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Knoxville, Tennessee: Minvilla Manor Historic Rehabilitation

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Knoxville, Tennessee: Minvilla Manor Historic Rehabilitation


Minvilla Manor is a 57-unit, Energy Star®-certified permanent supportive housing development in Knoxville, Tennessee. The project unites the goals of historic preservation and community development to address the housing needs of chronically homeless persons. The success of this project demonstrates the importance of local leadership in fostering solutions to one of the nation’s most pressing problems, and the rehabilitation of the building is symbolic of the transformative power that “housing first” strategies can have on chronically homeless persons. The quality of the rehabilitation at Minvilla Manor earned the project the 2011 National Trust/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

Project Context and History

Located on a prominent corner in Knoxville, the Fifth Avenue Motel was an eyesore along a major north-south access into downtown. Squatters lived in the buildings, and several small fires caused extensive damage to the property. The motel, which had been converted from townhouses in the 1960s, was condemned by the city in 2002. Exposed to the elements following years of neglect, the motel had deteriorated both inside and out. Despite its diminished condition, the property held significant historic value to the city. The two buildings formed an L-shape at the intersection of North Broadway and West Fifth Avenue, and reflected a unique residential development style of the early 20th century that had stretched out from downtown Knoxville along streetcar lines.1 Amid concerns from the historic preservation community that the buildings would be demolished, the city placed a historic overlay on the property to prevent the buildings from being razed.2

In the years that followed the property’s condemnation, several developers considered residential and commercial projects for the site, but none was able to produce a viable proposal. The location, just north of the city’s downtown, was partially to blame; the disconnected land use pattern, vacant lots, and empty storefronts that lined North Broadway as it emerges from the Interstate 40 overpass did not inspire a vibrant business environment. Moreover, the area was stigmatized due to the relative concentration of homeless individuals who congregated along North Broadway seeking services from the faith-based organizations located nearby.

As with many places in the United States, the growth of homelessness in Knoxville was a growing concern for city leadership and residents. In 1986, the city partnered with Knox County to undertake the first homeless count; approximately 800 individuals were counted. By 2004, the population had doubled to over 1,900 individuals.3 In response to the increasing problem, and following the lead of the Federal Interagency Council on Homelessness, the city and county collaborated in developing the Knoxville and Knox County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness (Ten-Year Plan).4 The Ten-Year Plan coordinates efforts among social service providers and prioritizes a “housing first” strategy as a key programmatic focus. The housing first model leverages permanent supportive housing to help effectively manage many of the root causes of chronic homelessness, including mental illness, chemical addictions, and employment, yet housing assistance is not conditional on participation in supportive social programs. This model contrasts with many traditional approaches that focus on treatment first and then build toward permanent housing after stable periods in transitional housing.5

As part of the strategic framework for addressing the issue, the Ten-Year Plan designated the Volunteer Ministry Center (VMC) of Knoxville as the lead organization for the development of new supportive housing units. The role suited the organization; VMC operated a 16-unit supportive housing facility and made the integration of housing and case management the core of its work with the homeless population. As the organization planned to move its offices to a new location along North Broadway, it identified the Fifth Avenue Motel as a potential site for permanent supportive housing.

Planning and Financing

With the identification of the Fifth Avenue Motel as a possible supportive housing site, VMC began work toward achieving the goals of the Ten-Year Plan while simultaneously meeting the city’s interest in putting the blighted buildings at the intersection of North Broadway and Fifth Avenue to productive use. City leadership supported the proposal and viewed the project as the cornerstone of its efforts to create housing opportunities for the chronically homeless. In 2006, VMC received $460,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds from the city to acquire the property and begin planning and preliminary demolition work on the most deteriorated elements of the building.

The CDBG allocation provided critical financing leverage and the Ten-Year Plan was instrumental in building partnerships to fund the project. Although VMC had experience in operating supportive housing facilities, the organization lacked the technical capacity to secure the necessary financing for the project. VMC subsequently partnered with the newly formed Southeastern Housing Foundation to structure a financing package for the project and to manage the bricks and mortar components of the rehabilitation process. The task ultimately amounted to securing over $7 million to transform the decrepit motel buildings into 57 units of housing and supportive services.

Minvilla Manor was well positioned to receive a variety of federal, state, and locally administered funding. This was largely due to the city’s commitment to ending chronic homelessness and to the historic nature of the buildings. In addition to the initial CDBG allocation of $460,000, the city contributed another $100,000 in CDBG funds and the county contributed $250,000 from its CDBG program. The city further committed to Minvilla by allocating $975,000 from its Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) funding toward the project. Because the property was blighted and the project would serve low-income individuals, it qualified as an eligible use of NSP money.

Along with local, state, and federal funds, the developer used both historic and low-income housing tax credits to generate over $3.5 million of equity for the project. The rehabilitation was eligible for historic tax credits (HTC) based upon its evaluation of significance by the National Park Service. The HTC contributed about $1.2 million of equity to the project. The 4 percent low-income housing tax credits financed by the sale of private tax exempt bonds produced the balance of the equity for the project, generating approximately $2.4 million toward the rehabilitation. The capital generated, using both types of tax credits, was maximized through the use of a “sandwich lease” agreement. The complicated financing structure preserved close to $400,000 in LIHTC equity by allowing the qualifying basis for the low-income tax credit allocation to be calculated exclusive of the historic tax credit equity contributed to the project.6

Design and Rehabilitation

When Minvilla Manor was originally converted from two-story townhouses to a motel in the 1960s, the buildings underwent significant exterior and interior alterations. The front porches were enclosed by an exterior wall, and the buildings were painted white, concealing much of the articulation of the townhouses’ projecting front bays. To accommodate motel rooms, corridors were installed on the inside, running the length of the buildings’ first and second stories, bisecting the original floor plans of the townhouses.7 Reconciling the buildings’ distinctive past presented a rehabilitation challenge when the motel was converted into a permanent supportive housing development.

A significant rehabilitation challenge was restoring the original facade of the buildings to reveal the porches that were enclosed back in the 1960s. However, the rehab was not as simple as removing the exterior walls, as the porches had suffered years of neglect and damage. In some instances, the original tongue and groove wood floors were replaced, and in one case, an entire porch roof was rebuilt. Many original brick piers had to be repaired and detailed craftsmanship was required to restore the original bead board ceilings, molding, and trim.

Although the exterior presented challenges relating to the restoration and preservation of structure and materials, the changes made to the interior of the buildings in the 1960s influenced Minvilla’s future use. For the most part, the rehab of both buildings followed the floor plan established by the motel; a corridor split the original floor of each townhouse into two separate housing units. The larger of the two buildings, which runs east-west along West Fifth Avenue, contains 47 of the project’s 57 units. The first and second floors follow the same plan, with 10 efficiency units on the north side of the corridor and nine 1-bedroom units on the south side. Nine additional one-bedroom units were built in the previously uninhabited basement by lowering the floor and increasing ceiling heights to allow the units to meet current building code regulations.

With the majority of the housing units located on West Fifth Avenue, the building along North Broadway was redesigned to accommodate supportive services and an additional 10 apartments. Staff offices, along with the single controlled access point to the property, are located on the buildings’ first floor. Amenities for residents, which include a computer and community gathering room, as well as a kitchen for preparing group meals, are also located on the first floor. The design for these programmatic elements was influenced by visits VMC staff made to supportive housing projects across the country. The best-designed facilities use a central access point and community spaces to foster interaction among staff and residents.

A critical element of Minvilla’s rehabilitation was the unification of the two buildings to create a single facility. It would not have been practical, or financially feasible, to operate the facility as two separate buildings. A corridor was built to connect the two structures, and stairs and an elevator were installed to negotiate the grade change between the two buildings. The corridor’s exterior maintains the aesthetic qualities of the historic brick facade and seamlessly unites the two distinct structures.

Sustainable Housing Solution

The rehabilitation of Minvilla Manor is a model sustainable housing solution for several reasons. Most importantly, the development provides housing stability to 57 chronically homeless individuals in Knoxville and the greater region. Since opening in 2010, the housing retention rate for Minvilla residents is 92 percent.8 This retention rate is consistent with other research on housing first programs that show similar levels of housing stability are achieved in housing first programs.9 Housing first programs have also been shown to provide financial savings on public services by significantly reducing the costs associated with chronic homelessness.10 11

Along with promoting social and fiscal sustainability, the Minvilla Manor project promotes energy efficiency through the reuse of existing structures and the Energy Star certification of all 57 units in the building.12 In addition to utilizing the embedded energy investments in the existing buildings, the Minvilla rehabilitation included new insulation and caulking to improve the energy efficiency, as well as installation of double-paned, energy-efficient windows designed to visually match the originals. Efficient appliances were installed in all the units and the buildings include high-efficiency, ductless heating and cooling systems. The energy cost savings accrued from these improvements help manage the facility’s operating costs and allow VMC to devote more resources to supportive services.

Experience Gained

The transformative power of the rehabilitation goes well beyond the physical improvements made to the buildings. For many of the 57 residents of Minvilla Manor, the project has provided them with a safe, secure home for the first time in years. The resulting stability has been a source of empowerment for the formerly homeless residents. Following one tenant’s lead, a group of Minvilla residents established a community garden in the open space behind the building, and many residents have participated in volunteer projects in the local neighborhood. Minvilla’s proximity to bus lines and a variety of amenities — the location receives a walkability rating of “very walkable” from the website — allows residents to shop for groceries and address other needs. Minvilla has served as a stepping stone to securing employment and independent housing for two residents.

Minvilla’s benefits extend beyond the project’s walls to exert a positive influence on the larger community. The investment made in the property has contributed to retention of local businesses and has helped catalyze the city’s efforts to revitalize North Broadway and the surrounding neighborhoods.13 The initial CDBG allocation for the acquisition of Minvilla spurred city leadership to create a redevelopment plan that includes the project site within a larger area designated as “Downtown North.”14 The plan promotes neighborhood economic development through the city’s CDBG funded Façade Improvement Program, works to prioritize streetscape and infrastructure investments throughout the study area, and has helped the city acquire additional federal funds critical to the redevelopment plan. In 2011, the city was awarded a $400,000 Community-Wide Brownfield Assessment grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to identify sites in the planning area that are suitable for redevelopment;15 this site identification process is critical to steering private sector investments.16

The project has also helped change some local residents’ perceptions of what permanent supportive housing means to a community. Board members of a local neighborhood group that originally opposed the project have held executive meetings in the community room at Minvilla, suggesting that rather than being a divisive force, the project has brought people together. For local leaders, the project has demonstrated the benefits of planning, coordination, and building partnerships to address the challenges of providing housing opportunities for chronically homeless persons. Knoxville’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness and the leadership of city and county governments provided critical leverage to ensuring Minvilla’s success.

Primary Financing

Low-Income Housing Tax Credits


Historic Tax Credits


Neighborhood Stabilization Program


Community Development Block Grant
(City of Knoxville and Knox County)


HUD Supportive Housing Program


Tennessee Housing Development
Authority Housing Trust Fund




Development Team


Southeastern Housing Foundation
Volunteer Ministry Center


Allan Associates Architects

General Contractor

Wood Brothers Construction

  1. Knox Heritage, Inc. July 2010. “United States Department of the Interior; National Park Service: National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form 10-900, OMB No. 10024-0018, for Fifth Avenue Motel; Minvilla Manor.”

  2. Internal documents provided by Volunteer Ministry Center.

  3. Part of this population increase was likely a result of the count methodology.

  4. The Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness Task Force. October 2005. “The Knoxville and Knox County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.”

  5. Carol L. Pearson, Gretchen Locke, Ann Elizabeth Montgomery, and Larry Buron. 2007. “The Applicability of Housing First Models to Homeless Persons with Serious Mental Illness.” Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research.

  6. Internal project documents provided by David Arning, Southeastern Housing Foundation.

  7. Knox Heritage, Inc.

  8. Internal data provided by Volunteer Ministry Center.

  9. Sam Tsemberis, Leyla Gulcur, and Maria Nakae. 2004. “Housing first, consumer choice, and harm reduction for homeless individuals with a dual diagnosis.” American Journal of Public Health, 94:4, 651-656.

  10. Jennifer Perlman and John Parvensky. December 2006. “Denver Housing First Collaborative: Cost Benefit Analysis and Program Outcomes Report.” Report prepared for the Denver Housing First Collaborative.

  11. Mary E. Larimer, Daniel K. Malone, Michelle D. Garner et al. 2009. “Health Care and Public Service Use and Costs Before and After Provision of Housing for Chronically Homeless Persons With Severe Alcohol Problems.” The Journal of the American Medical Association, 301:13, 1349-1357.

  12. Preservation Green Lab. 2011. “The Greenest Building: Quantifying the Environmental Value of Building Reuse.” Report prepared for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

  13. E-mail correspondence, Ginny Weatherstone, Volunteer Ministry Center, and David Arning, Southeastern Housing Foundation, 8 March 2012.

  14. Interview with the City of Knoxville’s Department of Community Development staff, 13 March 2012; City of Knoxville, Tennessee. October 2010. “Proposal to the Environmental Protection Agency for Brownfields Assessment Grant Funds for the Downtown North Redevelopment Area.”

  15. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. May 2011. “Brownfields 2011 Assessment Fact Sheet: Knoxville, TN.”

  16. American Planning Association. “Reuse: Creating Community-Based Brownfield Redevelopment Strategies.”