Airport Inn conversion proceeds to Chattanooga City Council in November

Staff Photo by David Floyd / Chattanooga City Council will consider on first reading on Nov. 8 a request to rezone the former Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway, which the city plans to convert into about 70 units of permanent supportive housing. The structure is seen here Monday.
Staff Photo by David Floyd / Chattanooga City Council will consider on first reading on Nov. 8 a request to rezone the former Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway, which the city plans to convert into about 70 units of permanent supportive housing. The structure is seen here Monday.

Note: This story was updated on Nov. 1 to correct the last name of the CEO of Step Up.

Silverdale Cumberland Presbyterian Church sits less than a mile from the Airport Inn on Lee Highway, a now-shuttered hotel that city leaders plan to convert into about 70 units of supportive housing for people who are experiencing homelessness in Chattanooga.

The church's senior pastor, Cliff Hudson, is already accustomed to assisting people in need. He sees them sleeping in the woods, on the sidewalk and behind the Wendy's across Bonny Oaks Drive. Some manage to scrape up enough money to stay at one of the hotels in the area.

"I have watched the situation here grow exponentially since before the pandemic started," he said in a phone interview Friday.

The church frequently hands out food to people staying at one of the hotels in the area or on the street. Many of the people Hudson meets are transient, he said, and most are fighting on a daily basis to survive. They're desperately looking for work, have likely lost their photo ID and often take day labor jobs to make enough money to afford the fee for a room at certain hotels -- which have also been magnets for crime.

  photo  Staff Photo by David Floyd / Silverdale Cumberland Presbyterian Church, seen here on Monday, sits at 7407 Bonny Oaks Drive.
 
 

After purchasing the Airport Inn last year, city officials are poised to take several steps forward on the project and hope to complete the facility in the second quarter of 2023.

The Chattanooga City Council's planning and zoning committee will hear a request to rezone the property and declare it surplus during a meeting Tuesday, and Nov. 8, the City Council will vote on the change. The rezoning will require two votes from the panel. Declaring the parcel surplus, which clears the way for the city to sell it, requires one vote.

City officials expect to open a request for proposals for a nonprofit to run the facility and a property developer on Nov. 10 and award a contract in December. They anticipate construction and resident screening will begin between January and March, and the facility will open sometime between April and June.

Chattanooga leaders see the hotel conversion at 7725 Lee Highway as a way to restore a blighted property in that area while also creating several dozen units of much-needed housing stock for the city's growing homeless population, which they say has jumped almost 250% in the past year.

The facility would have onsite case management with one case manager for every 20 tenants. Staff would be at the facility 24/7, and residents would be pre-screened for eligibility, which would include a review of their criminal history.

"We know the longer you've been homeless, the more services you need to adjust and reacclimate, and that's exactly what this project is designed to provide," Mayor Tim Kelly said during a community meeting at the Family Justice Center last Wednesday. "And we know this type of supportive housing works."

Joda Thongnopnua, Kelly's chief of staff, said in a phone interview that the project is a cost-effective means of providing housing in as quick a timeframe as possible. New construction could be triple or quadruple the cost.

"We're always looking for innovative solutions like converting an old, rundown motel into affordable housing that can offer a chance for some of our most vulnerable neighbors to get back on their feet," he said.

When he first heard about the city's plans for the Airport Inn, Hudson said he felt joyful, particularly because of the poor reputation of the hotel itself. But he also wants to ensure the city has a solid strategy -- one that would involve offering services beyond just housing. Hudson said he's comfortable with the plan that city officials have outlined for the operations of the facility.

"I understand it's still a developing plan, but a plan like that -- is that not far better than what we have now?" he said.

Plenty of people are skeptical, particularly families with children at nearby Silverdale Baptist Academy. During the at-times tense community meeting last Wednesday at the Family Justice Center, residents peppered Kelly and his staff with questions and concerns about the project, particularly about how officials would choose who stays in the building and how residents would access daily essentials like food.

Chattanooga leaders say they will commit to increasing law enforcement around the area. Additionally, no one on the sexual offender registry and no one with a serious violent felony conviction will be eligible to be a resident, and city officials say there will be a permanent no-camping buffer ordinance surrounding the project.

Because of increased foot traffic around Bonny Oaks Drive, leaders at Silverdale Baptist Academy said they have had to increase the number of security personnel from one to four officers over the past few years. It's unclear where that foot traffic originates, school officials said by email, but many times there are concerns about the safety of students. Those individuals have to be asked to leave the campus on a weekly basis.

"As an academy, we believe in the infallible Word of God, which teaches us to serve others," school leaders said in a statement to the Times Free Press on Monday, responding to a question about their stance on the project. "We have and will continue to serve our community -- this has never been an issue with this project. ... The academy will always take a stand to protect the over 1,300 children on campus, but that does not make us opposed to this project. Questions and concerns have simply arisen out of the lack of detailed information from the city."

Over the past two weeks, school leaders said, they have had several conversations with city elected leaders that "have proven beneficial." Officials at the Silverdale Baptist Academy say they're concerned there won't be enough infrastructure available to make the project successful.

Thongnopnua said CARTA GO, the transit authority's dial-a-ride route, will provide transportation on demand for residents at the facility, and the city is also happy to include 24/7 security at the site as a requirement in the request for proposals. Officials intend to establish an advisory council that would ensure residents feel supported and properly integrated into the community.

To provide context about how they would approach the project, city leaders invited representatives from an organization called Step Up to the meeting last week. The agency has completed similar hotel conversions in other parts of the U.S. Step Up plans to submit a proposal for the Airport Inn conversion and has also received $1.5 million in federal pandemic relief funds from the city to provide supportive services in Chattanooga.

CEO Tod Lipka said by phone that his staff typically spends the first several months helping tenants adjust to basic day-to-day life. That includes getting into the habit of cleaning their apartment, setting up a schedule, budgeting and cooking.

Learning those routines can be challenging for someone who has just left homelessness. He recalls one woman who described the adjustment of transitioning from living in shelters on and off for years to moving to her own place. Most shelters require people to leave early in the morning.

"She was out at 6:30 and she called her daughter, and her daughter said, 'Mom what are you doing out? Go home and go back to bed. You can sleep in,'" he said.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.

  photo  Staff Photo by David Floyd / Attendees listen to a question during a community meeting on Oct. 26 at the Family Justice Center about plans to convert the former Airport Inn into 70 units of permanent supporting housing.
 
 



Upcoming Events