Chattanooga council OKs request for developer, service provider to convert motel into housing

Staff File Photo by David Floyd / Chattanooga plans to convert the former Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway into about 70 units of permanent supportive housing.

The city of Chattanooga is making a formal request for a developer and service provider to help convert a vacant motel into about 70 units of housing for people transitioning out of homelessness.

In October 2021, the city purchased the former Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway for $2.8 million using federal pandemic relief funds.

Mayor Tim Kelly's administration plans to transform the property into permanent supportive housing, which city officials have described as a best practices model that combines apartments with around-the-clock services.

After spending a couple weeks reviewing the document and ensuring it reflects certain commitments made by Kelly and his staff, the Chattanooga City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to issue a request for proposals for a developer that will renovate the property and a provider of supportive services. The city will begin soliciting proposals this week.

The panel approved the document under the condition that developers and service providers be able to apply separately, clawback provisions exist that cover both the property itself and fees paid to a service provider, and that the city form an oversight committee consisting of members appointed by each of the nine council members, although the precise structure of the board is still being determined.

Kelly's chief of staff, Joda Thongnopnua, said in an interview before the meeting that the changes to the request for proposals don't reflect any substantial shift in the project itself. The administration wanted to be sure the City Council had confidence in the promises staff had already made to the community.

According to a news release from Kelly's office, the deadline for applicants to submit proposals will be Feb. 15, and the city will notify awardees the week of March 4. Thongnopnua said he is hopeful construction can start in the first half of 2023.

"We obviously have a tremendous need for these supportive housing units, and they can't go up fast enough," he said. "The hope is that whoever is awarded the contract is able to start construction pretty quickly after being deeded the property."

The version of the request for proposals that council members approved Tuesday states that the project must fulfill promises included in a "contract with the community," Kelly addressed during a public meeting at the Family Justice Center in October.

That includes increasing enforcement around the property by the Chattanooga Police Department, implementing a permanent no-camping buffer on the land and providing 24/7 on-site security as well as cameras linked to the city's Real-Time Intelligence Center.

People on the sex offender registry, with a serious violent felony conviction or with a drug manufacturing charge will not be eligible to live at the facility.

Thongnopnua said city leaders are still determining the form the oversight committee will take. The city will expect the service provider to supply regular reports on their effectiveness, and the new panel will play a role in addressing certain complaints if they arise.

Councilwoman Carol Berz, of Brainerd Hills, represents the district that includes the former Airport Inn property. She stated during an agenda review meeting Tuesday that the oversight committee could also play a role in similar supportive housing efforts if the converted Airport Inn becomes a model for other projects in Chattanooga.

As of April, the city has identified about $5.6 million worth of rehabilitation needs at the former Airport Inn, and Thongnopnua said the city expects developers to show up with financing to handle the renovations that won't require additional investment from the city. Although they won't know the exact cost structure until proposals come in, Thongnopnua said officials do expect there will be an ongoing cost to the city for supportive services at the site.

According to Kelly's office, research from the Center for Supportive Housing shows that there is a shortage of approximately 400 permanent supportive housing units across Chattanooga.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.