published Friday, October 5th, 2012

David Cook: Building downtown for everyone

Debbie and Sam McKinney opened their kitchen stove. The inside — dark, without a working stove bulb — looked like it was moving. As if it was alive, but nightmarishly so.

Roaches. Hundreds of them. Scuttling, racing across the stove walls. Large like fingers, small as the letters in this sentence. Crawling in and out of their toaster. Caught in spiderwebs.

The infestation is haunting. When Debbie puts down her coffee cup, she always covers it with a book or coaster so roaches don't crawl in. She's stopped bringing food to potluck dinners at church.

"The last time I took something to church, when I pulled the lid off, there were bugs in it," she said.

Then she began to cry. Again.

The McKinneys are poor, paying more than half their monthly income toward their $500 rent. They're about to be homeless, set to be evicted at the end of the month.

They also live in the heart of downtown. Blocks away from restaurants, coffeeshops, museums, the movie theater. Chances are, you've walked right by their apartment complex.

"We don't know where any other low-income housing is in town," said Sam.


Within the McKinneys' story we find the paradox of choice facing many working-class Chattanoogans, where living downtown means either paying more than what's affordable in rent or living in substandard conditions ... or moving away.

On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to have a first reading on the Affordable Housing Ordinance, which calls for 10 percent of all new residential development within the city's urban footprint to be reserved for low- to middle-income Chattanoogans. It's a marvelously just and beautiful answer to the housing crisis our city faces.

It's called inclusionary housing (or zoning) and, according to Courtney Knapp, the urban planner who helped develop the ordinance alongside the Westside Community Association, more than 200 communities across the U.S. practice it.

It's good for developers. When cities mandate inclusionary housing (as opposed to making it voluntary), development rates have increased, according to the national research group Policy Link.

"In fact, most jurisdictions with inclusionary programs saw an increase in housing production [sometimes dramatically]," the group's report states.

It's also good ethics. Downtown housing should not be a country club, exclusive and reserved. Roughly half of all downtown renters and homeowners are burdened with high housing costs, says Knapp's research. We don't want this for Chattanooga -- not our city -- where living downtown becomes a privilege.

At the 12-unit Lincoln Apartments, where the McKinneys live on the second floor, two other residents are moving or being evicted, said manager David Pierce. Those units will be renovated, then bumped up to $600 in rent, he said.

Another Lincoln resident, who wished to remain unnamed because he's afraid of being kicked out, said his apartment had "enormous" roaches and a ceiling that leaks through the overhead light fixture.

Pierce is friends with the McKinneys; evicting them is not easy, he said. But their lack of housekeeping has exacerbated the roach problem, he said.

Debbie, 64, suffers from a chronic lung disease. Sam, 55, works for the Chattanooga Lookouts and is searching for off-season employment.

The problem is so huge, so overwhelming, cleaning their apartment has become an impossibility, as if they're psychologically frozen.

The McKinneys claim hot water works only from one faucet. An extension cord runs from their wall-unit air conditioning through the living room into a six-plug surge protector, hanging above their kitchen stove. Roaches crawl in, out and around the outlet.

Earlier this week I stood in their bathroom staring up at the ceiling, where a 4-by-8-inch piece had crashed into the shower. In the hallway, Debbie uttered a half-cry, half-moan.

"I don't have the strength to do it," she said.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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aae1049 said...

The Chattanooga Housing Authority is way too cozy with Section 8 Landlords. The housing in the voucher program, approx 1,200 needs to be examined for business conflict of interest. I also believe there is a concerted effort for developers to obtain the property where College Hill Courts is through the Atlanta Mayor and an organization called Purpose Built. But hey, everyone knows about these questionable relationships, but Shhhhh! let's not talk about it. I for one support the Chattanooga Housing Authority in their mission of housing local poor, disabled, and elderly people, but I do mind concerted decision making intended to ensure that friends profit. Wake up people, someone investigate the 1,200 properties in the voucher program.

It would be great to see a list of the voucher program housing and take a look at how well maintained the properties are, because HUD pays well for these properties of which many are slums.

October 5, 2012 at 5:55 a.m.
nucanuck said...

The Lincoln is a formerly fine building in a great neighborhood that has suffered from lack of maintenance for more than three decades. A closer look would no doubt show a landlord who failed to keep up his property by not reinvesting the appropriate share of the monthly rent collected.

Poor management practices and affordable housing are two seperate issues and should not be confused by the writer. The Lincoln was, and could still be, a highly desireable and affordable property if properly maintained over the years.

Yes, affordable housing is an issue for any area in high demand because landlords will charge whatever the market will bear. In the 1970s no one wanted to live in downtown Chattanooga and the rents were very low. Affordable housing was easy to find. Over the years, much of the housing stock was destroyed and turned into corporate parking lots. Now, the lack of affordable housing is a sign of the city's success in re-inventing itself.

The Lincoln is a case of a building where the city has few options when a landlord wants to starve a building for maintenance and rent units that would be condemned by almost any level of city inspection.

The plumbing and electrical issues mentioned in this article should be sufficient cause for a city building inspecter to meet with Mr Pierce and make sure the plumbing and elactrical systems in the Lincoln are put in safe operating condition.

Slum landlording should not be tolerated.

October 6, 2012 at 1:40 a.m.
CathyB3 said...

For goodness sake get those folks some boric acid. This stuff takes advantage of the roaches life style. The nasty little pests wander through it, then they go back to the nest. Here they clean it off. Ah ha, the nest is poisoned.

It takes about 6 weeks to get rid of all the roaches completely since new hatchlings have to get poisoned too.

October 6, 2012 at 4:19 p.m.

Maybe our author should scrutinize his sources slightly more before posting flagrantly sensationalist 'journalism.' It's hard to feel sorry for two people living in one of the most desirable parts of town, who it can be assumed signed a lease with the price of explicitly stated on it, knowing full well that they wouldn't be able to afford it.

The attempt to completely disassociate the fact that they have apparently stopped cleaning their apartment with the fact that they are infested with roaches is just willful ignorance, and blaming their apparent inability to change a light bulb or lack of any common sense electrical knowledge on the landlord is ridiculous.

There are obviously problems with the apartments, but what is equally obvious, though not made explicitly so by the author, is that they are being addressed by getting rid of occupants who are not paying their share of the rent and who are contributing to the overall demise of decent units.

It was even stated that occupants "are moving or being evicted" to make room for renovations which are badly needed, at a modest increase to the rent. At what point does an occupant not paying rent, devaluing an apartment, or doing both at the same time, become the fault of the landlord?

I understand and completely support the need for low- and middle-income housing in our community, but to assume that it should be the responsibility of landlords and property owners to keep prices at a bare minimum while simultaneously and continuously improving the buildings with the slight profits they might make is a logical fallacy.

The real disgrace here is that decent people who are attempting to preserve and improve their property are being denigrated by the very people who were allowed to destroy an apartment while living for free and an author who needed some fluff for the 2 paragraphs of actual news that he presented us.

October 23, 2012 at 12:49 p.m.
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