Knoxville needs more housing, but rezoning for the missing middle proves challenging
Many Knoxville residents love their neighborhoods, but as more students and young professionals flock to the area, change is inevitable. It’s a tension that the city and the planning commission are trying to balance as they seek solutions to improve conditions in the housing market.
In historic neighborhoods like Old North and Fourth & Gill, neighborhood organizations are wary of zoning changes.
“If this is going to happen on vacant lots then I think this is great,” said Fourth & Gill resident Bob Whetsel at a recent commission meeting. “But, it also puts the 280 historic properties at risk for the conversions. It has happened in the past and it took us 50 years to work our way out of it. We are very concerned about going down that road again.”
Despite the hesitancy, most residents understand that with more housing demand, current zoning laws are not sustainable.
A study conducted by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research found that Knox County saw a growth of around 7,700 residents from 2021 to 2022. The city of Knoxville saw an increase of 1.2%, its highest growth since the 1970s.
“The challenge is the zoning,” said Cheryl Ball, deputy policy officer for the city. “It is prohibitive for building this type of housing and so that is what we are planning to address is how our zoning can support this type of housing better.” Ball helped plan the proposal and research missing middle housing options. The city has held a number of open houses to collect feedback as well.
The proposed zoning change would allow multi-family homes like duplexes and triplexes to be built in traditional residential neighborhoods that currently only allow for single family homes.
A study commissioned by the city, as well as the Knoxville-Knox County Planning, from Opticos Design, highlighted neighborhoods where missing middle housing would work. The study recommended size requirements for lots, as well as design standards to maintain the look of the neighborhood.
The study designates plots of land of certain dimensions in selected neighborhoods for use, as well as single-family homes in these neighborhoods that homeowners chose to convert into multi-family homes.
Proponents of the plan argue that zoning changes would allow for an increase in the housing supply that is at a potentially different price point than traditional single family homes. Opponents of the change say it may change the feel of neighborhoods due to the possibility for larger buildings and parking lots.
Public comments left during the open houses held by the city expressed concern that while the proposed housing would increase the supply, there was no guarantee the new houses would actually be affordable.
Recently, a proposed housing complex in Choto Landing was revoked by the developer after the neighborhood protested the plan. The proposed unit of 56 townhouses would have housed residents who earn less than $70,000 a year.
Some stakeholders say the missing middle plans are too rushed.
“We need more conversation. This proposal is limited in its scope and also has some deficiencies that I think need to be addressed before we move forward,” said Hancen Sale, government affairs and chief policy director for the East Tennessee Realtors. “Ultimately, if we want to see ‘missing middle’ we need a good plan and not just pass something because it makes us feel good.”
Commissioner Tim Hill, co-founder of Hatcher-Hill Properties, a commercial and mixed-use real estate development company, supports the proposal, but agreed with a longer planning period.
“I am not in opposition to this, I could very likely support it,” he said. “I am really concerned that we may not have vetted this. I don’t see how a little more planning could hurt.”
It’s a debate playing out around the country. Cities like Fort Worth, Texas, and Seattle, are among those that passed zoning changes this year to allow for more multi-family housing. But in Arlington County, Virginia, a group of homeowners is suingthe county board following the passage of a rezoning plan.
Knoxville city officials recognize that zoning for missing middle housing is only part of the solution.
“It is not going to solve our housing crisis by any means,” said Knoxville’s communications director Kristen Farley. “But being able to add a duplex or a small cottage complex that will house four families or 16 families in neighborhoods where they would support that scale and that infrastructure,” she said.
The Knoxville Planning Commission voted to postpone the proposal until Dec. 14 for potential extra research and to reevaluate and possibly change areas of the proposal. If it passes, the proposal will then go to the Knoxville City Council for approval.
“A lot of what we hear right now is fear,” said Commissioner Karyn Adams. “Fear because we don’t have a lot of models to point to of ‘this is how this worked here really well’.”
Stakeholders do agree that zoning for missing middle is not a final solution, but a step in the process toward housing availability and affordability.