Fighting for (and sometimes with) Mechanicsville: Bentley Marlow builds

Betty BeanInside 640, Knox Scene

Ten years ago, a young Mechanicsville resident sent an op-ed column to the News Sentinel refuting the claim that Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation had transformed public housing by replacing College Homes apartments with government-subsidized single-family homes. Robert Bentley Marlow just wasn’t buying the HOPE VI hype:

“From my front porch on Douglas Avenue, the so-called success is not so clear. In fact, while Knoxville’s Community Development Corp. and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam were celebrating their accomplishments recently, another shooting occurred on Cansler Avenue – a mere four blocks from their party.”

Marlow, who is from Crossville, discovered Mechanicsville in 2000 when he was a UT philosophy student looking for an apartment. The historically significant neighborhood north of Ft. Sanders and west of downtown was convenient, affordable and interesting enough to make him willing to overlook its reputation for crime and violence.

Today he not only lives in “the Ville,” but owns 30 houses, many of which he has restored to add to the inventory of his thriving rental business. He also owns seven vacant lots and is one of the largest property owners in the neighborhood (behind KCDC and the 14 churches located there). He figures that he owns about eight percent of the “dirt” in Mechanicsville, plus two shotgun houses in nearby Oakwood.

In the beginning …

A lot has happened to Marlow between 2000 and now, like the night in 2008 when he was walking home from downtown listening to music via a set of earbuds, unable to hear the sound of approaching footsteps.

“A couple of drug dealers came up behind me with a T-ball bat and a broom and beat the hell out of me. I lost two teeth, and the police did nothing for the next two months,” he said. A couple of years before that, another guy had bludgeoned Marlow’s dog to death in his front yard. He decided to take action.

His first instinct was to try to make city officials pay attention.

“I love this area, and my first response was to become a letter-writing fool. I thought Mechanicsville just needed a champion. Boy, was I naive.”

He attempted, without success, to get the attention of his state representative, Joe Armstrong, before moving on to his state senator, Tim Burchett, who met with him and invited Police Chief Sterling Owen, as well. Marlow told them about wide-open drug dealing and prostitution, people knocking on drivers’ windows at intersections offering dope and/or women.

“You could call 911 because of gunshots and nobody shows up,” Marlow said.

“Two to three weeks later, I heard a KABOOM!! It was a concussion grenade thrown in the door at 310 Douglas,” an address he had complained about.

“I was a flaming liberal Democrat in those days, but I couldn’t even get a meeting with Armstrong, which taught me the value of who you know and being in the right place at the right time,” he said.

His other course of action was to fix up the neighborhood a house or two at a time. He’d already been part of a group that bought, repaired and sold a house in Mechanicsville in 2006, a “short sell” deal structured so the bank wouldn’t try to collect the difference from the elderly owner who was forced to sell.

He bought his first condemned house in 2008, but wasn’t able to get it rebuilt until 2014, partly because of financing difficulties, partly because of “my limited understanding to how serious the city took condemned homes.” At one point, things got so contentious with city codes inspectors that he chained himself to the house’s frame to stop its demolition.

He kept buying a house or two a year, including the former home of the guy who killed his dog in 2004 and a Fannie Mae-owned house that twice failed to sell at auction. In 2014, a college friend who’d made a fortune in the tech industry noticed what he was doing and offered him a $250,000 line of credit. The following year he bought two vacant houses, including a $45,000 purchase at 1314 Boyd St. – his most expensive purchase to date.

His current project is a house on Cansler that belonged to one of the men who attacked him in 2008.

Although he is, by definition, a developer, he says he is mostly a neighbor – not a gentrifier.

“I never started out with aspirations to own half of the neighborhood. I just got tired of drug dealers and prostitutes and waking up to find my dog dead in the front yard. I am astonished that I’ve been able to amass what I have,” he said.

And he wants to make something else clear:

“I have never bought a house and forced someone out. With the exception of five houses, they were vacant houses when I bought them.”

Additionally, he makes some of his houses, the ones that he hasn’t yet sunk big bucks into converting into luxury units (shiny butcher-block countertops, fancy tiled bathrooms, etc.), available on a “very selective” basis through a 501(c)(3) called Marlow Charities to homeless individuals who are willing and able to work and learn trade-skills from his for-profit Marlow Properties LLC.

“I have one legacy tenant who has a ‘pay when you can’ kind of policy with a stated rent rate of $500 per month on a two-bedroom unit,” Marlow said.

Marlow doesn’t anticipate that Mechaniscville will ever get trendy, like Fourth and Gill or Old North – too many houses in government hands, too many non-taxpaying churches, too much racism embedded in the culture. But that’s not going to deter him from fighting crime, raising hell with the government and fixing up houses in the neighborhood he calls home.

Learn more about Marlow Properties here.

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