Report: Chattanooga's development boom is pushing out its black residents

Report commissioned by Chattanooga Organized for Action points to gentrification, African-American displacement in city

In this 2015 staff file photo, a row of remodeled buildings is seen on Main Street in the Southside area of Chattanooga, Tenn.

The past 20 years of renaissance-sparked development in and around Chattanooga's downtown has displaced 2,592 African-Americans and ushered in "radical socio-demographic change," according to a new report.

Since 2000, Hamilton County experienced a net gain of 6,746 African-Americans and 20,671 white, non-Hispanics, the report states. In that same period, the city of Chattanooga grew its African-American population by 2,596 and its white, non-Hispanic population by 8,052.

The report was commissioned by Chattanooga Organized for Action, a local grassroots organization that has questioned local planning and investment decisions in recent years.

"COA's hope in publicizing this report is that it may serve as a barometer of current market pressure and top-heavy effects, but also to add to the chorus of community coalitions, civic activists, and neighborhood and resident groups calling for a more inclusive model," COA board Chairman Michael Gilliland said in the report. "Equitable development means including the self-identified needs of low- and moderate-income groups, especially those of marginalized communities, in the plan of community development. Not as an afterthought, but as part of the plan's purpose."

COA, which has offered training classes for neighborhood leaders who want to learn how to represent their interests at City Hall since its founding several years ago, has long had the trust of grassroots leaders in working class and poor neighborhoods. The nonprofit, which doesn't shy away from controversial topics, gained wider support last year after it played a role in negotiating a significant community benefits agreement with First Tennessee Bank.

"I think this report echoes a growing community conversation about the need to engage residents in the decisions that impact their lives and their neighborhoods by providing them with the information and tools they need to be informed advocates for what is best for themselves and their families," said Maeghan Jones, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

The Community Foundation is among many local and national foundations and nonprofits that have identified economic mobility and racial disparities as areas of focus in the coming year.

Ken Chilton, the former head of the now defunct Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies who is now an associate professor at Tennessee State University, also highlights other consequences of high-end growth.

photo Ken Chilton

» The affordable housing crisis continues to deepen. Now, with 12,000 households in the city, many African-American, spend more than half their income on housing.

» African-American households earned roughly 62 percent of a white, non-Hispanic household in 2000. By 2010, African-American households earned about 54 percent of a white, non-Hispanic household. The ratio remained in 2017 despite reports of higher wages in Chattanooga.

» Between 2005 and 2015, Chattanooga saw one of the greatest declines in African-American homeownership in the country. Home lending for blacks hasn't recovered since the Great Recession.

» Meanwhile, according to a Regional Planning Agency market study, the largest category of new homes being built in Hamilton County is expected to be priced between $350,000 and $500,000.

» The same neighborhoods that lost 2,592 African-Americans from 2000 to 2017 saw a net influx of 5,066 white residents.

"These numbers are not the result of random market forces; rather, they are a direct result of policies implemented to attract new residents to downtown - more affluent, more educated, and mostly white," Chilton wrote in the study, titled "Negro Removal in Chattanooga: The Impact of Market Displacement on Communities of Color." The report was a collaboration between Chilton and COA. Chilton, who has maintained close ties with community-based organizations since leaving Chattanooga several years ago, did the work free of charge.

Inequality is a nationwide dilemma and is the result of public policy decisions made at the local, state and federal level, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said, in response to the report.

"Many Chattanoogans are finding it difficult to reach the first rung on the ladder of economic mobility, to say nothing of the difficulty they encounter trying to climb into the middle class," Berke said. "City government must certainly do its part to reshape our economy in a more equitable and sustainable way."

Berke said his administration has focused relentlessly on recruiting employers that pay high wages and supporting locally owned businesses that have potential to grow. Programs like the Neighborhood Reinvestment Fund and the Affordable Housing Fund were created to help stabilize communities and "lay stronger economic foundation for everyone," he said.

"However, cities like Chattanooga need significant, sustained investment from all levels of government," Berke added. "Locally, we have seen higher wage growth than many other cities, but coordinated action from the state and federal governments could help us - and other communities - even more."

Chattanooga's Westside Renewal project in the 1960s led to the displacement of more than 1,400 families and individuals. The private sector model of urban renewal practiced in Chattanooga has been arguably more devastating to African-American families and individuals than government-sponsored redevelopment of the 1960s, Chilton wrote in the report.

Some areas are already gentrified. Gentrification, according to Merriam-Webster, is the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area, accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents. Other tracts are seeing the beginnings of the process, the report notes.

Tract 4, which includes Erlanger Hospital and Lincoln Park, has experienced a five-fold increase in the white population since 2000. City and county officials called Tract 4 "a prime area for growth with proximity to the downtown core," in their Opportunity Zone application.

Tract 16, which includes public housing and the western part of M.L. King Boulevard, is also moving toward gentrification, according to the study.

photo Downtown Chattanooga is seen from Signal Mountain in this file photo. A study published just a few months ago by economists at Stanford and Harvard universities says that cities like Chattanooga must address the factors stifling the economic mobility of African-American men if they want to see racial gaps narrow. / Staff file photo by Tim Barber

"Redevelopment momentum associated with the newly announced plans at the former Alstom manufacturing site focus on bringing in new residents, not low-income residents," he wrote.

In December the owners of the 112-acre vacant Alstom site, which is not far from the new Cameron Harbor development, said they had hired a national master planner to envision a mixed-use site including industrial, office, housing, retail and recreation.

Tract 20 includes Jefferson Heights and parts of it are fully gentrified. But, the Wheland Foundry is part of the tract.

"If history is a guide, new developments at that site will not likely be tailored to lower-income residents seeking affordable housing options," Chilton wrote.

A Chattanooga group bought Wheland Foundry, set between South Broad Street and I-24, after the business shut down in 2003. Several years later it purchased the adjacent U.S. Pipe business, yielding 141 acres just outside of downtown. A new Chattanooga Lookouts stadium may be built on the site. The owners have hired a master developer to plan housing and retail space as well.

On the other end of the phenomenon are "receiving neighborhoods" that have absorbed much of the Hispanic and African-American populations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, seven census tracts in Southeast Chattanooga have absorbed 4,893 African-Americans since 2000.

Tract 24, bordered by Rossville Boulevard, experienced the biggest increase in African-American residents. Tract 118, which includes East Ridge, also saw significant African-American population growth.

At the same time, the Hispanic population in most of those tracts has grown tremendously.

A total of 9,110 Hispanic and African-American residents have moved to those communities since 2000. However, in each census tract the white population decreased as the community became browner. A total of 6,423 white residents left those communities between 2000 and 2016, the study noted.

"The people who call these neighborhoods home are stuck. The communities have been radically altered by public-private partnerships that promoted economic development over other values," the study argued. "The hopes and dreams of all Chattanoogans have not been represented in decisions that reward investors and speculators over working class households."

If you go

› What: "The State of Chattanooga-A New Normal Revisited," a presentation by Ken Chilton, associate professor at Tennessee State University› When: 6-8 p.m. Friday› Where: Westside Baptist Church, 4001 Hughes Ave.

Moving forward, Chilton and COA recommend the use of community benefit agreements (CBA) in Chattanooga. A CBA is a project-specific agreement between a developer and a broad community coalition that details the project's contributions to the community and ensures community support for the project. Properly structured CBAs are legally binding.

The Unity Group will host "The State of Chattanooga - A New Normal Revisited" on Friday night at Westside Baptist Church, during which Chilton will present the study. The event, from 6-8 p.m., is free and open to the public.

On Monday, America will reflect on the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for African-American civil rights.

"Today, the African-American community is wracked by poverty, disarray, and dislocation. We need a new, multi-generational vision that focuses on people, not solely place," the report reads. "Chattanooga responded to the physical decline of Chattanooga with massive investments. We call on leaders to make similar investments in the social and human capital of those who have been pushed out and largely excluded from Chattanooga's success. That will require new partnerships, uncomfortable discussions, and fidelity to meaningful change. Such an endeavor would certainly classify Chattanooga as the best town ever, for everybody."

Nicole Lewis, community relations manager at Glass House Collective, a creative placemaking nonprofit that has intentionally worked with existing East Chattanooga residents to revive Glass Farms, said real relationships are the only thing that will bridge the divides created by gentrification and calm the politics of urban renewal.

"If the people in power, the people who really make decisions - I am not talking about the people we see - if they came down to Glass Street every day for three weeks, just for three weeks, I promise they would not think about solutions the same way," said Lewis. "It is all about relationships."

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane at

photo A view of downtown Chattanooga is seen from the Tower atop the Electric Power Building at the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. and Market Street. North Chattanooga is seen beyond downtown.