Although members expect to wait until after a pair of upcoming community meetings to consider conditions for the project, the Chattanooga City Council gave an initial round of approval Tuesday to a rezoning that would enable to the city to convert an old motel on Lee Highway into about 70 units of permanent supportive housing.
Using a model that they've said has an extremely high retention rate, city officials see the project as a way of putting a dent in Chattanooga's growing homeless population. The number of unsheltered people in Hamilton County increased from 364 in January 2021 to 1,008 in January 2022, according to the city.
City staff members have said residents at the facility would have access to on-site case management, psychiatrists, support groups and transportation through CARTA's dial-a-ride service for groceries and errands. They hope to see the facility open between April and June next year, according to a tentative timeline presented in late October. Neighbors, however, have concerns.
In an 8-1 vote, the panel approved on first reading a request to rezone the Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway to allow the project, which they OK'd without conditions. It will require one more vote of approval from City Council. Council Chairman Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, was the lone vote against.
In another 8-1 vote, the City Council also denied a resolution introduced by Councilman Chip Henderson, of Lookout Valley, that would have formalized a series of expectations for the project, which included a series of commitments made in a PowerPoint presentation Mayor Tim Kelly and his staff gave during a community meeting on Oct. 26. Henderson was the only council member to vote in support.
Among other conditions, the resolution would have directed the mayor and city representatives to increase law enforcement efforts in that area, conduct renovations that make the building indistinguishable from a typical multi-family development, provide 24/7 professional security service at the site and form a community advisory committee. Henderson said it matters that the city honors its commitments, which the mayor's office said it remains intent on doing.
"I feel like the mayor has made a commitment to the community," he said.
Ledford said he voted against the rezoning because it didn't address any of the conditions he heard during the meeting on Oct. 26.
Members still expect to consider conditions for the project. Councilman Ken Smith, of Hixson, has asked the body to take up another resolution on Dec. 20, which would give city staff time to gather feedback at two more community meetings from 2-3 p.m. Nov. 30 and 6-7 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Shepherd Community Center.
"I agree with Councilman Henderson entirely that some of these promises around this area to alleviate concerns of the residents should be codified, and I fully support a resolution to do so," Smith said. "I just don't necessarily believe it's in its final format today."
Kelly's chief of staff, Joda Thongnopnua, said input gathered at those sessions will inform a request for proposals the city will issue for a property developer and service provider.
He stated after the meeting that the complex will likely have between 70-80 units, and at this time, there are no plans to go beyond 80.
Councilwoman Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, said she wants the permanent supportive housing project to be something officials can replicate in other parts of the city, and she doesn't want to set a precedent that these projects will come with a burdensome set of expectations.
"I am very mindful of establishing criteria that will meet our long-term needs and that is based on evidence-based research, not fear," she told the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Hill said the list of commitments included in the PowerPoint last month appeared to be a knee-jerk response to negative community feedback.
"We need to be in a position to treat neighborhoods fairly, and the rules we make for this facility would need to be the same rules that we would make for a facility in another part of town," she said.
Daniel Ashworth, the director of communications at nearby Silverdale Baptist Academy, said in an emailed statement Tuesday evening that the school appreciates "the wisdom that members of City Council demonstrated tonight in making sure both their own questions, as well as those of the greater Bonny Oaks and Lee Highway community, are heard and adequately addressed."
"We believe this slower, intentional process is the only way to draft a successful resolution as part of this project," he said, and the additional meetings at the Shepherd Community Center, "should give both time and clarity to the project, which is what we've desired from the beginning."
Timothy Ballard, an attorney who represents several parents, neighbors and business owners near the project, told council members that the city has not accounted for needs like transportation at the facility, stating that the nearest CARTA bus stop is 43 minute walk down Bonny Oaks Road and the nearest grocery store is a Dollar General, which is a 20 minute walk from the site.
"This is not a well-considered, cogent plan," he said. "With all due respect, it is a half-step."
Thongnopnua stated that the dial-a-ride service has worked for the Brainerd community for years.
"This is something that works, and we know how to train people to use it," he said. "Folks are going to have case managers onsite to help them how to use it, and (the service) will come right to the front door."