Two parks control floods, host families

10:21 p.m. The crescent moon appears next to the Johnson City sign glowing above King Commons Park.

The living wage for one adult living in Johnson City without children is $12.56 an hour or about $26,130 per year before taxes.

That’s according to a calculator developed by Amy Glasmeier, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.

The tool tracks the living wage in hundreds of cities and counties across the United States and takes into account the cost of necessities like housing, childcare, health insurance and food.

This living wage model does not, however, include the cost of meals at restaurants, unpaid vacations or setting aside earnings for savings or investments.

The results of the 2020 census show that Johnson City has reached 71,000 people, and as the city gradually grows, residents have expressed concern about the affordability of basic needs.

For a single adult with one child, the living wage in Johnson City is $24.97 an hour or $51,946 per year before taxes.

Talking about ALICE

Compared to fellow counties in Northeast Tennessee, Washington County has a lower proportion of households that struggle to afford basic needs. On average, it’s comparable to the state as a whole.

In 2018, 43% of Washington County’s 54,000 households either lived below the poverty line or were part of the ALICE population, according to data from United Way. Statewide, 47% of households live below the ALICE threshold.

ALICE stands for “asset limited, income constrained, employed” and describes households that earn enough to stay above the federal poverty line but not enough to afford basic household necessities.

Specifically, about 17% of Washington County households live below the poverty line and 26% are part of the ALICE population, which puts the county fairly in line with averages across the United States.

In 2018, 13% of the 121 million households nationwide lived below the poverty line and 29% were part of the ALICE population.

Looking specifically at Washington County’s neighbors in Northeast Tennessee, the proportion of families at or below the ALICE threshold ranges from a low of 50% in Unicoi County to 62% in Johnson County.

Over the long-term, regional figures haven’t changed drastically, said Leslie Salling, the president and CEO of the United Way of the East Tennessee Highlands.

“But that being said, they weren’t great before,” she said.

Tennessee is tied with Alabama for the fifth-highest number of families who fall in either the ALICE category or below the poverty line.

What about housing?

Between 2015-19, about 44.5% of all renters in Johnson City spent 30% or more of their income on housing — more than the recommended amount. Almost 23% spent half or more of their income on housing.

Johnson City Development Services Director Preston Mitchell said the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is $752, meaning 40% of similar units charge a rate at or below that figure.

There are about 14,000 rental units in Johnson City. Of those, 2,600 charge more than $1,000 a month, 6,600 units charge less than $750 and fewer than 2,000 units charge $500 a month.

As more ongoing rental projects wrap up over the next several years, Mitchell expects the fair market rent for one-, two- and three-bedroom units will increase.

“The problem then is, will income grow at the same rate?” he said.

Mitchell said it’s up to the city to work with non-profit and for-profit builders to find creative ways to facilitate affordable housing. That could be through funding resources like Community Development Block Grants.

Private developers, he noted, can have a difficult time making affordable housing feasible. Apartments are growing more expensive, he said, because of the cost of land, materials and labor.

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David Floyd covers Johnson City government, Johnson City schools and Ballad Health for the Johnson City Press. He grew up in East Tennessee and graduated from ETSU, where he was the executive editor of the school paper.

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