Mayor Andy Berke exited a 15-passenger, city-owned van in Bushtown Friday afternoon and let Bobby Adamson lead him up the stairs and into one of the newer homes he's constructed.
Adamson, who has worked in construction since he was 16, has owned his own company since 1993. He estimates he's built hundreds of houses in Chattanooga.
The three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot house Adamson showed Berke on Friday would be unassuming to a passerby—but the modest home had caught the mayor's eye. The combination of its location, affordability and quality had caused Berke to single it out and say he'd like to see similar houses be built across the city as part of a new affordable housing pilot program his office is set to formally announce in September.
"You can see what a house of this quality, which is also affordable, does for the entire neighborhood," Berke said, motioning to a handful of other new homes that had been built on the same block. "We talk about affordable housing, but it's also important to talk about quality housing. And if you look around this house, you would be happy to live here in any neighborhood in the city—that's what we mean when we talk about affordable housing in the city—that's going to bring up the entire neighborhood."
The new program, which will be administered through the Department of Economic and Community Development, will provide incentives for developers to turn vacant or empty city-owned lots into quality affordable housing units. Berke has marked $500,000 for the program's initial year in his 2014 budget, which the City Council is likely to begin the voting process on next week.
Berke hopes the program will provide a way for private dollars to leverage zero or negative-valued city-owned properties, strengthen neighborhoods and add to city tax rolls in the process. If approved developers agree to rehab city-owned lots, they would be bound to offering the homes at affordable rent rates for at least 10 to 20 years.
Donna C. Williams, ECD administrator, said she hopes 25 to 30 single-family homes will become available through the program this year. Williams said that although all homes would be offered as rental properties, the prospect of a home ownership track could be considered in the future, depending on the success of the pilot program.
"The market right now is huge for rental," Williams said.
Developers in the program would become owners of the property and serve as landlords, Williams said. Williams added that the city's plans were unique from other areas.
"We're using private money to make our money go further," she said. "It's not typical for single-unit housing."
Berke also visited a new home in Churchville, as well as a vacant lot in Avondale that has been owned by the city since 1985. Berke said his goal was for private developers to take advantage of sites like the one in Avondale as part of the program and construct homes like the ones he visited in both Bushtown and Churchville.
"I hear all the time about the lack of availability of quality affordable housing," he said in remarks to reporters. "Through this partnership, through leveraging the good, private use of property by developers, we will turn this into opportunity and strengthen neighborhoods."
The mayor added that the city owned a "huge supply" of vacant property that could be utilized in the program but did not give a specific count of vacant or empty lots.
"We have a number of parcels, more than we could possibly do in this program," he said. "This is the start of a process."
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