Westside Chattanooga group backs mandating affordable rents

Westside Chattanooga group backs mandating affordable rents

October 9th, 2012 by Yolanda Putman in News

David Johnson, CEO and president of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, addresses community members during the Westside Community Association's meeting to discuss its proposal for solving the affordable housing crisis in Chattanooga on Monday at Renaissance Presbyterian Church.

Photo by Allison Love/Times Free Press.

When River City Co. CEO Kim White stood at the housing summit and suggested that people focus more on raising their income levels instead of mandating affordable housing, 64-year old Debbie McKinney said she's disabled and elderly and her income probably isn't going to change.

She said half of her $907 income from disability is spent on housing and she's still in danger of being evicted because her property owner wants to remodel her apartment complex and increase rent.

Then she grabbed her hair, bowed her head and cried.

McKinney was among more than 50 people seated and standing at the Renaissance Presbyterian Church for the Westside Community Association's Housing Summit on Monday.

Executive directors from Chattanooga Housing Authority, Regional Planning Agency and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise were also in the audience, along with City Council members and candidates.

All of them listened while Chattanooga Organized for Action and Westside Association member Michael Gilliland presented the association's plan to mandate affordable housing in downtown Chattanooga and its urban core -- which includes communities such as Hill City, St. Elmo, the Westside, East Lake, Orchard Knob, Glenwood and Highland Park.

Without an affordable housing mandate, apartments at the Walnut Commons being built on Walnut Street are expected to rent from $750 up to $1,200.

To live in a $1,200 apartment affordably, the occupant must earn $48,000 a year. That eliminates 75 percent of the people who live in Chattanooga's urban core, according to the Westside Community Association.

The affordable housing ordinance mandates that 10 percent of the units in an apartment complex in the city's urban core be set aside for low-income residents. If the mandate was already in place, 83 units of affordable housing would be available in the downtown area, according to the Affordable Housing Ordinance.

Finding affordable housing just isn't a problem for people who lack education or job training, said Sherry Campbell, who attended the summit.

She said she has work experience and a master's degree and is still having trouble finding housing she can afford.

There is always a surplus of goodwill toward poor people who need housing, but that goodwill doesn't generate affordable housing. That is why a housing mandate is imperative, said Baris Gursakal, of Occupy Chattanooga.

But White explained, just getting a developer into an urban area is a challenge. If the area has mandates, the developer will be even more likely to develop someplace else, she said.

Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise president and CEO David Johnson also discussed the challenge of getting successful development in the inner-city community. He said CNE helped build 19 houses in the Bushtown community two years ago, but 12 of them are empty.

To get a developer to build housing in an area, it has to make financial sense, and the area must also look attractive to the developer, said White.

Regional Planning Agency Executive Director John Bridger asked all developers in the room to raise their hands. No one did. Bridger said another meeting should be held and developers should be present because they are an essential part of solving the affordable housing problem.

City Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd said the City Council will take no action on the affordable housing mandate at its meeting today, but she learned a lot from attending the summit, and she is interested in knowing more about it.

City Councilman Jack Benson said he wants to know more about how successful the housing mandate has been in other communities. Summit organizers said that information could be provided.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yput man@timesfreepress.com or call 423-757-6431.