Monday, November 24, 2014 · 3:09 a.m.
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Walnut Commons is one of several downtown apartment complexes in the works, but despite several new apartment buildings going up around downtown, officials say there is a shortage of affordable housing in the downtown region. The average Chattanoogan has $620 per month for rent, but the average monthly rent in Chattanooga is $732. (Graphic: Contributed)

With only two hours to present the findings of a yearlong study on the state of affordable housing in Chattanooga, Regional Planning Agency Director John Bridger had his hands full Monday night. 

Bridger, along with a panel of more than a dozen "players" in the city's housing and development industry, offered insights on a presentation that summarized recent changes and trends to housing in the city, took stock of Chattanooga's current urban housing situation, and offered suggestions for future action. 

More than 100 residents and officials attended the event at Battle Academy, including Mayor Ron Littlefield and City Council members Pam Ladd, Andraé McGary, Manny Rico and Sally Robinson.

Chattanooga Housing Authority Executive Director Betsy McCright, Rep. JoAnne Favors, River City Company President Kim White, and several members of the Westside Community Association and Chattanooga Organized for Action also attended the meeting.

Primarily focusing on the city's urban overlay zone—the area consisting of neighborhoods between Missionary Ridge and the Tennessee River—the presentation was the latest signpost in a conversation regarding the city's affordable housing and what steps could be taken to ensure it as a part of downtown's future.  

"We're not looking to get into the nitty-gritty," Bridger said, opening the event. "We want to look at what direction we're going. The purpose of tonight is to make sure we're all in the right universe."

Summarizing changes in demographic trends, Yuen Lee, RPA director of information and research, said a combination of smaller and single-parent families, higher unemployment rates and baby boomers transitioning into retirement correlated with an increased demand for smaller, more affordable housing. Lee based her findings on statistics drawn from census data, along with information collected during focus groups and surveys by the RPA. 

Lee said that for the past decade, housing developments had, on average, been suited for higher incomes than current demand. 

"Demand for lower-priced homes is increasing, especially affordable, quality homes in the urban overlay zone," Lee said.

Lee went on to show housing in the downtown area faced an affordability problem when contrasted with the city's median incomes. With the median household income leaving a typical Chattanooga family with $620 per month to put toward a home, the figure fell below the city's 2010 median gross rent of $685—and well below the average $732 monthly rent for an apartment. 

"The average housing cost burden, therefore, is between $65 and $112 a month," Lee said. "And more than 37,000 households in Chattanooga make less than $35,000 a year."

The figure elicited audible gasps from several audience members.

Lee went on to show that current MLS listings showcase only 325 properties in the downtown zone that are priced at $100,000 or less. For homes listed for $75,000 or less, approximately 200 were available in the urban overlay zone—failing to meet demand.

The figures presented many dilemmas for panelists, each of whom took brief moments to weigh in and interpret the RPA's analysis. 

Eric Myers, an architect for Elemi Architects, said he was "shocked" at the changes that had occurred in the housing market in the short period he had been observing recent trends. Myers suggested that doing more with less—such as reducing the number of bathrooms in a typical family home—would be some of the first steps developers could take when considering affordable housing.

"We can't believe that we can't afford the five-bedroom, three-bathroom house any more," Myers said. "But in my opinion, those days are over. Those days are long gone."

City Council Chair Pam Ladd emphasized that, in order for future housing initiatives to be successful, additional elements besides facilities would need to be taken into consideration, specifically with regards to the livability and economy of a development.

"You've got to make sure the housing that we have for low income has all the other elements of success: transportation, grocery stores, schools," Ladd said. "It's got to be a tighter environment."

Following the panel discussion, Bridger concluded the presentation with more slides outlining potential strategies for the city to take as it considers future affordable housing endeavors. Bridger suggested that strategies be "place-based" and consider connections between housing, transportation and services. Bridger recommended the idea of pairing modified building codes geared at affordable units with monetary incentives to encourage building.

Bridger also floated the idea of a future affordable housing trust for nonprofits and philanthropists to mark their private capital specifically for affordable housing projects in the city. Bridger suggested the trust could help fund discounted loans to first-time homebuyers who were willing to purchase and fix an old house.

Following the presentation, members of the audience were given approximately 12 minutes to ask questions.

Karl Epperson, a member of the Westside Community Association, reminded city officials of how he detailed his living expenses to them at a previous meeting. At the meeting, WCA members presented the council with a citizen-driven affordable housing ordinance, which was deferred and has yet to be considered by the council. 

Although Epperson did not ask a direct question, the resident appealed to the panelists to consider the needs of persons like him when discussing future housing initiatives for the city. Epperson indicated that an ordinance similar to WCA's—which mandates at least one and up to three out of every 10 new units in the zone be designated for low-income or moderate persons—would be necessary in order to ensure building of affordable units downtown.

"I presented my budget of $9,000 a year, and still to this day, I have to sometimes choose between dog food, milk and toilet paper," Epperson said. "And these gentlemen talk about impact fees. You're never going to do it voluntarily. If you build me a square, little, ugly house for me and my dog, I'll keep it so clean."

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