David Cook: Building downtown for everyone

David Cook: Building downtown for everyone

October 5th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Debbie and Sam McKinney opened their kitchen stove. The inside - dark, without a working stove bulb - looked like it was moving. As if it was alive, but nightmarishly so.

Roaches. Hundreds of them. Scuttling, racing across the stove walls. Large like fingers, small as the letters in this sentence. Crawling in and out of their toaster. Caught in spiderwebs.

The infestation is haunting. When Debbie puts down her coffee cup, she always covers it with a book or coaster so roaches don't crawl in. She's stopped bringing food to potluck dinners at church.

"The last time I took something to church, when I pulled the lid off, there were bugs in it," she said.

Then she began to cry. Again.

The McKinneys are poor, paying more than half their monthly income toward their $500 rent. They're about to be homeless, set to be evicted at the end of the month.

They also live in the heart of downtown. Blocks away from restaurants, coffeeshops, museums, the movie theater. Chances are, you've walked right by their apartment complex.

"We don't know where any other low-income housing is in town," said Sam.

Exactly.

Within the McKinneys' story we find the paradox of choice facing many working-class Chattanoogans, where living downtown means either paying more than what's affordable in rent or living in substandard conditions ... or moving away.

On Tuesday, the City Council is expected to have a first reading on the Affordable Housing Ordinance, which calls for 10 percent of all new residential development within the city's urban footprint to be reserved for low- to middle-income Chattanoogans. It's a marvelously just and beautiful answer to the housing crisis our city faces.

It's called inclusionary housing (or zoning) and, according to Courtney Knapp, the urban planner who helped develop the ordinance alongside the Westside Community Association, more than 200 communities across the U.S. practice it.

It's good for developers. When cities mandate inclusionary housing (as opposed to making it voluntary), development rates have increased, according to the national research group Policy Link.

"In fact, most jurisdictions with inclusionary programs saw an increase in housing production [sometimes dramatically]," the group's report states.

It's also good ethics. Downtown housing should not be a country club, exclusive and reserved. Roughly half of all downtown renters and homeowners are burdened with high housing costs, says Knapp's research. We don't want this for Chattanooga -- not our city -- where living downtown becomes a privilege.

At the 12-unit Lincoln Apartments, where the McKinneys live on the second floor, two other residents are moving or being evicted, said manager David Pierce. Those units will be renovated, then bumped up to $600 in rent, he said.

Another Lincoln resident, who wished to remain unnamed because he's afraid of being kicked out, said his apartment had "enormous" roaches and a ceiling that leaks through the overhead light fixture.

Pierce is friends with the McKinneys; evicting them is not easy, he said. But their lack of housekeeping has exacerbated the roach problem, he said.

Debbie, 64, suffers from a chronic lung disease. Sam, 55, works for the Chattanooga Lookouts and is searching for off-season employment.

The problem is so huge, so overwhelming, cleaning their apartment has become an impossibility, as if they're psychologically frozen.

The McKinneys claim hot water works only from one faucet. An extension cord runs from their wall-unit air conditioning through the living room into a six-plug surge protector, hanging above their kitchen stove. Roaches crawl in, out and around the outlet.

Earlier this week I stood in their bathroom staring up at the ceiling, where a 4-by-8-inch piece had crashed into the shower. In the hallway, Debbie uttered a half-cry, half-moan.

"I don't have the strength to do it," she said.