The competition to provide housing for workers is fierce, and Oak Ridge needs more new homes in the $180,000-$280,000 price range and more rental units in the $900-$1,200 price range, according to a housing report presented to Oak Ridge City Council by the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
Also proposed in the housing report: the development of attractive, convenient mixed use gathering spaces; improving the appearance of existing neighborhoods through aggressive codes enforcement; beautification projects in public spaces to make Oak Ridge more appealing; developing and implementing a consistent “brand” for Oak Ridge that encompasses livability, economic development, and tourism; incentivizing home improvements in the Manhattan District Overlay; and developing public/private partnerships to work on housing.
The report, which was presented to City Council in a non-voting work session on Tuesday, studied where Oak Ridge employees live, based upon the zip codes of 7,372 employees from eight major Oak Ridge employers. It found that 22 percent of Oak Ridge workers live in Oak Ridge. That’s compared to 44 percent who live in Knox County, primarily in Farragut, Hardin Valley, Northshore, Karns, and Cedar Bluff.
Ten percent of the Oak Ridge workers live in Roane County, 6 percent live in Clinton, and less than five percent each live in Loudon, Blount, Morgan, and other counties, the report said.
The housing report only reviewed Oak Ridge as it compares to the five most popular communities where people who work in Oak Ridge choose to live (Farragut, Hardin Valley, Northshore, Karns, and Cedar Bluff).
“Competition for residents is fierce, and Oak Ridge competes with some of the most desirable communities in the region,” the report said.
When compared to competing communities, Oak Ridge has the oldest housing stock and the lowest housing values, the report said. Only 8.6 percent of homes in Oak Ridge have been built since 2000 compared to more than 40 percent in some competing communities. Only 54 percent of housing in the city is owner-occupied, while 34 percent is rental and 12 percent is vacant. Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Rick Chinn said the home ownership rate should be closer to 85 percent.
About half of the housing in Oak Ridge, or 6,500 homes, is located in the Manhattan District Overlay, where most housing is valued at less than $150,000 and renters significantly outnumber homeowners, the report said. Officials have said about half of the city’s homes were built “on the fly” during World War II, when Oak Ridge was quickly constructed to help make the world’s first atomic weapons as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project. It’s not clear that all of those homes were meant to be permanent.
Compared to competing communities, Oak Ridge has the lowest percentage of population (28 percent) under 24 years old and the largest percentage of population (21 percent) over 64 years old. It has the lowest estimated population growth rate through 2021, and the lowest median household income of $50,765—compared to $104,774 in Northshore and $95,912 in Farragut. Oak Ridge has the lowest percentage of the population who have attained a bachelor’s degree.
Almost 1,000 employees who work in Oak Ridge voluntarily completed a survey that provided a “snapshot in time” of perceptions, preferences, and attitudes related to housing, the report said. Here are factors that were rated very important in determining where employees choose to live:
- 86 percent—Available housing at a price that fits budget
- 85 percent—Quality of neighborhood homes
- 82 percent—Crime rates (Oak Ridge’s crime rate is said to be good, compared to surrounding communities)
- 61 percent—Curb appeal of neighborhood
- 60 percent—Public services: police, fire, water, sewer
- 60 percent—Quality of public schools
- 60 percent—Commute time
Employees gave reasons they choose to live somewhere other than Oak Ridge. City officials said some of these might be perceptions, rather than reality. Among the reasons (or perceptions): No new housing stock, very few houses in their price range, no new subdivisions. City is run down and looks dirty. Houses are more expensive in Oak Ridge (this was described as a perception, with the cost per square foot lower in Oak Ridge). No retail shopping or restaurants (except fast food), although city officials pointed out that the employee survey was completed in March 2016, before some retail or restaurant projects were completed or started, such as Hobby Lobby, Calhoun’s, and Main Street Oak Ridge. No places to gather in the community (some officials said this is more of a perception than reality, pointing out the Oak Ridge Civic Center and the city’s parks and greenways). Small, old neighborhoods detract from city.
The report said Oak Ridge Schools perform very well when measured by standardized testing. At public meetings in the past few years, many young families have cited the schools as the main reason or one of the main reasons they moved to Oak Ridge. The school system is overwhelmingly perceived as one of the best in Tennessee and the nation, the housing report said.
But the housing report said schools in several competing communities performed as well as Oak Ridge, as measured by standardized testing. And more than half of Oak Ridge students are economically disadvantaged, compared with 13 to 36 percent in competing communities.
The report outlined Oak Ridge’s strengths: excellent city amenities (school system, police and fire protection, parks and recreation, library); health care facilities; cultural organizations; the visibility generated by being part of a national park (the Manhattan Project National Historical Park); close proximity to major employers; a resurgent availability of restaurants and retailers; momentum from the “Not in Our City” initiative; and a small close-knit community that welcomes newcomers and diversity.
Weaknesses include the unmet need for new housing stock, especially in the $180,000-$280,000 range, and the unmet need for rental properties in the $900-$1,200 per month range. Officials said the rental units could be used by workers who are here temporarily, such as some of the employees expected to help build the planned $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 National Security Complex.
“In Oak Ridge, we quit building middle income housing in the 1980s,” said Melinda Hillman, chair of the Housing Task Force that presented the housing report to City Council on Tuesday.
The report said the city’s housing stock is currently concentrated in World War II-era neighborhoods with very small homes valued at less than $150,000. There is a perception that city neighborhoods are run down and old with no curb appeal, the report said. Retail shopping and restaurants are limited, although that is quickly changing, the report said.
Threats include the continued growth of West Knoxville communities that supply the housing desired by families, and continued blight in the Manhattan District Overlay.
But opportunities include building new homes in Oak Ridge in the $180,000-$280,000 price range, increasing rental properties for the city’s median income population, focusing on intense neighborhood revitalization, providing additional gathering spaces for all ages in areas such as Jackson Square and Grove Center, and partnering with the Oak Ridge Housing Authority to improve low-income housing and eliminate blight using the Housing Authority’s statutory powers.
Among the missions proposed by the housing report: Attract, encourage, and support private developers to build new subdivisions with housing in the $180,00-$280,000 price range. Attract, encourage, and support private developers to build new apartments that rent for $900-$1,200 per month. Also encourage private developers to create convenient mixed-use gathering spaces, and improve the appearance of existing neighborhoods through aggressive codes enforcement and beautification projects. In addition, there could be efforts to identify and implement ways to incentivize home improvements in the Manhattan District Overlay, work on public/private partnerships, and develop and implement a consistent brand for Oak Ridge that encompasses livability, economic development, and tourism.
Next steps are recommended. The report said City Council must make housing a priority, and the city must lead efforts to develop and implement a comprehensive housing strategy. The housing strategy could be integrated into the City Blueprint initiative.
“Residents as well as business/industry leaders and community stakeholders must take ownership and be an active part of the solution,” the report said.
The Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce is interested in working with the city and other interested parties as appropriate, the report said.
“We are ready to partner and be part of the process,” Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce President Parker Hardy said.
Additional concerns raised Tuesday were how to, or whether Oak Ridge can afford to, help developers, possibly with infrastructure requirements; whether Oak Ridge is more “landlocked” than West Knox County; and whether Oak Ridge, which has more urban density and pedestrian connectivity, can be directly compared to West Knox County. Also, there was a concern about whether neighborhoods built in the 1960s and 1970s might need to be modernized, and a proposal from the Oak Ridge Housing Authority to revise a Highland View plan to address blight and replace “problem homes” with single-family homes.
As background, in 2013, the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce developed a three-year strategic plan to identify key areas of program focus to further its mission. One of the five key strategic areas identified through that process was residential development.
The Chamber of Commerce formed a strategic task force in early 2014 led by Austin Lance to analyze housing and residential development in Oak Ridge compared to competing communities. Hardy said the Chamber team working under Lance’s leadership began examining “legacy housing” issues in 2014. Their report showed that Oak Ridge’s housing concerns are not confined to legacy homes, Hardy said.
“Essentially, over the years, a large gap has developed in the 22-48 year-old residential age group relative to surrounding zip codes communities and to comparable other USA cities of its size,” Hardy said.
In late 2015, the Chamber of Commerce formally proposed that the City of Oak Ridge “sanction the Chamber…to develop a proposed 10-year vision, mission, and strategy to be presented to the City Council and City Manager as the basis of work for their moving forward with development of a formally adopted 10-year housing development and redevelopment vision, mission, and strategy for the city that will attract the 22-48 year old age group population.”
The project was approved by City Council in March 2016. Deliverables were to include:
- A concise vision statement demonstrating where the City of Oak Ridge will be in 10 years in housing and development.
- A concise mission statement for the City of Oak Ridge related to housing development and redevelopment.
- A strategy to achieve this housing development and redevelopment vision including tactics, initiatives, metrics, and mapping.
At the Chamber’s request, the city manager and mayor appointed three members to the Chamber team. The Housing Study Task Force began its work in March of 2016. Melinda Hillman was chair of the task force.
Housing and the question of how to get more employees to live in Oak Ridge, including those who work at the city’s federal sites, have been long-term issues in Oak Ridge, dating back to at least the 1970s or even the 1960s.
“I don’t think there is any more important issue to the City of Oak Ridge than housing,” Oak Ridge City Council member Kelly Callison said at the work session Tuesday. Housing was one of the issues Callison raised on the campaign trail.
Among the housing concerns that have been raised previously are how to get more U.S. Department of Energy and federal contractor employees to live in Oak Ridge, ensuring that older homes and rental units are adequately maintained and what to do if they’re not, and providing an adequate supply of moderately priced housing.
On Tuesday, city officials said there have been some recent changes to try to address some of the concerns, including the creation of the Oak Ridge Land Bank, stepped-up codes enforcement, the appointment of an administrative hearing officer (he heard a case on Applewood Apartments on Wednesday), and new working policies and a neighborhood stabilization program. There has also been some help from outside agencies, including the Tennessee Valley Authority and Tennessee Housing Development Agency.
“It’s a really big boat,” Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin said. “How quickly can we turn it around?” she asked rhetorically Tuesday.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See the Housing Report here: Chamber Housing Report 2017 FINAL.
See the PowerPoint presentation to City Council here: City Council Housing Report Presentation.
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