need for city initiatives to address some issues with the quality of the city’s housing and its neighborhoods.

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Who is Joe Levitt?

I’ve heard a lot of questions and speculation about Applewood Apartments owner Joe Levitt. Who is he? What does he do with the money he collects from his tenants? As the news media have been reporting, the City of Oak Ridge has contended that the apartments are unfit for human habitation and is proceeding with a series of inspections to identify safety and health problems that must be addressed (or else the apartments should come down). Levitt, meanwhile, continues to claim (as he has done for years) that he is working as fast as he can to resolve the problems.

So who is he and where is the money he has collected from his tenants over the years? How is it that he evades code enforcement efforts? I’ve encountered Levitt in city meetings and I’ve heard stories about him (both as an attorney and as a slumlord), but I decided to Google for more information. It seems that Oak Ridge’s experience is not unique. Levitt, who has practiced law for more than 50 years, has a long history of thumbing his nose at authorities, often with success. Here are a few items I found:

* In the March 4, 2009, News Sentinel I read that Levitt is fighting Knox County efforts to force the demolition of a former Ingle’s Supermarket building on Clinton Highway that he owns together with John Spina. The county Office of Neighborhoods and Codes Enforcement wanted to pursue a demolition contract for the building and bill the owner for the cost under the county blighted property ordinance, but in February the two owners filed a complaint in Chancery Court saying that the ordinance “makes no provision for demolition of a building until it is acquired by the county under eminent domain.” Now the county is no longer trying to use the blighted property ordinance, but is considering action under the dirty lot ordinance, which also allows for demolition.

* In 2005, he was the lawyer who represented some Knox County adult bookstores in their fight against an ordinance that imposed restrictions on sexually oriented businesses (Adult bookstores sue Knox County, May 7, 2005). The County won this one, but the case wasn’t concluded until this year, and it went all the way to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

* Some years ago, he reportedly fought a colorful battle against automobile towing in the City of Knoxville. According to an anti-towing website, Levitt discovered that illegally parked construction workers’ cars would not be towed or ticketed, so he bought an old junker car and tied a ladder to the roof (“the better to impersonate a construction worker”), then proceeded to  park wherever he pleased. Eventually a constable and an agent from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation discovered what he was up to. As the website tells it:

  • In retaliation, the two cops attempted a crime of their own by an unconstitutional towing which is felony car theft. Levitt returned to his car before the crime was completed, and explained to the cops the error of their ways. The crooked cops, alleging “resisting arrest,” prepared to assault and handcuff Levitt. However, wily Levitt was too sharp for the dim cops and turned the tables, using the cops’ own handcuffs to handcuff the cops. Levitt then made a citizen’s arrest and escorted his prisoners to the county judicial commissioner (as required to issue a probable cause affidavit and prepare an arrest warrant). The amused commissioner threw all of them out of his jailhouse office, refusing to enforce the law of the land. At least the attorney avoided a parking ticket and tow bill, as well as avoiding a dull day.

* In 1997, Levitt was charged with resisting arrest, reckless driving, and failure to carry and display a driver’s license on demand in connection with an incident in which he tried to drive around a Tennessee Highway Patrol roadblock. He was eventually convicted only of not carrying and displaying his driver’s license, but that conviction was eventually reversed (in 2001) by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals on the grounds that the roadblock was unconstitutional and the officers lacked probable cause to stop his vehicle.

Levitt also is an active buyer and seller (and sometimes forecloser) of real estate, mostly in small transactions. I only ran across one big transaction, reported in the News Sentinel April 17, 2007 real estate transactions list: Joseph Levitt Jr. to Baron II LLC, in Williams-Henson Luth subdivision, $1,312,912

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