A two-year-old effort to repair or redevelop blighted and abandoned homes in Oak Ridge is making above-average progress, an official said in November.
The Oak Ridge Land Bank Corporation, the first of its kind in Tennessee, has sold two homes and donated two and has more listed, board chair Charlie Jernigan said.
Other land banks around the country haven’t had any sales until their third year.
“We’re ahead of that curve,” Jernigan said after a November 6 work session on housing at the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, the second this year.
The nonprofit Land Bank is associated with the City of Oak Ridge. It takes tax-delinquent, blighted, and abandoned properties and rehabilitates or redevelops them, and tries to get them back on the property tax rolls. Its highest priorities are to increase home ownership and stabilize neighborhoods. The Land Bank can also do something useful with the properties in the meantime.
About 65 people attended the November work session. They included real estate agents, bankers, developers, government officials, representatives of nonprofit organizations, and residents. They shared success stories and pitched ideas and ranked priorities for building partnerships, among other topics.
The Land Bank can’t do the work alone, Jernigan said, so it is building partnerships with realtors, bankers, and developers. The goal is to ensure those partners have a stake and can make some money, and to help the Land Bank, which also has bills, be able to do a little bit more than break even.
One success story shared by local officials this year is a collaboration between the Land Bank and First Place Finish, a contractor. That partnership resulted in renovations at a home at 175 Outer Drive in north-central Oak Ridge. After the renovations were complete, the home sold at full price after only two days on the market, Jernigan said.
Among other improvements, the Outer Drive renovations included painting, removing a living room wall, refinishing the original wood floor, and installing new fixtures in several rooms and new hardware and countertops in the kitchen.
The Land Bank has also donated two adjacent properties combined into a large lot to Aid to Distressed Families of Appalachian Counties. And the corporation is accumulating properties on Wade Lane and Waddell Place in the Highland View neighborhood.
Jernigan said developers like to work on a group of properties, as opposed to redeveloping a single home at a time, but the properties don’t have to be adjacent.
He said housing is the top issue in Oak Ridge that is not adequately addressed. Jernigan led the initiative for a Land Bank, which required state legislative approval.
As of early November, the Land Bank owned 12 properties, with six “in the pipeline,” and three more coming. They had sold two properties, donated two, and had more listed.
Oak Ridge has a unique problem: About half of its homes were built roughly 70 years ago, during World War II, as part of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret effort to build the world’s first atomic weapons. It’s not clear that the houses were meant to be permanent structures, but many are still inhabited today. They are densely concentrated in a tight geographic area and are often set at an angle from the street, and many lack off-street parking.
The other half of Oak Ridge homes are of varying type and age.
Oak Ridge Community Development Director Kathryn Baldwin said the Land Bank is one of several tools available to the city to improve housing. Others include the Oak Ridge Housing Authority, Community Development, and Neighborhood Watch.
“We’ve established a beachhead, but we have to be focused, persistent, and we have to have community support,” Baldwin said when asked about the success of the Land Bank. “We’ve acknowledged the problem, and we’re taking steps to fix it.”
Among other things, code enforcement can help, but the city has a limited number of inspectors so calls from residents can help located troubled properties, she said.
“Let us know where distressed properties are,” Baldwin said.
Some of the so-called “legacy homes,” the older homes, are not in good shape. In some cases, officials have said, they have been passed down from one generation to the next and are now owned by people who no longer live in Oak Ridge and might not have an interest in ensuring the property remains in good condition. In other cases, they are owned by people who are no longer able to maintain their properties due to health or age.
Jernigan said as many as 50 percent of the homes in some neighborhoods are rentals, and about one-third of rentals are vacant. Some may not be rentable, he said.
Still, there are many homes in Oak Ridge’s older neighborhoods that are well-maintained, or have been renovated.
Officials have said housing issues affect other quality-of-life measurements, including the number of children in free and reduced lunch programs and crime statistics.
Among the proposals that came up at the November 6 work session were:
- developing multiple lots or whole cul-de-sacs and not limiting redevelopments to single-family homes,
- meeting more often,
- increasing cooperation between the Land Bank and Oak Ridge Housing Authority,
- stepping up code enforcement activity,
- entering partnerships with Anderson and Roane counties,
- changing the perception and narrative of Oak Ridge, and
- providing more affordable housing for families who earn incomes in the $25,000-$40,000 range.
Jernigan said there could be another housing work session in six months.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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