Knoxville, like so many other American cities, is facing an unprecedented housing crisis. Long renowned as a bastion of affordability, Knoxville has experienced soaring home prices and rents over the past decade, pushing homeownership out of reach for many residents and leaving others unable to find a place to live at all.
As the gap between income and housing costs continues to widen, we must confront a bleak reality. This crisis touches the lives of our friends and neighbors and many of our city’s most essential workers – those who keep our community safe, teach our children and respond to our medical emergencies.
While there is no one solution to Knoxville’s housing woes, part of the answer lies in our collective political will to make the tough decisions required for change.
At its core, today’s housing crisis is the byproduct of an imbalance of supply and demand.
The root causes of this crisis are multifaceted, a complex web of market forces, regulatory barriers and mere circumstance. While certain elements are unique to our time, today’s housing crisis was set in motion years ago – induced by both the global financial crisis and a series of well-intentioned but counterproductive land-use policies.
In the wake of the 2007-2008 recession, new construction collapsed and thousands of skilled trades workers exited the industry for good, crippling the homebuilding industry’s ability to produce new housing at the scale needed to match household growth. This problem was further exacerbated by restrictive zoning laws that outlaw the types of housing that defined American cities prior to the 1940s. Those laws continue to hold us back.
Current zoning codes are relics of a bygone era. They continue to compound the housing shortage by mandating large lots and outlawing everything but single-family homes and large apartment buildings, constraining the housing supply and driving up prices.
‘Not in my backyard’ and the politics of growth
Changing these laws seems like an obvious solution, but the fraught politics of zoning often stand in the way.
Opinion polling shows an overwhelming majority of residents believe housing is too expensive and that we need more. More than two-thirds of Knox County voters believe that “increasing the amount of housing that is affordable for most families” should be a top priority for local government, according to a recent poll.
However, support for housing wanes when the conversation turns to where it should be located. Each time new housing is proposed, scores of neighborhood groups attend public meetings to argue that their neighborhoods have no room for growth. While these sentiments aren’t always rooted in malice and arise from genuine concerns, many of the fears expressed in public meetings are unlikely and reflect an aversion to change. They also fail to acknowledge that the only proven way to stop growth, and thus housing demand, is to make one’s community undesirable – a reality that most can agree is an unacceptable path forward.
Yet these views too often drive our decision-making.
In this way, our system fails to represent the broader public interest, as research indicates participants in public hearings tend to be older, wealthier and more opposed to housing development than the general public – meaning those with the most influence over where and what type of housing gets built are often the least affected by rising housing costs.
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While our elected leaders have an obligation to listen earnestly to residents’ concerns, they also have a duty to grapple with uncomfortable realities. When we say no to new housing, who are we really saying no to? Is it the young family looking for their first home, the retiree searching for an affordable place to spend their golden years or the young professionals who will define our city’s future?
This moment requires political courage
The evidence is clear. Our community has for a decade failed to produce the amount of housing we need – a symptom of structural impediments and a land-use system that doesn’t require us to think systematically about our housing needs.
To dismantle these barriers, our elected leaders must not just listen, but also lead. They must recognize the danger of mistaking loudness for consensus and find the political courage to seek necessary reforms, refusing to allow our city’s affordability to erode under the weight of its own regulations.
This isn’t a call for unfettered development. It’s a call for thoughtful, deliberate change that honors Knoxville’s heritage while also adapting to its future needs.
The choice is ours, and the time for action is now.
Hancen Sale, East Tennessee REALTORS governmental affairs and policy director, bridges the gap between the real estate industry and government to shape policies that affect REALTORS, East Tennesseans and the housing market.