New directions for housing

New directions for housing

November 25th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Chattanoogans' growing appetite for urban housing -- and convenient access to social amenities, shopping, places of work and recreational opportunities -- is not just a passing trend. As a year-long study by the Regional Planning Authority confirms, it is the result of a major shift in generational attitudes about housing choices, and it's here for the long term.

The shift is being driven by the two largest demographic segments of our population -- baby boomers (ages 45-to-64), and generation Y (roughly those young adults under age 29). Generation Y is far larger than Gen X, the 29-45 age segment. In fact, Gen Y is the largest and most ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, comprising fully one-quarter of the nation's population. It will chart the future in housing demands, and it will mean more intense urban development, and more mixed-use neighborhoods with shopping, sidewalks, bicycle lanes and small businesses.

These changes in the Chattanooga housing market will be profound. They will demand a new and thoughtful outlook in how Chattanooga and Hamilton County handle zoning, housing and mixed-used development, public services and housing codes. Given this community's sharp gap in family incomes, and the large percentage of families with low incomes clustered in largely minority neighborhoods, the future also will require close attention to affordable housing.

That means city and county officials will have to figure out a new mix of zoning mechanisms, financial and lending programs, and market-based incentives to ensure that low- to middle-income families have reasonable access to housing options in every form: apartments, condos, townhouses and single family homes on detached lots.

New zoning criteria could, for example, allow home owners under selective circumstances to add an accessory rental unit in what are currently single-family homes. Other ideas recommended by the RPA study include new standards for narrower streets, smaller lot-line setbacks, tax abatements for construction of affordable housing units, and fees on developments that do not include affordable units. The latter is likely to be controversial.

All of these ideas will take study, debate, and strong leadership. If fairly and consistently applied across the city and the county, however, an affordable housing initiative would be a boon to many Chattanooga residents. It also would strengthen this community's broader social fabric.

Applied broadly, it would propel rehabbing of existing homes, and help dilute the concentration of lower-income families in neighborhoods that too often deteriorate under the weight of poverty, despair and disrepair. It also would help improve educational achievement and job success in lower-income families.

For all these reasons, cities and counties across the country, and even some states, have developed tax-incentive and fee-based approaches to help propel the necessary supply of affordable housing. Metropolitan communities that fail this challenge essentially invite growing pockets of rapid deterioration, harmful segregation and related social issues.

A broad-based plan to provide more affordable housing is becoming more important not just for low-income families, but also for the middle class. Housing prices here, the RPA study shows, rose far more rapidly than incomes over the past decade, even as the average numbers of family members in all types of housing fell.

Housing costs in Chattanooga, for example, rose 52 percent from 2000 to 2010, and transportation costs rose 44 percent, while average household income rose just 25 percent. The sharp rise in prices of condos and apartments far outpaced the rise in single-family homes on detached lots. In the same period, median household income slowed dramatically: In 2011 it was just $32,791, and 37,033 Chattanooga families had incomes of less than $35,000. At those levels the burden of housing costs, including utilities, is back-breaking and nearly impossible to sustain.

Other concerns center on the need to provide affordable housing and more public transportation near the job base, which is rapidly shifting to new industries on the outskirts of the city beyond East Brainerd. The city's current concentration of low-income families occurs near downtown -- in Avondale, Eastside, Westside, South Chattanooga -- where the old-line manufacturing jobs no longer exist. The disconnect has led to loss of jobs, poverty and hardship. It can't be permanently ignored.

Higher housing costs for seniors on fixed incomes is leading to growing needs. Seniors, even those who want to stay in their homes, too often get by on fixed incomes, and may need assisted living. Changes in zoning to allow them to add accessory apartments to single-family units, and the provision of mixed-use residential areas that allow small businesses, would improve the lives and opportunities of many.

The study treats suburban issues -- from housing to vacated retail business strips -- as well. Given the range of issues, it is crucial that civic and community leaders and interested citizens forge strategies to address the long-term issues that lie ahead. The outcome will shape our community's future.