You know that saying about the only thing needed for bad to triumph is for good people to say nothing?
Perhaps that was the case — not that bad triumphed, but that good people didn't speak up — recently when about two dozen residents of the Ferger Place community met to talk about a proposal to turn an eyesore warehouse across the street into 60 affordable housing apartments, 15 of which would be reserved for low-income renters struggling with mental health issues.
Some in the meeting shouted, "Who cares?" and "That's their problem."
One man told city representatives that the project's target demographic would stunt the century-old neighborhood's growth: "The first thing is the building is out of context for the neighborhood, it's all single family," he said of the proposal. "And then what happens with the psychological effect of bringing 60 low-income, poverty stricken people in to the neighborhood — you are absolutely stifling the [neighborhood's] potential."
Or maybe you are absolutely jump-starting it and saving it from the urban blight around it? Or maybe you see community as something to share as well to guard?
Ferger Place's Morningside Drive and Eveningside Drive were and are the linchpins of Chattanooga's first "planned community." And the neighborhood does have some residents who see the advantages of this proposal. One of them, Ruth Ann Graham, wrote a letter to the editor about it over the weekend.
"In fact, many Ferger Place residents support the proposed development for 60 affordable housing units at 1815 Main Street and were dismayed that the [Times Free Press] article gave voice only to one neighbor who was in strong opposition Had I known that the loudest voice at our Ferger Place neighborhood social would receive the greatest newspaper coverage, I might have approached our meeting differently. I fully support this project and look forward to learning what I can do to welcome our future neighbors."
We agree with her, and think turning a brownfield warehouse into a community blessing has the ideals of Ferger Place's many turn-of-the-century homes in mind.
The idea began to stir controversy in early February when two private partners put their idea in front of the Chattanooga City Council. They would help the city with two perennial problems — a lack of affordable housing and homelessness, which often has its roots in mental illness.
The local AIM Center, which offers employment, education, housing, socialization and wellness opportunities for adults living with serious mental illness, and the Vecino Group, a Missouri-based development company that focuses on supportive residential developments, want to revamp the former site of Arcade Beauty at 1815 Main Street into affordable apartments.
And they want to do it at no cost to the city of Chattanooga — except for the city's donation of the property and surplus building that currently is costing taxpayers 60,000 a year for maintenance of nearly uninhabitable space. The city had already deemed the property as largely unmarketable because potential environmental cleanup scares away developers looking for quick and substantial profit.
The AIM Center, with a 31-year track record here and more than 70 similar units in Chattanooga, already is providing similar services to about 80 people.
"We prioritize housing first because you have to have a place to stay before you can be expected to get a job or work on your mental health," said Jim McClure, the AIM Center's chief financial officer.
The added bonus of 45 affordable apartments in Chattanooga on Main Street could be a community saver. In Chattanooga, 24% of homeowners and 40% of renters are housing cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their gross annual income on housing, according to the Tennessee Housing Development Agency. Housing stability means a safer neighborhood.
Still, the "not in my back yard" attitude toward low-income housing is common, though not really based in fact, says Tyler Yount, director of special projects for the city of Chattanooga.
"There's really not data that suggests that adding affordable housing hurts a neighborhood or its property values. When you look at what this project really is, it's a $12 million investment and it's potentially getting people off of the streets. That seems like a plus to any neighborhood," he told Times Free Press reporter Sarah Grace Taylor. "We've seen it before where people have some idea of what income-restricted housing or the people who live there look like, and they react out of fear."
Within a week of hearing about the proposal, the Chattanooga City Council unanimously approved two resolutions authorizing the city mayor to begin negotiations and a brownfield application in preparation for the project.
Ferger Place is, without question a wonderful neighborhood — an island in a section of Main Street that has seen better days. Now it's time to put fears and biases aside and grow the island, not the blight.