Housing need in Chattanooga increases, but availability declines

Housing need in Chattanooga increases, but availability declines

September 28th, 2011 by Yolanda Putman in News

Wanda Coleman, 39, talks to a friend at The Chattanooga Community Kitchen. She has been sleeping at the Chattanooga Rescue Mission for the past week and has spent two years on the waiting list for public housing.

Photo by Alex Washburn/Times Free Press.

WAITING FOR HOUSING

* 1,477 people are on the waiting list for low income public housing.

* 5,000 people have submitted applications and are waiting to participate in the housing choice voucher program.

* Fewer than 50 are waiting to get into one of CHA's 535 units designated for elderly housing.

* 4,094 people experience homelessness in the Chattanooga region.

Source: CHA

Wanda Coleman has been living out of town and sleeping at Chattanooga missions off and on for two years while waiting for public housing in Chattanooga to come available.

"It's terrible," said the 39-year-old mother of three who has been sleeping for the past week at the Chattanooga Rescue Mission.

Her children, ages 7, 9 and 15, are all in state custody after a family member accused her of hitting the 9-year-old in the forehead and leaving a scar. Coleman insists the girl fell and is going to court in hopes of proving her side of the story.

Coleman is among nearly 1,480 people who are on the waiting list for public housing this year, and another 5,000 people are waiting to receive a Housing Choice Voucher, according to the Chattanooga Housing Authority's 2012 Five-Year Agency plan that was approved at the housing authority's monthly meeting Tuesday.

"The availability of public housing is decreasing," said Eddie Holmes, CHA board chairman. "We don't have the stock that we once had, and we're going to have even less in the future."

If funding comes available, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or from low-income tax credits, the housing authority's oldest and largest public housing sites will become mixed income communities. Some may be sold or demolished, according to CHA's five-year plan.

However, CHA officials say that the housing authority will not make any sudden changes.

"This is a plan," said Holmes during CHA's monthly board meeting. "Don't say the housing authority is getting ready to go out of business. We're projecting what we'd like to see happen."

HUD requires that CHA publish its agency plan every year through the development of a one-year and a five-year plan, according to a written statement by Betsy McCright, CHA's executive director.

"The CHA reflects in its agency plan any number of options for these large sites ... in order to preserve the opportunity to take action if significant funding sources are identified during the year," she said.

Because of insufficient government funding, several public housing complexes are in severe need of either complete modernization, demolition or replacement, according to the report.

For instance, it would take a $33 million investment just to bring Harriet Tubman, the city's second-largest public housing site, up to good condition, housing officials said, and the authority has applied to HUD to sell or demolish the complex.

CHA also proposes converting College Hill Courts and East Lake Courts, the city's two oldest and largest and third-largest sites, into mixed-income units. The sites, along with Harriet Tubman, provide more than 1,300 units of public housing.

"The CHA has no immediate, specific plans to dispose, demolish or redevelop College Hill Courts or East Lake Courts," McCright said.

Former board chairwoman Connie O'Neal said it is necessary to reduce some housing stock because the buildings aren't as safe as officials would like them to be.

A row of boarded-up, vacant apartments line Heaton Street in the Harriet Tubman housing development in this file photo.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

"Our concern is the people's safety," she said. "The older buildings have become more of a threat to the people they serve."

CHA is looking for ways to secure other options, such as privately owned or public-private partnerships, for housing.

"Housing is a community problem," she said. "The community has to engage in the conversation for housing opportunities for everybody."

"This demonstrates the critical demand for affordable housing that appears to be growing," according to the plan.

"Without additional capital funding from HUD or other leveraged support to address capital needs, the CHA will be unable to keep pace with this growing [housing] demand," CHA's five-year plan states.

The plan documents about 1,000 more people waiting for housing vouchers and about 100 more people waiting for low-income public housing than in 2010.

More than 85 percent of residents waiting for public housing earn less than 30 percent of the area median income, according to the plan. The median household income in Chattanooga was $35,333 in 2009.

CHA officials said they can only house 6,000 people in public housing and the Housing Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8. But more people than that need and qualify for public housing, they said.

"People think about public housing and they think that's all the poor people we have. That's not true," said Holmes.

People who are elderly and disabled should get special assistance, said Holmes.

"But the people who are able-bodied should be thinking about: Where do I go and what do I do?," he said. "How do I better myself to obtain a standard of living that I can adjust to?"

After waiting nearly two years, Coleman says she's No. 12 to receive housing at East Lake Courts, 29th for housing at Emma Wheeler and is also active on the waiting list at Cromwell. The sites are the only ones she qualifies for because they're the only ones that have one bedroom, she said.

"Everywhere you go there's a waiting list," she said.

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