JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — By next spring, Army veteran Roland Smith and Keena Mathes will be neighbors on East Myrtle Avenue, right across from the Langston Centre — Mathes in a three-bedroom, two-bath home built by Habitat for Humanity and Smith in a two-bedroom built by Appalachia Service Project (ASP).

“I have a 16-year-old son who can come and visit and have his own bedroom,” said Smith, who is disabled and served multiple tours in the Middle East. He moved to Johnson City a couple of years ago and lived in the domiciliary at the Mountain Home VA Medical Center before learning about programs that can take motivated veterans from homelessness to homeownership.

Smith performs compensated work therapy (CWT) at the VA to help him get back into the workforce. He’s also hoping to pitch in with home construction on what 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 crew of university students frames it later this week at ASP’s “Race to Build” at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Roland Smith, right, talks with Appalachia Service Project’s Erin Hartley in front of the site where his new home will be completed after a crew frames it this week at Bristol Motor Speedway (WJHL photo)

“We can barbecue in the front yard, back yard. I can have company, and I can feel self-ownership of something besides my car.”

Just like Mathes, who told News Channel 11 last week her home was “something that I dreamed for,” Smith will be living on a block that ASP CEO Walter Crouch, Habitat Executive Director Laura Kelley and other partners see as a test case for accelerating affordable housing redevelopment in targeted spots of Johnson City.

“This is really finally the reality of a dream that we’ve had many years among non-profit leaders in the area,” Crouch told News Channel 11 as Smith surveyed the vacant lot where his home will soon sit.

The lots where a foundation and construction stakes now sit are flanked by two additional small, empty lots. It may look run down right now, but Crouch and his colleagues see nothing but promise.

“That vision was that we work together to renovate areas of the community, to restore areas of the community, and it seems to be working well to focus on one block at a time,” Crouch said. “The city is working with us, we have three other non-profits working with ASP.”

In addition to Habitat, the others are Eastern Eight Community Development Corp. and First Tennessee Development District.

But even with the leaders of those groups clicking together on all cylinders, Crouch said picking up the pace of affordable housing as median prices push many people out of the market takes local government involvement as well. Johnson City Assistant City Manager Randy Trivette said the city is focused on “reinvigorating our policies a little bit” so more projects like what’s starting to happen on Myrtle can occur.

“We’re very much conscious of the fact that we need affordable housing in Johnson City, and we’re working to provide upgrades to infrastructure, we’re looking for these communities where that kind of focus is possible,” Trivette said.

He called the Myrtle Avenue effort “a very good test case” to see if concentrated efforts can be developed in other parts of the city.

“Because of our (Community Development Block Grant) funding that we get every year, we allocate certain funds to these agencies, and we have other properties throughout the city that they’ve identified and located that they’re purchasing and building other houses,” Trivette said.

Crouch is all in. He said the fledgling Johnson City model is being watched with interest in other Appalachian cities where ASP operates, including Charleston and Huntington, West Va.

“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 happen sometimes with gentrification, where lower-priced housing gets pushed out of the market and is not affordable for folks,” Crouch said.

“I think it’s a great model. It restores communities in ways that keeps the varied population of the community in place, where first-time homeowners, retirees, folks like that have affordable housing and I think it’s just a great project.”

He won’t get any argument from Smith, who Crouch called “an incredible human being that’s looking to restart his life in a way where he can give back.”

“This is definitely going to be my forever home,” Smith said. “I’m going to put my roots right here.”

Crouch said he hopes Smith and Mathes will have some additional new neighbors within a couple of years — maybe on those adjacent empty lots.

“I would say there’s going to be four or five new homes right around here, and in a block in the city, four or five new homes makes a huge difference.”

Crouch and his colleagues at the other non-profits are already scouting around Johnson City and Washington County.

“The county mayor (Joe Grandy) is going to help us all sit down together because it does take cooperation between city and county,” he said. “Usually these are lots that have been taken by the county or city because of back taxes, but the will is there. They’re working together to forgive liens of upkeep of a lot and things like that, so I’m very encouraged.

“I think there’s going to be a lot more lots made available to non-profits to help families get into homes in an affordable way.”

Smith said he knows what he’ll be doing once he’s settled in. It doesn’t involve sitting on that porch much.

“It gives me satisfaction knowing that I have a roof over my head and shelter, and I can also reach out and help other people if I need to.”