More than 100 people, among them builders, landlords, neighborhood volunteers and citizen advocates, spent their Saturday morning tugging at the knots in the tapestry that makes up Chattanooga's housing picture.
"When you put a roof over somebody's head, you're laying the foundation for everything else in their life," Mayor Andy Berke told the crowd gathered at the Family Justice Center off Brainerd Road.
While he likes to tout Chattanooga's successes, including the sixth-highest wage growth in the nation last year and the fastest rate of population growth among Tennessee's largest cities, Berke said not everyone shares in that prosperity. And those are the people most affected by upward pressure on home prices and rental rates.
"The housing system is this big ecosystem, and every piece affects the others," Berke said. The city called on the various nongovernmental groups because "we don't have the tools and money to solve this ourselves."
He noted that while the need for affordable housing is rising, the federal government has been cutting funds to build it for years.
John Bridger, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency, shared the statistics on local housing:
> The number of families is shrinking, while the number of non-family households and singles is growing. Single-parent families comprise nearly 30 percent of households, up from less than 10 percent in the mid-1960s.
> Except for the top 1 percent, wages until recently were flat or growing only very slowly. Chattanooga's median household income as of 2016 was $41,278 and 57 percent of households earned less than $49,000 a year.
> In 2017, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency reported only 30 percent of median wage-earners in Chattanooga could afford to buy a home. Almost a quarter of Chattanooga's renters are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, and rental rates shot up by more than 15 percent from 2017 to 2018.
Meanwhile, Bridger said, the highest percentage of homeownership is among baby boomers, who have no intention of selling their houses so younger folks can move in. Younger people are hobbled by student debt and low-wage jobs, and as many as a third of Millennials are still living at home with their parents.
A study last year showed the city will need nearly 7,000 more homes built at below-market rates beyond what's needed now, but projections are that the largest segment of new construction over the decade will be in the $350,000 to $500,000 range.
It's a question of political will, said Michael Gilliland, board chairman of Chattanooga Organized for Action.
"This city is divided between islands of opportunity and deserts of opportunity. We need to make sure our neighborhoods are accessible to everyone," said Gilliland, an invited speaker.
He said he is excited that Berke budgeted $1 million for affordable housing "so we can take responsibility for meeting these needs."
And that's where the conference participants really dug in. In groups of eight, they considered how to solve barriers to housing for hypothetical people, including a couple who were renting half a duplex and hoped to buy it; a single mother of three who lost her second job and was facing eviction from her apartment; and a low-income widower with medical bills hoping to stay in the big four-bedroom home where he raised his family.
Around the tables, the groups buzzed with talk. Was there a shelter, an extended stay hotel or emergency housing for the single mom, and if there were, could she get into it quickly? Should the young couple take on more debt to buy the duplex, or keep renting for awhile to pay down their other loans and build up cash for the purchase? Was there a way to do needed repairs on the widower's house so he could sell it for market value and downsize?
Others talked about zoning, land-use and other policy constraints. Neighborhoods of whatever type often resist housing that doesn't fit into the pattern, such as apartments, condos or accessory dwelling units like granny flats in a suburban area.
"It's prohibitively difficult to do anything other than R-1 [residential zoning]," said Matt Lyle, a project manager with Franklin Architects. "Right now, the path of least resistance is not conducive to us building what would alleviate those problems."
Developer Bobby Adamson said he has worked to build affordable homes but that city requirements, such as lot spacing, energy efficiency and landscaping, push up the cost.
"If I didn't have houses I was building somewhere else for market rate, I couldn't make it on affordable houses," Adamson said.
Donna Williams, the city's Economic and Community Development director, said Saturday's event aimed to name the barriers to housing for everyone. A second session is set for Nov. 10 to begin talking about solutions, she said.
"The purpose of this conference is to get more and more voices in the housing conversation," Williams said.
Berke added, "Were going to have to enable the people in this room to figure out some way to have all the housing we need all across this city."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.