published Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Tale of two Chattanooga neighborhoods — too little development, or too much?

NEIGHBORHOODS WITH MOST CHANGE IN VACANY RATE from 2010 to 2013

* 15.9 percent change - Avondale/East Chattanooga

* -14.9 percent change - Hill City

* -5.7 percent change - East Lake/Missionary Ridge

* -5.6 percent change - Eastgate

* -5.2 percent change - Red Bank

Source: RPA Housing Affordability and Vacancy, Sept. 2013

Three years ago, two Chattanooga neighborhoods were each about 23 percent empty. But one filled up, and fast. The other emptied out, just as fast.

One’s on the North Shore and the other’s in East Chattanooga. And they’re on decidedly different trajectories.

In North Chattanooga, the Hill City neighborhood is filling up. About 15 percent more people live in the neighborhood now than three years ago. But across town, in Avondale, the vacancy rate rose by nearly 16 percent — and now about 40 percent of the neighborhood’s housing is empty, according to a September study by the Chattanooga Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

It’s a dichotomy that’s been underscored by the Scenic City’s recent growth: Chattanooga’s residential vacancy rate dropped in 75 percent of neighborhoods between 2010 and 2013, according to the RPA.

And developers have followed that growth. More than 700 new hotel rooms and 1,500 new rental units are slated to go up in Chattanooga during the next year, according to market researchers. Yet as new walls go up and new residents move in, leaders in both neighborhoods are worried about being left out of the renaissance — either because of rising rents or geography.

  • photo
    New residential construction on Harper Street, between Bell Avenue and Cherokee Blvd. in Hill City.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

“Hill City is the last affordable vestige of what has become a very gentrified area on the North Shore,” said Michael Gilliland, chairman of the board at Chattanooga Organized for Action. “[The North Shore] has become really unlivable for anyone with median income range. Hill City is the last neighborhood of racially and economically diverse people.”

A large slice of Chattanoogans are already spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing — 47 percent of renters and 36 percent of homeowners.

The average monthly rent in Chattanooga is $800, according to Birmingham, Ala., firm Rock Apartment Advisors, and the city has a 95 percent occupancy rate. And developers are answering the demand — there are 256 new rental units under construction now with another 1,382 units planned.

At least 100 of those new units are under construction now or have just opened in the North Shore, with plans for another three buildings with another 44 units of apartments, condos or houses.

Typically the North Shore units start around $850 a month for a one bedroom and range as high as $1,300 for two or three bedrooms. And while the development brings money to the North Shore, Gilliland is worried about the rising housing costs.

“In and of itself, [development] is not a bad thing,” he said. “But if it leads to a large amount of displacement because of rising housing prices, it could be a source of the problem. In East Chattanooga, in the other hand, you see the opposite problem. There’s a real lack of development going into the neighborhood as a whole.”

While North Shore filled up, Avondale emptied out.

A large part of the neighborhood’s 39 percent vacancy rate was caused when the 440-unit Harriet Tubman housing complex was closed in 2012. But even before that, nearly 92 units in the complex were already empty.

  • photo
    Harriet Tubman homes closed last year in Avondale.
    Photo by John Rawlston.
    enlarge photo

“I think Avondale has been forgotten,” said James Moreland, board chair of East Chattanooga Improvement. “One of the

things I think is important is for city leaders to be aggressive enough to look at the whole city with a balance. Over the last 15 years, instead of looking at the whole city, I think a lot of concentration went to the downtown river area and away from the neighborhoods.”

He estimated about 100 houses in Avondale are vacant because they’re too dilapidated to be lived in and said the first step toward echoing Hill City’s growth is to get those houses back up to standard.

But it’s hard to convince landlords, investors and business owners that the neighborhood — which faces high crime and is home to many low-income residents — is a smart place to put their money.

“If you don’t come by and feed an animal over a period of time, she starves,” Moreland said. “If you don’t invest back into an area, you’ll only get the negative aspects. I think Avondale has become a dumping ground for stuff no other neighborhood wants. It takes a lot of effort from a lot of organizations to work past that and make the neighborhood viable. Someone has to make sacrifices to encourage people to move in.”

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at sbrad bury@timesfreepress .com or 423-757-6525.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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