With 1,300 to 1,600 people in Chattanooga waiting for federal housing vouchers, there are different schools of thought on how to increase the city's limited stock of low-income housing.
Mayor Andy Berke announced his proposal this summer to give away city-owned land to private developers to build affordable, quality houses.
And Donna Williams, who heads the city's Office of Economic and Community Development, said officials have found their first breakthrough to make a larger impact on housing options. In December, the city received 100 Housing Choice program vouchers, which could potentially give people the option to bypass the Chattanooga Housing Authority's long waiting list.
"That's awesome," Williams said. "That's what it's about, giving folks options."
Private developers can receive the vouchers and build "voucher houses" on city land, giving residents who qualify but haven't received federal assistance the option to rent the property, Williams said. Tenants who pay rent consistently for one year will also own a voucher, which they can use anywhere in the country.
Berke calls the plan the Affordable Housing Program Pilot and said it will target land the city owns through property tax foreclosures. The city and county jointly own about 266 properties.
The goal for this year is to have 30 low-income families in houses by the end of the fiscal year on June 30. That gives officials a little more than six months to finish vetting the properties and find developers to build the houses.
Developers will be required to rent to tenants who fall within the "very low" income range, which equals about $26,000 in income for a family of three.
A recent study by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency identified more than 16,000 Chattanooga households with incomes lower than $20,000.
The city has identified nearly 100 lots either vacant or with dilapidated buildings that could be given to a developer, but one of the first hurdles for the city is basic -- actually owning the land.
Since the county also jointly owns those properties, officials will have to ask county government to hand over the land. Williams said city officials haven't made a request. But Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he doesn't think it's an unreasonable request.
"On the surface it looks very doable," he said.
Some residents, who have been vocal about a community-led plan to create more low-income housing, are skeptical of Berke's plan and question a method that could break up communities and spread people across the city.
"When you do that type of scattering, how long does it take to create a village? How long does it take to create a community?" asked the Rev. Leroy Griffith, who pastors Renaissance Presbyterian Church. "We've been working to build a community that cares about one another."
Griffith and his wife, Gloria, are members of the Westside Community Association, where the largest number of renters with incomes less than $20,000 live. The association has proposed an ordinance that would require 10 percent of multifamily housing built in the city's urban core be set aside for lower-income families.
The association proposed its ordinance twice to city officials, once in September 2012 to the last City Council and again this September to the newly elected City Council. The Griffiths and Chattanooga Organized for Action President Perrin Lance said they have asked to meet with Williams to talk about the plan, but nothing's been arranged.
Williams said she has asked the group to bring at least one neighborhood association leader with them to show the community supports the initiative.
City officials say their plan offers incentives, giving developers up to $20,000 for the building expenses.
Councilman Moses Freeman said it's not a good idea to mandate that builders and developers section off part of their developments for low-income housing.
"I think it's too expensive a proposition on the builder and would cut in the profit margin and drive up the cost of housing," he said.
Both sides believe their plans would be quicker to address Chattanooga's limited low-income housing options. But Lance said there is no reason why both plans couldn't be adopted.
"Thirty families is a really nice start, but there's [thousands] on a waiting list." he said.
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...