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“Highest and Best:” The John Sevier Center and the Johnson City Commission’s Contributions to Our Crisis in Affordable Housing

This article appeared in Issue 2 of The Northeast Tennessee Organizer.

The John Sevier Center once provided 150 units of affordable, senior-friendly housing in the heart of downtown Johnson City. It has since become the target of a Johnson City Commission whose destructive appetite for “redevelopment” knows no bounds. In fact, on March 21, the Commission authorized Hunden Partners to conduct a “highest and best usage” study to propose future uses of this prime real estate. We expect the report to affirm the Commission’s attempt to “redevelop” this affordable housing complex out of existence and to force the current residents into replacement housing on our city’s southern periphery, but we don’t think the Commission should get a free pass. The Commissioners know our city faces an acute shortage of affordable housing, and they aren’t doing enough to address it.

How do we know that our honorable Commissioners are aware of local conditions? Well, just last year they received a 172-page report detailing the crisis in painstaking detail. The “Preliminary Housing Needs Assessment,” conducted by Bowen National Research at the city’s request, aimed to inform the city officials of the conditions of local housing markets – both rental and for-sale – and to assess our present and near-future gaps in housing stock. This might sound like the foundation for sound government housing policy. Instead, the report came in and the Commissioners stuck their heads in the sand. They have held fast to the policies that got us into this mess. If they constantly speak of “excellence in city government,” we ought to ask “excellence for whom?”

Certainly not for working people. For working-class people, the housing situation can only be described as dire. Bowen’s survey revealed a mere 0.7% vacancy rate among rental properties, compared to a national average of 6.6%. The availability rate of for-sale homes was a scant 0.3%.

This acute shortage has driven rents and home prices to astronomical levels. Households earning less than $50,000 per year have effectively been frozen out of the for-sale market, and a shocking 45% of renter households pay their landlords over 30% of their income in rent. Indeed, for more than one out of five of our city’s renter households, over 50% of their income goes straight to a landlord’s pocket.

Is it any wonder, then, that working-class people have been forced to the city outskirts or even beyond the city limits in their quest to meet their most basic need for shelter? Is it any wonder that many landlords refuse to address tenant concerns, even when those concerns are fully justified or even backed by law? With help from our misguided Commission, the landlords’ waitlists grow daily.

And nowhere can this be seen clearer than in cases of affordable housing supported by federal subsidies and housing programs. Of the 19 affordable housing complexes surveyed by Bowen, only a single property had any vacancies at all. The 4.7% vacancy rate reported at the Sevier Center was concentrated entirely in that complex’s studio and one-bedroom units. Is it really worth seeking a “higher and better” use for a complex that provides affordable housing to 143 households at a time when nearly 10% of Housing Choice Vouchers cannot even be used due to lack of housing stock? We think not.

And by all accounts, the people of Johnson City would agree. A full 56.7% of residents surveyed by Bowen characterized our local housing market as “poor” with “many issues.” Some of the highest-priority issues identified by survey-takers were high prices and rents (74.1% of respondents), insufficient open units (51.4%), and neglected or blighted properties (21.2%).

These are issues that are intimately related, and one cannot but at least partially attribute their severity to our Commission. Decisions such as those taken involving the Sevier Center have created a landlords’ paradise in which the tenant always loses–and this is to say nothing of their failure to prevent the mansion from becoming the standard form of new-construction homes.

Rather than a local government that guts affordable housing in the name of “renovation,” JCers want a Commission that sets itself truly and intently on the alleviation of our housing crisis. Among the most in-demand categories of housing identified in the report were for-sale homes priced under $100,000 or between $100,000 and $200,000, rental units under $500/month or between $500-1000/month, and senior living apartments. This is what the people conceive of as “highest and best.” Not ritzy hotels or lavish apartments built upon the ruins of our affordable housing complexes, but rather affordable housing that is accessible to all.

The Commission may turn to Hunden’s impending “highest and best usage” report to excuse itself from listening to such demands and to justify its forced relocation of low-income and elderly residents. It may trumpet its provision of replacement housing units on our city’s southern periphery as proof they are addressing the ongoing crisis. But a mere one-for-one substitution in the context of a growing crisis will never be sufficient. To meet the moment, our Commission needs to develop an aggressive program to expand the number of affordable housing units.

We hope the Commission will see reason and move quickly to address this crisis, but past and present experience suggests otherwise. In reality, it will fall upon us to solve our own problems.
We as tenants must organize into the types of tenant unions that will help us push back against the landlords’ disproportionate power.

We as JC residents must demand a public policy that aligns with the priorities of the public.
And if the current Commissioners refuse to change tack, we must organize to unseat them and to win a local government committed to realizing our goal of affordable housing for all.

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