Many leading Chattanooga mayoral candidates have recognized affordable housing as a top priority, beginning to collaborate with Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise ahead of the election.
In a series of recorded interviews with CNE, eight of the 15 mayoral candidates vying for office on March 2 shared their affordable housing platforms and talked strategy with the nonprofit, which has worked to provide housing and create financially diverse neighborhoods in the city for more than three decades.
"We're seeing it in the polls, we're seeing it in the surveys, people care about housing. Everybody's coming to the conclusion it has to be a priority," CNE Policy Advocate Alexa LeBoeuf told the Times Free Press Thursday. "So when the follow-up question from candidates is 'OK, tell me how,' that's really exciting. It doesn't feel like we're trying to convince people housing matters."
In November, CNE released a plan based on a Healthy Neighborhoods study, performed by Virginia-based urban consultant group czbLLC in 2019, ranking Chattanooga's strongest and weakest neighborhoods based on over 40,000 houses and a number of economic and environmental factors like education.
With the findings, CNE crafted a "framework," encouraging the upcoming mayoral administration and council to consider which they believe will support thriving neighborhoods and housing, while managing both economic growth and needs of residents.
CEO Martina Guilfoil said the group is focused on creating these relationships and providing resources to candidates before and during their time in office.
"We want to be side-by-side partners. So when something's being considered, we're getting called, even on the theoretical side, but also I think where we can really add value is the practical."
So the group invited each mayoral candidate to participate in an interview about those and any other plans the candidates would have for addressing housing to encourage and inform the next mayor.
"I think because CNE is in the position of being the one organization in town that understands and lives affordable housing every day and we're in the weeds, we are able to work proactively with candidates," Guilfoil said. "To one, bring it to the forefront of their thinking and their vision about what's possible. And then, bringing a group of stakeholders together to start already having conversations around how what is affordable housing kind of looks like in your field in your industry. And then to help the candidates kind of get a jump on that."
Then, she said CNE will be able to back the new administration on making tough housing changes.
"And then also working with candidates so they have the support that they need to be able to access best practices and some advocacy, because some of the positions aren't going to be favorable and they're not going to be popular," she said. "A lot of people don't want affordable housing in their neighborhood. So you have to be able to provide support and coverage for folks when they start making those hard decisions."
Of the eight mayoral candidates who agreed to participate in the interview process, Guilfoil said five — Monty Bruell, Wade Hinton, Tim Kelly, Erskine Oglesby and Kim White — had well thought-out plans to address the housing issue, which signifies a community ready to address the complex issue. George Love, Andrew McLaren and Robert Wilson were also interviewed.
All of the candidate interviews are available on CNE's website.
Bruell said he would address housing by tailoring solutions to each individual neighborhood and bringing swift, bold changes to the city's housing approach.
"At a certain point, there are diminishing returns to having more meetings and having more talk. You just have to go do some stuff," Bruell said. "... it's time for us to bring real bold change to Chattanooga, so let's not do what we've done before. Let's not fall for it again."
Bruell also said outreach to the people who need housing help the most will be pivotal to decision making. And he hopes to see and use additional infrastructural funding from Congress toward housing.
Hinton said he would address housing, and other large investments, strategically by planning out long-term investments, instead of tackling the issue year by year.
"We're exploring the best practices of a multi-year financial planning process. You know, we're able to look at budget decisions through a lens of their impact over a three to five year period, rather than a year-by-year basis," Hinton said. "And I think this will certainly help it be easier to see the fiscal benefits of different strategies that we'll be implementing and adopting."
Hinton also said he would focus on "creative" solutions by collaborating with stakeholders, including residents, and drawing inspiration from other cities, citing Nashville's housing fund.
Kelly said his approach would largely mirror the CNE framework, adding that affordable housing will be his top priority along with education, in order to avoid a further divided economy as Chattanooga continues to grow.
"It really is a Goldilocks problem, because we want development on the one hand, absolutely we do. Our long term longitudinal growth rate here is well behind our regional peers," Kelly said. "But at the same time, if that happens, it could create this — and it almost will if not addressed — create this gap that also isn't sustainable. And we know that divided economies never end well."
Kelly said he will lean on both the city's revenue and partnerships with private groups to provide additional affordable housing.
Oglesby, sitting councilman for District 7, which includes much of downtown Chattanooga, said he would use his understanding of governmental processes and the position on the City Council to drive change in housing and other economic factors that contribute to opportunity.
"I'm a kid that — well I was a kid, I'm a little bit more than a kid now — that grew up in public housing, and I saw the difference between me living in public housing, and some of my friends who didn't," Oglesby said. "And people deserve to have the quality of life that they need and housing with the amenities that go with it. And with the empowerment and the respect that goes with it and ... I want every citizen who wants that to reach their full potential."
Oglesby said he will focus on infrastructure, early childhood education, public safety and other factors to provide a holistic solution to the affordable housing problem.
White said that she would invest heavily in creating healthy neighborhoods from day one in office, not only because they drive the general economy, but because of a heightened need for housing and neighborhood resources due to the current economic climate.
"The investments that we make in our neighborhoods are [some] of the best longterm investments we can make as a city to be a great city," White said, noting her commitment to put $2 million toward affordable housing in her first budget if elected. "I think we'll look at other revenue streams, but I don't see the budget constraints being a detractor. I think it really puts a sense of urgency on the fact that we need affordable housing and strong neighborhoods now more than ever."
White also said she will work with the city and developers to streamline the process of building affordable housing.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.
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