Opinion: What's wrong with affordable housing? Ask the Chattanooga City Council

From the looks of the headlines about pending development in the Chattanooga area, conversations about ensuring many of us can afford to continue living here have either taken a backseat or simply aren't being heard above the clinking of big developers' gold coins.

The 70-acre riverfront tract that for many years held the Central Soya feed mill off Amnicola Highway is now proposed to hold about 750 new residences in a project valued at more than $400 million, according to Scott Williamson, a vice president for Fletcher Bright Co.

In plans replete with peaceful river views four miles from downtown, 100 or so boat slips and a "service-type commercial space," one can imagine the sticker shock these homes will inspire.

The same is true just upriver at a similar $300 million project by developer John "Thunder" Thornton on the west side of the river and off Lupton Drive. That one is already dubbed The Riverton residential complex.

And don't forget The Bend downriver on downtown's west and south sides where the former Alstom property is set to bring in $2 billion to $3 billion in investments as an industrial/commercial/residential complex.

Meanwhile, The Bend developers, Jimmy White and Hiren Desai, also earlier this year acquired almost 535 acres - one of the biggest undeveloped sites atop Walden's Ridge - off of Sawyer and Corral roads in unincorporated Hamilton County.

In essence, every square inch of river, ridge and mountain property in this county is about to become subdivisions or neighborhoods of townhomes and/or condos.

And none of these above-mentioned developments will be what most of us think of as "affordable," even on ordinary middle-class incomes.

Amid all this clamor, the Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist Church's proposal to rezone a mere three-acre tract south of the church on North Moore Road to build a 79-unit apartment building for independent seniors got a cold shoulder Tuesday from the Chattanooga City Council.

Citing concerns of nearby neighbors, the church's national development partner, Pennrose, and a perceived "stigma" related to people needing low-income or even just affordable housing, the council punted a decision on the rezoning to late May.

The Rev. Gary Hathaway, pastor of Greater Tucker, told the council Tuesday evening the church wants to be part of the solution to the local housing crisis.

"Our mission, really, as a church, is to minister to the needs of the community and our congregation," Hathaway said. "We know, and everybody knows, one of the greatest needs in Chattanooga today is affordable housing. Let me say, as a pastor, I see it every day. I get calls every day from people looking for a place to live because their rents are going through the roof."

Indeed. The median price of a home here has increased 80.7% since 2015.

More than half of children in Tennessee, and 76% of children in south and central Chattanooga (along with 42% of children in Red Bank and the northern part of Chattanooga, and 41% in all the rest of Hamilton County) live in households that cannot afford the local cost of living, according to a new report from the United Ways of Tennessee.

We have to wonder how to square all this new high-dollar development and the council's seemingly cold feet on one tiny "affordable" development for seniors.

And we have to wonder how to square it with Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly's first budget - also presented to the council on Tuesday.

This is a budget that includes $10 million for paving roads, a 3% cost-of-living increase for city workers and an unprecedented $33 million seed investment intended to catalyze the city's $100 million affordable housing initiative aimed at building and repairing thousands of homes Chattanoogans can afford.

It is a budget - with no tax increase - that incorporates the mayor's "One Chattanooga" strategic plan - a plan meant to bridge the opportunity extremes of our two Chattanooga's, one for the affluent and one for the poor.

It is a budget that recognizes Chattanooga must grow, but not at the expense of the ordinary, middle-class people who keep the lights on and roads clear and city peaceful.

Seeing, understanding and articulating this was Kelly's - and Chattanooga's - first telling marks of strong leadership.

But that part was easy. Now comes the really hard stuff like a conflicted council and what possibly will be a conflicted county commission that already has sometimes shown itself to be less than forward thinking.

The new county mayor we elect in August and Kelly must be joined at the hip, as the county clearly must be part of this effort to both grow our region and eliminate the persistent systematic problems that threaten us, especially poor and inequitable education that consistently has new and old employers crying that they can't find ready workers.

If we can't get affordable homes added to our growth mix, even our too-few ready workers won't be staying here. So much for growth.