Chattanooga's new owner-occupied duplex program draws both support and critics

Chattanooga's new owner-occupied duplex program draws both support and critics

May 13th, 2019 by Allison Shirk Collins in Business Around the Region

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Vacant duplexes are boarded up in the 2000 block of Milne Street Monday, March 25, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The duplexes were built in the 1940s and 1950s for returning World War II veterans and their families, but they now show years of neglect.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

The Avondale neighborhood in East Chattanooga has a surplus of duplexes — several of them vacant — and while the city of Chattanooga wants to help put homeowners and renters in them through its new "Owner-Occupied Duplex Program," some residents have concerns about an increase of renters in the neighborhood.

At Monday's Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission meeting, commissioners approved requests to rezone four properties on Milne Street and Arlington Avenue in the Avondale and Glenwood neighborhoods to R-2 zoning, which will allow them to be used as a duplex. A 2004 ordinance created by the city states that any duplexes left vacant for 100 days or more are automatically rezoned from R-2 back to a single-family R-1 zoning.

Three of the properties — located at 2005, 2007 and 2009 Milne St. — are owned by the city and will be a part of the new duplex program that Mayor Andy Berke and city staff announced in late February. The vacant, blighted duplexes on Milne Street, and similar ones in the same neighborhood, were built in the 1940s and '50s for returning World War II veterans and their families, but they now show years of neglect.

City staff has been working with the neighborhood leadership for the past year on how the city can help create affordable housing in the neighborhood and attract homeowners, said Donna Williams, administrator of the Office of Economic and Community Development on Monday.

Williams said the owner-occupied duplex program is the result of those talks, and the program would require that one side of the duplex is owner-occupied and the other side is restricted to a low-to-moderate income renter. The duplexes would not be torn down but refurbished, and the city has funds to provide up to a $20,000 homebuyer incentive for purchasers who want to invest in the neighborhood.

"We see this as a great opportunity to attract investment into the neighborhood and to demonstrate what a really nice design and a well-built duplex looks like," Williams said.

According to Williams, several people have expressed interest in the program.

Willena Woods, a Milne Street resident, spoke against the rezoning at the meeting, though. She said that she and neighbors surrounding her weren't aware of the notice for rezoning and opposed renters in the duplexes again.

"When they were rental property before there was so much chaos and so much crime that now, in the last few years, we have had peace and we've had quiet," she said.

Woods said neighbors would rather see it destroyed or kept as an R-1 zoning to allow for a single-family home.

Councilman Anthony Byrd represents the district and Avondale neighborhood where the duplexes are located and has shown support for the program. The neighborhood has a median home value of $67,500, with only 21 percent of the homes owned by residents. A majority, 61 percent, are rented while 18 percent are undeveloped, according to figures provided by the United Way of Greater Chattanooga and 2016 census numbers.

A zoning study of the Avondale neighborhood in 2004 showed that 99 percent of the residential zoning fell under the R-2 and R-3 categories. Avondale had six times the number of duplexes as nearby East Chattanooga even though they were similar in size and had similar zoning.

The Avondale Neighborhood Plan from 2004 states that residents expressed concern about the proliferation of duplex housing at the expense of single-family residences, citing absentee owners who fail to maintain the properties as a big issue.

According to the plan and city data, over 65% of the code violations recorded in 2002, 2003 and 2004 were given to non-owner occupied properties. Although people viewed duplexes in a negative light, the plan has a goal to explore innovative programs that encourage renovation and owner-occupancy of existing duplexes, planning staff said Monday.

Property owner Oscar Reyes was also seeking a rezoning of a duplex at 1604 Arlington Ave., which was rezoned following the Avondale Neighborhood Plan. Planning staff recommended commissioners approve the request.

Both councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod and Avondale Neighborhood Association President Ken Smith opposed the rezoning, stating the owner hadn't reached out to them yet and they wanted to make sure he understood the neighborhood's plan and goals. They asked commissioners to deny the zoning change.

Reyes said if he didn't choose to live in it then he would sell it and market it as a place where the buyer could live and rent out the other side. Reyes said he was willing to work with the neighborhood and City Council but he just wasn't aware.

"This property has some good intentions I want to bring this place back to better than it was – or has ever been – actually." Reyes said at the meeting.

Commissioner Jason Farmer said he applauds the planning staff for recommending to approve the rezoning request.

"We have an affordable housing issue in this town, and we have so many vacant units that are sitting there just empty," he said. "We have these landlords that come out here and we deny them and these things just sit vacant again."

Chairman Ethan Collier agreed.

"It doesn't matter what neighborhood we are talking about, it's crazy to me that we can fill a room with people who are opposed to renters," Collier said. "How in the world have we grown (into) a society that is opposed to renters. We are talking in regards to land use about conditions that would require home ownership when home ownership is incredibly difficult and very expensive right now."

"God forbid you're a renter," Collier added after the commission unanimously approved the rezoning.

After the vote, Smith spoke with Reyes and clarified that he is in favor of the city's new owner-occupied program, and renters aren't the problem but absentee landlords cause the issues.

"We are not against renters at all," he said. "What we are against are these out-of-town landlords who have no connection to the community. It is a devastating blow to deal with the consequences of absentee landlords."

The City Council will hear both cases at their regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, June 11.

Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at ashirk@timesfreepress.com, @AllisonSCollins or 423-757-6651.