JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – By next spring, Army veteran Roland Smith and Keena Mathes will be neighbors on East Myrtle Avenue, directly across from Langston Center – Mathes in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home that Habitat is building for Humanity and Smith were married in a two-bedroom apartment built by the Appalachia Service Project (ASP).
“I have a 16-year-old son who can come visit and have his own bedroom,” said Smith, who is disabled and has completed several trips in the Middle East. He moved to Johnson City a few years ago and lived in the dorm at Mountain Home VA Medical Center before learning about programs that can help motivated veterans move from homelessness to home ownership.
Smith is doing compensated occupational therapy (CWT) at the VA to help him get back into the workforce. He also hopes to help build the house that he said will be his forever home. It will arrive fully framed and ready for plumbing, electrical and other interior work a few weeks after a group of university students framed it in ASP’s ‘Race to Build’ at Bristol Motor Speedway later this week.
“We can grill in the front yard, backyard. I can have company and I can feel like I own something besides my car.”
Just like Mathes, who told News Channel 11 last week her home is “something I dreamed of,” Smith will be living in a block that ASP CEO Walter Crouch, Habitat executive director Laura Kelley and other partners are using as a test case for consider accelerating affordable home renovations in certain locations in Johnson City.
“This really is finally the reality of a dream we’ve had for many years among nonprofit leaders in the area,” Crouch told News Channel 11 as Smith surveyed the vacant lot that his home will soon stand on.
The lots, which now have a foundation and construction piles, are flanked by two additional small, empty lots. It may look run down at the moment, but Crouch and his colleagues see nothing but promise.
“That vision was that we work together to renovate areas of the community, restore areas of the community, and focusing on one block at a time seems to work well,” Crouch said. “The city works with us, we have three other nonprofits that work with ASP.”
Besides Habitat, the others are the Eastern Eight Community Development Corp. and the First Tennessee Development District.
But even if the leaders of these groups click on all cylinders, Crouch said, increasing the pace of affordable housing as median prices force many people out of the market also requires local government involvement. Johnson City Assistant City Manager Randy Trivette said the city is focused on “reinvigorating our politics a little bit” so more projects like what’s starting to happen on Myrtle can happen.
“We’re very conscious of the fact that we need affordable housing in Johnson City, and we’re working to improve infrastructure, we’re looking for those communities where that kind of focus is possible,” Trivette said.
He called the Myrtle Avenue effort “a very good test case” to see if a focused effort can be developed in other parts of the city.
“Because of our[Community Development Block Grant]funding that we receive each year, we allocate specific funds to these agencies, and we have other properties across the city that they’ve identified and located that they’re buying and building other homes.” . ‘ Trivette said.
Crouch is all about it. He said the young Johnson City model is being watched with interest in other Appalachian cities where ASP operates, including Charleston and Huntington, West Virginia.
“I really love the idea that we’re able to restore modest homes in the community without ending up with some of the bad things that sometimes happen with gentrification, where cheaper housing is pushed out of the market and out for people.” are not affordable,” Crouch said.
“I think it’s a great model. It’s restoring communities in a way that keeps the community’s diverse population in place where first-time homeowners, retirees and people like that have affordable housing, and I think it’s just a great project.”
He won’t get an argument from Smith, whom Crouch called “an incredible human being” who’s trying to start his life over in a way that he can give back.
“This will definitely be my forever home,” Smith said. “This is where I will put down my roots.”
Crouch said he hopes Smith and Mathes will have other new neighbors in a couple of years – perhaps in the adjacent vacant lots.
“I would say there’s going to be four or five new homes around here, and four or five new homes on a block downtown makes a big difference.”
Crouch and his colleagues at the other nonprofits are already touring around Johnson City and Washington County.
“The borough mayor (Joe Grandy) is going to help us all sit together because it requires city-borough collaboration,” he said. “Usually these are properties that the county or city has taken for back taxes, but the will is there. They work together to subcontract alimony for a lot of things and things like that, so I’m very encouraged.
“I think there will be a lot more plots that will be made available to nonprofit organizations to help families get into homes in an affordable way.”
Smith said he knew what he was going to do once he settled in. It’s not about sitting on that porch a lot.
“It gives me satisfaction to know that I have a roof over my head and a place to live, and I can also reach out and help other people when it is needed.”