Loretta Tate is a 30-year-old mother of two, and she has no home. It's not likely that she'll find one soon in public housing, but she's hopeful.
"I want to go to school to get my GED, become a nurse and find a house," she said.
Tate is among thousands of low-income Chattanooga residents caught in a squeeze between a shrinking public housing system and a private rental market made tighter by former homeowners who have become renters.
"There is almost a housing crisis going on with so many people needing assistance, and we're just not able to help them meet the need," said City Councilwoman Sally Robinson, chairwoman of the council's housing committee.
The Chattanooga Housing Authority has eliminated hundreds of units in recent years as it moves to a mixed-income model that makes only part of its stock available for public housing. The change is in keeping with federal policy and is occurring in cities nationwide.
The number of public housing units available in Chattanooga dropped from 3,692 in 1999 to 2,952 in 2011, according to housing officials.
Today, 14 of 15 public housing sites in Chattanooga are full. The one that still has units available -- College Hill Courts -- has reserved many of them for residents relocating from the Harriet Tubman site, which is being closed in preparation for sale.
Meanwhile, the waiting list for public housing is longer than it has been in at least three years, according to CHA statistics.
Tate is among 1,944 people on the list, which has been closed to new applicants since December.
"I'm on the waiting list now, but it's going to be a while," she said.
CHA officials said they closed the waiting list to avoid giving residents false hope of getting housing. The agency foresaw the rising demand in its 2012 five-year plan.
"Due to insufficient funding in the past few years, several public housing complexes are in severe need of either complete modernization or demolition and replacement," the plan says. "Without additional capital funding from [the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] or other leveraged support to address capital needs, the CHA will be unable to keep pace with this growing demand."
OTHER OPTIONS LIMITED
The other primary option to house low-income residents -- a voucher program that uses federal money to help them pay rent for private homes and apartments -- has more than twice as many people on its waiting list.
With more than 5,200 applicants, the Housing Choice Voucher program's waiting list also is closed, according to CHA's five-year plan.
"The recent economic downturn has caused many homeowners to become renters, which has impacted the availability of affordable housing in the private market and to some extent, attracted Housing Choice Voucher landlords to remove units from the program," the plan says.
"This indicates that the supply of affordable choice housing in the private market is exceptionally tight and has resulted in housing shortages and increased cost-burdened conditions for extremely low income, very low income, and special needs households."
The closing of Harriet Tubman makes it even more difficult to find places to send people, said some Chattanooga Homeless Coalition members.
Housing officials decided to vacate the Harriet Tubman site because it was estimated to cost $33 million to bring it up to standard. The remaining Tubman residents, about 250, began receiving relocation notices this month.
Public housing is the best option for many clients, especially those who receive extra money intended to help them avoid homelessness because that pays for some utilities, too, said Mary Simons, Chattanooga Homeless Coalition executive director. But that's not much help when public housing is so scarce, she said.
"Even if agencies have money to supplement the rent, it has become more difficult to find housing options," said Simons, but it's not impossible.
She said the Homeless Coalition has worked with at least six landlords willing to house low-income residents, even some with criminal backgrounds.