Knoxville, Tenn., Fights Urban Blight with New Dashboard

A new online dashboard tracks blighted properties across the city in an effort to measure and keep better track of them.

by Tyler Whetstone, Knoxville News-Sentinel / November 27, 2017
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(TNS) –– Tye and Andre Duvall’s home project has taken them months to work on and there’s still plenty of work to be done.

When a reporter got a tour of the home on East Fifth Avenue in October there was no deck (it had rotted), the living room was roped off (some rot there too) and there was no drywall or much of any infrastructure. Andre joked that the house, which was built in 1919, had been through everything but a fire.

Workers in the Community Development Department used to label the home “public enemy No. 1” before the Duvalls purchased it from the city and began working on it in February. It was a blighted piece of property with serious issues, with many complaints but now is (slowly) on its way to a renaissance.

“For me, this is a real opportunity to have a piece of history that is something that I can afford. So the blood, sweat and tears is elongated, but at the end it’s so sweet,” Tye said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to afford a home like this. So it’s a great opportunity.”

The city has implemented a new online dashboard that tracks blighted properties across the city in an effort to measure and keep track of properties like the Duvalls' in hopes of reducing the total number of such properties. It’s a lot of work.

More than 1,200 Blighted Properties

Reducing blight across the city has been a focus of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero since she took office at the end of 2011.

Since that time the city has acquired and sold 38 properties and helped mitigate another 40 through other means. Nearly 100 properties have been directly or indirectly rehabbed since she took office.

“Blight reduction is a top city priority,” Rogero said in a statement. “We know that one blighted, unsafe property can often undermine the hard work by families in an entire block to build up and strengthen their neighborhood."

The dashboard is another tool that will help those numbers by keeping track of the number of identified blighted properties, the number of properties remedied, the number of inspections performed, and the number of citations, among others. The city received technical guidance from the Center for Government Excellence at Johns Hopkins University to help launch the dashboard.

“This dashboard brings together data from several City departments to help us better track our blight reduction efforts and set goals to increase our effectiveness,” Peter Ahrens, director of Plans Review and Inspections, said in a release earlier this fall. “The numbers give us quarterly and annual benchmarks so we and the public can chart our progress on multiple fronts.”

According to data provided by the dashboard, the city has 1,243 blighted properties in 2016. The goal is to reduce that number, which grows constantly, by at least 2 percent every year.

Most of the properties the city deals with are residential — commercial spaces normally have owners that have a plan to address the blight.

'Queen of Blight'

Kathy Ellis is a project specialist within the Community Development Department. Her nickname is the “Queen of Blight” and it is well-earned. Ellis keeps a rolodex of properties that should be fixed or ones that are currently being fixed. Her goal is always the same: find properties that can be made whole again.

“The houses were at one time happy homes and had Christmas and Thanksgiving and hid Easter eggs and all that,” she said. “But over time whenever the patriarch of the family probably died off, they did not leave a will and the kids or brother or sister think that it’s so upside-down with taxes that they don’t want to get involved.”

The city sees these stories play out often but won’t get involved until a property has been vacant and had three or more years of continuous code violations or delinquent taxes. There are plenty to choose from.

“We have to be smart about which properties (we choose) that will make the biggest impact if they were to get alleviated,” Community Development Director Becky Wade said.

Once they get involved they have a number of tools in their toolbox that can help property owners like the Homemaker Program, which transfers ownership of properties to homeowners or nonprofits that will provide affordable housing. This helps fight the city’s growing issue of a lack of affordable housing.

“We don’t really want properties demolished because we don’t have enough rental properties,” Ellis said. “If you keep demolishing places, where are people going to live?”

©2017 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.