Approaches to Housing
At Tuesday’s forum, the four candidates for Knoxville mayor grappled with the city’s top issue heading into this month’s primary.
The candidates for mayor in this year’s city election focused on housing and homelessness in a forum held Tuesday, along with race, poverty and other issues.
The candidates offered their views on resolving the city's housing crisis.
All four candidates — incumbent Mayor Indya Kincannon and challengers Jeff Talman, R.C. Lawhorn and Constance Every — appeared at the event at the city’s Public Works Service Center. The forum was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County and its partners, and moderated by Compass co-founder Jesse Fox Mayshark.
The challengers by and large spoke of ways for the city to overcome its shortcomings to reach its potential, while Kincannon, as incumbents typically do, touted her record during the past four years.
“I’m super proud of the progress we’ve made as a city,” she said, ticking off accomplishments such as implementing police body-mounted cameras, hiring new Chief Paul Noel, creating the Office of Community Safety, investing in affordable housing and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’ve put the progress in progressive,” Kincannon said.
Talman offered himself as a visionary who would help residents unleash their creativity in a surge of entrepreneurism. “I’m here to lead our city into a new golden age,” he said, emphasizing the “three pillars” of his campaign — unity, safety and prosperity. “All things are possible when we work together.”
A contractor and business owner, Lawhorn positioned himself as a problem solver who advocates for improved school safety and increasing the pay of police officers. “I’m running because we’ve got a lot of problems that need to be fixed,” he said.
Every, who runs a pair of community groups and is a police reform advocate, said the city must address housing affordability and poverty, especially among Black residents.
“I am not here to convince you of anything,” she said. “I am here to speak truth to power of the issues, and more importantly to empower the vote. We have to have an honest conversation about the current administration and how they have not included everyone into the conversation.”
Kincannon said the city has made progress on homelessness — opening a sixth permanent supportive housing community, expanding street outreach efforts and working with organizations that directly provide services — but more needs to be done.
“We are in the process of opening the Joint Office on Housing Stability with Knox County,” she said. “This is unusual. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, homelessness is a city problem.’ But guess what? It’s not a city of Knoxville problem, it’s a problem of our whole community.”
Lawhorn advocated building a centralized shelter facility so that people experiencing homelessness don’t spread out through the city.
“We need to get them all in one place where we can help them, where we can treat them for mental illness, drug problems and such so we can empower them instead of enable them,” he said.
Talman said the city needs to work with state and county officials to establish a new psychiatric facility. He also framed the issue as a public safety issue, pointing to the recent fire set by homeless individuals in an abandoned building on the Knoxville College campus.
“We’re 25 years into the 10-year plan to end homelessness,” he said. “It’s time to have a serious discussion in Knoxville, in our region, in our state. This is far bigger than the city, far bigger than the county.”
Every said the city should immediately create more emergency shelters and take steps to make sure more people can stay in their homes.
“Data points out 61 percent of homelessness is due to affordability,” she said. “So it’s not drugs, it’s not mental health, it’s literally affordability.”
Lawhorn suggested encouraging the construction of “barndominiums,” houses built like barns that can cost 30 percent less than conventional homes. He said Knoxville could also emulate Nashville by changing its code to allow multiple houses on a single lot.
“They’re tiny homes, they’re small homes and we can put more on one lot,” he said.
A mortgage banker, Talman said people are moving to Knoxville in large numbers, creating a need for new approaches.
“In my view, if we’re in a housing crisis, we should be on a crisis footing,” he said, pointing to the construction of standardized houses in Oak Ridge during its founding during World War II as an example. Talman said the city has many creative minds to bring to bear on the issue.
Every said the city’s zoning code needs to be revised, but emphasized the use of community land trusts. Community land trusts are nonprofit organizations that build affordable housing and provide home ownership opportunities for low-income residents.
“This gives the neighborhoods the say-so on the land and therefore you all decide if there’s going to be a civic engagement building there, affordable housing built there, a grocery store built there, a park built there,” she said. “You are in charge of that piece of land.”
In addition to the city’s Affordable Housing Fund, Kincannon pointed out that her administration is developing zoning recommendations based on a study on “missing middle” housing, which are duplexes, triplexes and other small multifamily developments that are difficult to build under Knoxville’s zoning code.
“Missing Middle is not something that’s new,” she said. “It used to be legal and easy to do, and now, after 50 years of more sprawl-oriented provisions in our code, it’s not legal to do.”
Equity Restoration Task Force
A question about the African American Equity Restoration Task Force prompted a general exploration of how best to improve the lives of Knoxville’s Black population
Talman offered a color-blind approach to race, pledging to end race-based discrimination in the city. “The reality is, the dynamics of how we achieve social mobility, economic mobility, I would challenge anybody to demonstrate how they’re going to be resolved by focusing on race,” he said.
He continued: “I’ve got a concern that hyper focusing on racial solutions ends up creating divisiveness that does not move the ball forward to where we want to be in this community.”
Every, who is Black, said the city needs to fulfill the promise of the African American Restoration Task Force, which aims to secure $100 million in grant funding over a decade to support programs that create wealth in the African-American community.
“Where is the $100 million?” she asked. “That is a concern. We need to put a commitment, a real streamline of income to the project of the African American task force.”
Every also criticized the new multi-use stadium adjacent to the Old City. The area around the site, once a predominantly African-American neighborhood called the Bottom, was razed during urban renewal.
Kincannon said her administration has given staff support to the task force, which was championed by Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie and approved by City Council. “I think racial inequities are real. I’m really proud of our support of the African American Equity Restoration Task Force,” she said. “They have set their strategies and priorities. We are actively helping them apply for grants and we want to continue to do that.”
Lawhorn said education and vocational training are the keys to improving lives. “There’s a big demand for minority-owned companies,” he said. “We need to work towards getting people vocational training to get them where they can own their own companies. They can advance. Because the only way you’re going to get them out of poverty is to educate them.”
The candidates also fielded questions on the Knoxville Police Department, Knoxville College, pedestrian safety and plans for a redesigned Knoxville Area Transit bus network. The forum can be seen in its entirety at the League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County Facebook page.
Early voting for the primary begins Aug. 9, and Primary Election Day is Aug. 29. The top two finishers in the primary will go on to the general election, though a mayoral candidate receiving more than half the primary vote would automatically win without going to a general election runoff.