published Monday, October 8th, 2012

Chattanooga's affordable housing rules hit roadblock


by Cliff Hightower
The Rev. Leroy Griffith talks about the efforts to repair and restore the College Hill Courts complex.
The Rev. Leroy Griffith talks about the efforts to repair and restore the College Hill Courts complex.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WHAT THE LAW SAYS

"A local governmental unit shall not enact, maintain or enforce an ordinance or resolution that would have the effect of controlling the amount of rent charged for leasing private residential or commercial property."

Source: Tennessee Code Annotated

A proposed ordinance establishing affordable housing in the urban core of Chattanooga could be in jeopardy because of a state law that prohibits rent control.

City Attorney Mike McMahan said Friday his office researched the proposed affordable housing ordinance and found one major problem — Tennessee cities are forbidden from enforcing rent control measures.

"Basically, as written, there's no way it could be legal in Tennessee," McMahan said.

The Rev. Leroy Griffith, a member of the Westside Community Association and an outspoken advocate for the fair housing initiative, said the groups involved will continue to push forward.

"I don't know," Griffith said. "It may have to go to court."

Westside Community Association, advocacy group Chattanooga Organized for Action and several other organizations have formed the Coalition for Affordable Housing.

They are set to go before the City Council on Tuesday to talk about their proposal, which calls for setting aside a certain percentage of new development for affordable housing. The proposed ordinance specifically calls for properties to be "leased or rented" at the same cost as Chattanooga Housing Authority public housing units or the average public housing facility in Tennessee, whichever is lower.

Westside Community Association and COA began a petition drive months ago to put an affordable housing referendum on the November ballot. But they failed when city officials said proper procedures weren't followed.

Members of the council have since said they would hear the groups' concerns.

Other cities such as Franklin, Tenn., Chapel Hill, N.C., and even the entire state of Massachusetts have affordable housing laws on the books. But Franklin, the one city in Tennessee that has inclusionary zoning — another name for affordable housing zoning — has nothing on its books related to renting or leasing.

Vernon Gerth, assistant city administrator of community and economic development in Franklin, said the ordinance was approved three years ago. He called it more of an "inclusionary housing" ordinance that addresses home ownership, not rentals.

"We're not even near rentals yet," he said.

Gerth said the ordinance is only for existing developments. If more homes are planned, developers have choices. They may put aside 10 percent of the area for affordable housing; put affordable housing elsewhere in the community; or pay a fee to help nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity build affordable housing, he said.

Franklin defines affordable housing as residences for families that make 80 percent or less of the median income in the Nashville Metropolitan Statistical Area.

The city also requires a 40-year deed restriction to make sure the home is kept affordable even if it's sold, he said.

The affordable housing ordinance for Chattanooga does not address home ownership.

"We were working with the assumption that ownership is beyond the means of the people we are serving," Griffith said.

Chattanooga Councilman Andraé McGary, who has helped lead the charge on affordable housing on the council, said he thinks even with the hurdle of state law forbidding governments to set rent prices, there is still a need for the discussion on affordable housing.

"The question is, how do we get there?"

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