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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / The Chattanooga City Council holds a voting session Aug. 22, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The city of Chattanooga is looking to put $1.8 million toward utility and rent payments for citizens, as the number of requests for assistance grows due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.

The City Council will vote Tuesday on a series of ordinances that will earmark up to $850,000 of existing city funds and an additional $930,000 in anticipated federal coronavirus relief funds for housing costs for residents, including a broader swath of people than can usually access public housing funds, to respond to the economic impact of the virus and response, which has resulted in more than 10% of the area's workforce filing for unemployment.

In a phone call Friday, Economic and Community Development Director Donna Williams explained the increased need for housing assistance in the community, which already struggles with housing costs but has been battered by weather and the virus in recent weeks.

"We are in the midst of a number of crises, unfortunately, which have converged," Williams said, referencing the virus and recent tornado that have impacted the city. "There are many folks in need of help from the city and from other partners in the city."

In order to cushion the blow of the unprecedented economic crisis, Williams wants to pool money from three sources to provide funding for a larger number and less restrictive population of residents.

"We are looking at how to help as many people make it through this without losing housing, even though so many are losing their income, as possible," she said. "This is something that we've never seen before and there are a whole lot of people and industries that have never needed assistance before having to apply now."

The biggest of the three sources is $938,000 designated to the city through the federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It is earmarked for this and does not affect the city's other funds.

The remaining $850,000 includes$600,000 from the city's Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds and $250,000 from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency.

In recent weeks, the funding restrictions have been loosened federally to accommodate more families and individuals as unemployment booms in the wake of the virus, allowing the city to provide some funding to households making as much as 120% of the area's median income, up from the usual 80%, and allowing 100% of a city's HUD funds to be used for personal assistance, such as rent and utility payments, up from the 15% regularly allowed.

Though the existing HUD funds had once been earmarked for creating additional low-to-moderate income housing in the city, Williams said the personal assistance needs have become so great in recent weeks that her office has had to pivot what it will prioritize in the immediate future.

"While we are steadily, consistently and unwaveringly looking to help folks find new housing and add to the city's housing stock, how silly would it be if we let people who had housing lose it because of the virus?" she said.

Williams said that of the roughly 250 people to apply for city assistance, only around 10 have not qualified under the loosened restrictions.

If the council approves the ordinance both of the next two weeks, the funds will go toward the increasing number of local residents who have become eligible for public housing assistance.

Williams told the Times Free Press Friday that more funding was being provided to the THDA by the federal government in light of COVID-19 and that the city would apply for additional money.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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