Chattanooga: New public housing units will require residents to be out in 5 years

Chattanooga: New public housing units will require residents to be out in 5 years

June 21st, 2011 by Yolanda Putman in News

Construction of Fairmount Avenue Apartments continues. Chattanooga Housing Authority officials expect residents to be positioned to move out in five years.

Photo by Jenna Walker/Times Free Press.

Ellis Jones, a public housing resident for four years and father of five children, hopes to move out of his house on Juniper Street and into the Fairmount Avenue apartments once the housing is complete. The apartments are available for those with intentions to move out in five years.

Photo by Allison Carter/Times Free Press.

Fairmount Apartments in North Chattanooga might become the country's first public housing complex where all tenants who are not elderly or disabled will be required to have jobs and also agree to leave the complex within five years.

Officials with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development office in Atlanta could not recall another public housing site with a closed-end rental agreement.

While it might be the first in the country, it's definitely the first for the Chattanooga Housing Authority, which runs Fairmount Apartments.

"I know we're going to push the envelope because it's out of the norm for housing authorities to do that, but we're making a commitment to prepare people to move out into self-sufficiency," said Eddie Holmes, CHA board chairman.

As part of the application process, potential renters will be asked to sign an agreement that they'll be self-sufficient - and out of the complex - in five years. If they can't meet that goal, they must leave Fairmount, although they might be able to move into other CHA housing.

"We're going to make that a part of our process so those individuals know upfront what's expected of them," Holmes said.

CHA officials said they expect to finalize the resident criteria for Fairmount within two weeks. The criteria will go to the CHA board, then to HUD for final approval, he said.

The five-year rental agreement is the latest tool in a multilayered strategy intended to transition away from traditional public housing sites with dense concentrations of residents, poverty and crime. The housing authority now has four housing development sites - Oaks at Camden, Villages at Alton Park, Woodside Avenue Apartments and Greenwood Terrace - where residents are required to have jobs.

Since the Villages at Alton Park opened in 2006, housing that requires residents to work accounts for more than 10 percent of public housing units in the city, CHA officials said.

To help families leave public housing, CHA has its Family Self Sufficiency program, which enables residents to put money that would have gone to rent increases into an escrow account. CHA officials agree to return that money to residents within five years. Residents may use the money to get market rate rental housing or purchase homes, further their educations or purchase cars.

The program already is active at other CHA sites; however, Fairmount will be the first where residents are required to participate, Holmes said.

"Public housing was not ever intended for people to reside forever," said Connie O'Neal, a CHA board member and former board chairwoman.

Some residents, though, have called public housing home for more than 30 years and have established a generational cycle of dependency, O'Neal said.

"We may have created an environment where people are hopeless and don't see that they can go anywhere else," she said.

Fairmount is the only public housing site north of the Tennessee River, nestled in a North Chattanooga cul de sac where nearby homes range in price from $75,000 to more than $200,000. The apartments also are in the coveted Normal Park Museum Magnet school district.

The new complex at Fairmount is under construction and is scheduled to be completed by the first quarter of 2012, said Mike Sabin, CHA's development manager. It is replacing 28 CHA units built in the mid-1970s and torn down in 2010 after becoming too costly to repair. The new units are designed to be energy-efficient enough to achieve Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design status from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Plans initially called for 48 units in the new complex but, after HUD awarded $4.8 million to build the units, nearby homeowners and the city protested, saying so many units would snarl traffic and attract crime.

More than a year of debate took place among CHA officials, residents and the city before a decision was made to scale back to 18 units. As a result, HUD reduced its funding to $3.9 million.

With that number of units, Fairmount also distinguishes itself as the city's least densely populated public housing site. College Hill Courts, in comparison, has 497 units, while East Lake Courts has 417 and Emma Wheeler 340, CHA figures show.

Other complexes have far fewer units - Woodside Avenue Apartments, 24; Glenwood Heights, 29; and Missionary Heights Apartments, 44.

Housing officials said they are building smaller public housing sites in hopes of reducing crime and poverty. And instead of marketing its complexes as a place for the poorest of the poor, CHA seeks working residents who need affordable housing.

Ellis Jones, a resident of the 200-unit Cromwell Hills Apartments and father of five, said he's interested in learning more about Fairmount and calls the five-year requirement an opportunity and a challenge.

"Five years is enough time to move out of public housing," he said. "That's enough time to get a master's degree."

Not everyone is convinced the five-year limit is practical, though.

Bonita Johnson said she's in her 60s and exempt from the CHA's work requirement because she is a senior citizen. But the resident of the Greenwood Terrace complex, which has 98 units, is concerned that, in a slow economy, the work requirement could prevent residents from getting apartments and meeting the five-year expectation.

"I don't know if people can turn around in five years," she said. "What do people do if they can't get their footing fast enough and get out in five years?"

A recently hired family self-sufficiency coordinator at CHA will help residents prepare to leave Fairmount in five years, Holmes said. HUD awarded the housing authority $246,864 this month to hire three Section 8 program coordinators and the self-sufficiency coordinator.

Since 2009, 20 people in CHA housing have purchased homes, but most were Section 8 residents enrolled in the self-sufficiency program, officials said.

Contact Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6431.