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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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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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