Buildings and Blocks

Mission Districts

It's not original, but "mission district" aptly describes the four-mile length of N. Broadway between Jackson and Woodland Avenues that is neighborhood to much of Knoxville's homeless population. Those blocks, and some adjacent ones, include many of the city's most active missions, shelters and purveyors of social and health services. The term should not be confused with its namesake, an economically diverse neighborhood in San Francisco built on what used to be Spanish-Mexican ranchos and having at its core the sixth Alta California mission, Mission San Francisco de Asis.

The homeless issue has been analyzed formally in studies conducted since 1986 by Dr. Roger Nooe of UT's College of Social Work. Sponsored by the Knoxville Coalition for the Homeless, the study divided the types of homelessness into categories of chronic, episodic and situational, and estimated (in 1986) that 1000 persons were homeless (in shelters and outdoors) at some time during February. By comparison, 1652 individuals were homeless during February of last year.

Prompted by the steady pedestrian traffic of people pushing shopping carts, wheeling trash cans and hauling oversize backpacks along N. Broadway, seeking refuge underneath the interstate construction or in nearby historic neighborhoods, many wonder what can be done about this island of scarcity in a city of plenty.

The 2004 iteration of Nooe's study provided the basis for a solution adopted by the city and county: the Ten-Year Plan to Combat Chronic Homelessness, finally implemented in May of this year with the appointment of Jon Lawler as its director. Lawler is a vice president at the Knoxville real estate and development firm Lawler-Wood which specializes in affordable rental housing. The keystone of the plan is its Housing First component to get people off the streets and into safe and stable housing.

The relationship of homelessness to real estate is acknowledged by Nooe who states that "the increasing shortage of affordable, particularly rental housing is a major contributor to homelessness. Approximately 2.2 million low-rent units were lost (nationally) between 1973 and 1993 due to abandonment, conversion to condominiums, or becoming unaffordable because of competition and costs."

But the homeless are not the only victims of a system that favors profit over community. One need only look to the other Mission District, in San Francisco, to measure the discontent caused by free-market excesses of predatory developers enabled by acquiescent local governing bodies. Eviction, rent increases, condo conversions, building seizures by eminent domain - all familiar phenomena of development - resulted in displacement of long-term residents by newly affluent "dot-com" boomers wanting to live and work close-in to the vibrant city center.

As usual in such cases, it was argued that all of this was good for the city and the neighborhood. But it didn't seem that way to the disempowered and dispossessed who, in the late 1990s, organized a resistance that resulted in the replacement of developer-friendly Board of Supervisors members with progressives prepared to apply brakes to the redevelopment process.

Similar circumstances are evident in our own mission district. Take the case of the Fifth Avenue Motel. It was built in 1913 as Minvilla, thirteen row-house residences grouped along N. Broadway and Fifth Avenue. Used as offices in the 1960s, the buildings were later converted into an inexpensive rooming house that served a low-income population for over two decades. A victim of deferred maintenance and a changing neighborhood, the building was condemned by the city and closed in 2002. After the owner invited the city to demolish it, the motel was included in Knox Heritage's most endangered list, then incorporated in a Worsham Group plan to restore the buildings as affordable private housing.

Nothing came of the project, and it was not until 2006 that the building's future was secured when the homeless issue intersected with increasing real estate values along Gay Street. The occupancy of the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC) at the southwest corner of Gay and Jackson by a low- or no-income population was not consistent with the upscale development taking place along the rest of the 100 block. This stretch between Summit Hill Drive and Jackson Avenue, just a few years before, was anchored socially by Harold's Deli and a motley assortment of commercial, retail and residential uses. (Harold once said, in all seriousness, that "this block will never come back.")

The opportunity to realize the "transfer" of this population presented itself when the Fifth Avenue Motel was condemned, and the (Worsham) rehab project stalled. The Volunteer Ministry purchased Minvilla in 2006 for $129,000 shortly after the city and county approved a $470,000 federal grant to purchase a building abandoned by the Knox Area Rescue Mission on N. Broadway. These actions were contingent on the VMC vacating its premises on Gay Street, and there will certainly be interest in "cleansing" that corner of Gay and Jackson, a last enclave of poverty on what has become the most gentrified street in downtown.

The appointment of Jon Lawler suggests that we may see an expansion of the local "homeless industry" from its current public/non-profit structure to include the for-profit sector, with generous public subsidy of the latter. Such a partnership could work, as it has in Europe, but skepticism about a homegrown version remains. In a system where affordable housing is often derided as socialistic and housing solutions for the affluent continue to be subsidized by public funding, the question may be not what to do about the homeless, but what to do about ourselves.

2007 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice.