Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Applewood Apartments

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