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Report on Chattanooga affordable housing, homelessness

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The city of Chattanooga's Economic and Community Development department presented its affordable housing action plan earlier this week, sharing the ideas of 53 community members to help solve homelessness in Chattanooga.

With 115 participants in the city's two Housing Connection Conferences late last year, seven action teams comprised of community members formed to tackle the different challenges facing affordable housing.

After more than 40 meetings of the teams in the last six months, Economic and Community Development Administrator Donna Williams presented the teams' findings to the city council Tuesday.

"Sometimes it's hard to believe that we're in Chattanooga with some of the prices that you see," Williams said. "We talked about the conditions here and what's driving some of the development and how successful some projects are being here in Chattanooga and also about shifting housing demographics ... and then we asked each team for their actionable ideas on solving these problems."

The teams provided an array of ideas for the city to improve housing access, including increased outreach to the homeless and building incentives, but also some more systematic changes for how the city could enforce its goals such as:

» Altering tax-increment financing (TIF) requirements for entities receiving city funding,

» Forming a city affordable housing policy committee to identify housing barriers and develop community-based policy recommendations to address them, and

» Creating a "homeless preference" program with local utilities for people experiencing homelessness or offering community service hours as a way to pay off debt.

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Chattanooga Economic and Community Development Administrator Donna Williams

"I know that some of the recommendations differ from things that individual council members are willing to or want to embrace, and some of the things, frankly, are not allowed by state statute," Williams cautioned. "But what I wanted to do was present to you what the teams presented to us. I didn't want to edit anything."

The presentation comes just two weeks after Mayor Andy Berke presented his proposed fiscal year 2020 budget, which includes more than $1.3 million to combat homelessness in the city. More than $750,000 of that is allocated for personnel, including hiring seven new employees, and more than $600,000 will be distributed among Family Promise, Room at the Inn, the Goodwill Furniture Bank and the Homelessness Coalition.

"We have a homelessness action team that works under economic and community development. Over the last several years, they've worked virtually exclusively with people who are veterans," Berke said in an interview earlier in May. "Essentially what the budget does is expands out that team and allows them to work with people who are not just veterans."

Berke's proposed homelessness funding is up 87% from $731,644 in 2019, and 196% from $462,000 in FY18.

"There have been moments when they've done that in the past," Berke said, referencing closures of tent cities and hotels in Chattanooga that prompted influxes in the homeless population. "It's a process, and what this budget does is shows that we're working on this in good faith."

Even as funding comes into place, Williams said, the laundry list of improvement ideas from the team is unofficial, and shared only to provide a fair glimpse at what the teams were prioritizing.

Contact Sarah Grace taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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