With Chattanooga's new chief housing officer in her second month on the job, city leaders are developing a strategy for boosting affordable housing, which will include taking stock of the existing real estate market and identifying neighborhoods where there is a higher risk of gentrification and displacement.
During its Dec. 20 meeting, the Chattanooga City Council authorized staff to seek outside experts for a market analysis report, a systems analysis and a consultant team coordinator who will support city staff members as they develop an affordable housing action plan. The city has posted notices for consultants to apply by Jan. 13.
"All of them are really instrumental in helping us set the table for what is going to be our affordable housing strategy going forward," Nicole Heyman, who started as Chattanooga's chief housing officer in early November, told council members recently.
Heyman said consultants will help Chattanooga officials determine where the city may need to proactively intervene to prevent people from being priced out of their homes.
They will also help determine the number of affordable units that will need to be built over the next several years to accommodate people at different price points and pinpoint resources and programs they can use to better encourage the development and preservation of affordable housing.
"We're basically trying to build on the momentum and good work that's already been done under (Mayor Tim Kelly's) administration," Heyman said in a phone interview Tuesday. "We're really trying to make sure that we have all the foundational data that we need to understand where we are."
Heyman said the market analysis will capture the current housing climate in the city, and the systems analysis will help Chattanooga officials discern how they can best use available tools, such as dollars the city receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
City Council member Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, heads a new ad hoc committee dedicated to affordable housing and lauded Heyman's leadership in a phone interview Wednesday, saying Heyman has a lot of experience in building comprehensive housing strategies for cities.
"We are on the brink of becoming a city where people who work in Chattanooga can't afford to live here," Hill said. "We have pressure at every level of affordability, and everybody has a number that they can afford."
City leaders recognize that they have a significant challenge on their hands, Hill said. These studies will allow the city to quickly gather all the data it needs to tackle the problem, she said, which could take longer if done in-house.
"We're hopeful that by having this body of research completed, we're going to be ready to be really actively moving toward implementation of a bevy of solutions hopefully by the second quarter of 2023," Hill said.
Hill reiterated that the data gathered through the process will allow city leaders to identify the housing that needs to be preserved or replaced. Additionally, she said, the city needs to develop a clear strategy for using incentives like special tax districts or tax agreements.
"I also think that we're also going to see some really smart and new, in our community, financing options and encouragements for people in the private sector who want to build housing," Hill said.
Currently on the second floor of City Hall, Heyman will have a permanent office sometime in the next couple of weeks and is working directly with employees in the Office of Economic Development who manage the city's federal grant dollars. Heyman will be bringing on at least one more staff person in the coming months to help her at the policy level.
"Having that capacity is going to speed things up," she said about the consultants, "because if I had to wait to bring on some additional staff it would really slow things down."
Heyman is also helping the city drive a $100 million housing plan that Kelly announced in March. The mayor has committed $33 million in the city's current budget to the initiative, and Kelly's administration has said it plans to raise an additional $67 million from nonprofit, philanthropic and private partners.
As of mid-November, $15.2 million has been spent on a combination of initiatives, including projects that the city has projected will create a total of 236 affordable housing units. Most of that allocated money comes from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds approved by Democrats in Congress in 2021.