Chattanooga churches answer the call: Affordable housing initiatives in action

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Matthew Lanier, right, and his daughter Jewel, 6, offer tomatoes to Bevelle Puffer, left, at their booth during a community pancake breakfast and a farmers market held at St. Albans Episcopal Church in Hixson on July 15.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Matthew Lanier, right, and his daughter Jewel, 6, offer tomatoes to Bevelle Puffer, left, at their booth during a community pancake breakfast and a farmers market held at St. Albans Episcopal Church in Hixson on July 15.

The priest felt torn as he watched the stranger rail against the prayerfully made plans being presented for approval.

"These people are telling us they want to drop in low-income, government-subsidized 140-unit housing," Patrick Owings told a half-interested regional planning commission from behind a podium in April, sounding exasperated while ending his allowed three minutes after waiting three hours to speak.

"Citizens out there do not want this!" he said. "It does not fit!"

St. Alban's, a small, tight-knit Episcopal congregation tucked along Hixson Pike in northern Hamilton County, and its leader, the Rev. Robert Hartmans, wanted the planning commission to allow a zoning change request, making redevelopment of the church property possible.

Sorry, you are using an unsupported browser. This page will not display correctly.
Please click here to upgrade to a newer browser.

Like many churches challenged with political division, aging membership and pandemic disruption, St. Alban's sat on top of its best chance at financial viability.

As the national housing crisis persists, much of the vast acreage owned by local churches is more valuable than ever, and shrinking congregations have less use for the space than desperate home hunters, some pastors argue.

"Churches, since the pandemic, are seeing about a 30% or 40% drop in attendance," Terry Ladd, pastor of First Baptist Church on Eighth Street and one of several local pastors looking into housing development, said in an interview. "The majority of our buildings are sitting empty 95% of the time. It just doesn't make good sense and it isn't good ministry to have your resources not being available."

The need for housing among seniors remains particularly acute, St. Alban's members realized as they decided on a plan to tear down their existing sanctuary and replace it with a shared space where the church could continue to hold worship services in a large meeting area to be built alongside affordable apartments for seniors, who would also be able to use the meeting area.

Older members wouldn't be able to financially support the existing church property in the decades to come, and younger members weren't tithing like their parents and grandparents.


Hartmans understood what the ask would mean to the church's neighbors in Hixson.

Many moved from downtown for space and privacy, yet development continued encroaching. The church's plans, if successful, would no doubt add activity where many homeowners wanted less traffic, not more.

Many were also afraid to live near government-subsidized housing.

The church's nonprofit partners warned hopeful parishioners to brace for backlash. Homeowners nearby might understand the need for more affordable housing but would likely argue St. Alban's wasn't the right place to put it.

Still, even if local officials ignored neighborhood opposition and approved the zoning change, the church might not be awarded the state-granted tax credits needed to finance the project.

In years past, Chattanooga has been awarded far fewer credits than Tennessee's other major cities.

Though private development of small affordable housing units remained possible, albeit rare, large-scale affordable housing developments often don't move forward without such public subsidies — which Memphis, Knoxville and Nashville were also competing for.

Last year, Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist Church overcame harsh pushback to its plan to build 63 affordable housing units for seniors on part of its land in Brainerd only to find out the project wouldn't receive tax credits in 2022.

When opposition surfaced on social media after St. Alban's made plans public in March, Hartmans discouraged church members, concerned with inaccuracies being spread, from strident defense of the project.

"Just listen and respond with kindness," he told them. "We too have experienced change in ways that have been difficult and hurtful for us."

So Hartmans tried to remain calm as Owings came toward him at the April public hearing, after the planning commission approved the church's zoning change request, despite Owings' plea.

The plan also had to be approved by the Hamilton County Commission.

"These are the moments," Hartmans told himself.

"You want to know why this church is in decline?" Owings asked Hartmans, while firmly shaking his hand. "You are the reason."

Hartmans responded as several church members looked on.

"I am sorry you feel that way," he said, "and I hope that this isn't our last conversation."

Not long after, Owings found the church's phone number and called Hartmans with a surprising change of heart.

"I am really sorry for what I said yesterday," he told Hartmans, who explained more about how St. Alban's would struggle to exist without making better use of its land and how he believed helping create affordable housing for seniors honored the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Owings was a Christian, too, he told the Episcopal priest, and the Presbyterian church he attended was facing similar challenges.

"You aren't going to hear any more opposition from me," he said, before scheduling to have another chat with Hartmans over coffee.

Weeks later, when the county commission considered opposition before ruling in the church's favor, Owings wasn't among the disappointed.

More housing must be built to control inflation, especially in growing cities like Chattanooga, according to a cacophony of powerful voices across the political and professional spectrum.

"Currently, we're on track to have less than half the number of affordable rental units than we did ten years ago by 2030," Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly wrote as a preamble to the city's Housing Action Plan, which was released in August and calls for zoning reform, as well as increasing public subsidies for developers and downpayment assistance for homebuyers. Last year Kelly lauched a five-year, $100 million affordable housing initiative, seeded by $33 million from the city, with the rest expected from fundraising.

This summer the median price for a home in Chattanooga reached a record high of $339,950 — more than $200,000 higher than a decade ago.

Still, denser development is being resisted at the neighborhood level.

While more local homeowners want politicians to address the rising cost of housing — seeing family and friends struggle to secure a first home or afford rising rents — they don't typically want the apartment building needed to increase the local housing supply constructed next door.

In fact, this "not in my back yard" mentality has become so endemic to the housing affordability crisis that more state leaders, frustrated by the stalemate and desperate to break ground on more housing, are moving to strip local governments of the power to decide how local land is used.

Blue states like Washington, California, Oregon, Massachusetts and Maine, along with red states like Utah and Montana, have already moved to curb local zoning authority, and many other states are debating similar change, including Georgia.

In California, legislators are considering a bill that would allow churches to build affordable housing on land they own "by right" without having to seek approvals or reviews from city councils or planning departments.

This spring Colorado's Democratic governor pushed legislation to prevent local officials from banning the construction of accessory dwelling units, duplexes, triplexes and townhomes near transportation hubs in bigger cities, and in Georgia two bills proposed by Republicans and Democrats sought to limit local power over housing development.

Though the efforts failed, along with state-led reforms in New York, proponents intend to continue advocating for laws to prevent city councils and county commissions from standing in the way of denser housing.

Since the pandemic, the American tradition of home rule — leaving local decisions to local government — appears far less sacred, though its defenders remain politically potent.

In recent years, Tennessee's conservative state legislature has challenged local authority over public schools and public health but hasn't waded into the housing debate. Still, more Republican leaders are embracing a bipartisan agenda to reform U.S. zoning by ending the exclusionary zones like R-1 which prevent denser development in single-family neighborhoods — an agenda backed by both former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden.

The Beacon Center, a conservative think tank based in Nashville, urged for less restrictive zoning ordinances in an analysis of Middle Tennessee zoning released in June.

"While the idea of protecting neighborhoods may be a worthy goal of zoning advocates today, over time, zoning has led to unintended consequences that have robbed us all of wealth and our property rights," according to the study, which found that duplexes are banned on more than half the land in Middle Tennessee and multi-family housing is banned on more than 90% of land.

The nonprofit's research began after a series of community panels and polls revealed housing costs and availability to be the biggest problem facing Tennesseans, Jason Edmonds, a policy analyst with the Beacon Center, said in an interview over the phone.

"We have focused on education, taxes, government and spending," Edmonds said. "This is something that we need to look at."

In Chattanooga, zoning reform efforts are ramping up.

Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency staff had been in the process of creating new area plans one at a time, which many hoped would result in less restrictive zoning, and just spent several years working with East Chattanooga community members and stakeholders to complete the Historic River to Ridge Plan for what was known as Area 3. Yet, a small group of Black homeowners and neighborhood association presidents who became deeply engaged with the planning process — fearing gentrification — fought to preserve single-family zoning in the final plan approved by the Chattanooga City Council in late 2020.

Now that area planning process has been replaced with Plan Chattanooga, which launched in June to complete the six remaining area plans for Downtown/North Chattanooga, Hixson/Red Bank, South Chattanooga/ Lookout Mountain, Lookout Valley, Brainerd/East Ridge and Hwy 58/Tyner in 12 months.

(READ MORE: With some tools limited, Chattanooga looks to boost funding for affordable housing)

Meanwhile, the RPA has been working with the Chicago-based planning and zoning firm Camiros to rewrite Chattanooga's zoning ordinances, with the backing of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Kelly, who wants to see new codes encourage density by allowing townhomes and some apartment buildings to bypass the political approvals now required.

In June, Kelly joined a group of city mayors selected from across the globe by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Belgium, where he signed the Brussels Blueprint for Affordable Cities and Housing for All, committing to "tackle spatial segregation and foster social diversity... through inclusionary zoning measures, and by encouraging housing development in more affluent neighborhoods, and building community support for new affordable housing to address 'NIMBYism.'"

"Our mayor has been very outspoken to say we are going to accommodate our own people," Dan Reuter, who became head of the RPA 18 months ago, said in an interview. "If you can move here, then you have a good income. If you are growing up here, you are getting pushed out. If we keep zoning just the same way we have, we will ensure people have to leave. We have a desirable city. We have to house people that aren't doctors and lawyers."

The RPA anticipates the new codes will be approved by winter, in time to be used if included in the new area plans, which are expected to be adopted by next summer.

However, a surge of market-rate townhomes will be the most likely result of zoning reform efforts, according to an analysis by the Times Free Press of local requests to rezone single-family neighborhoods, which showed that the majority of cases are already approved, but mostly for townhome development.

Of 164 total requests to rezone from R-1, or single family, between 2018 and 2023, 104 were approved by the planning commission and elected officials, and 35 of those approvals were for multi-unit housing development, including duplexes, triplexes and apartment buildings. Nearly 65% of single-family rezoning approvals were for townhomes.

Yet, local pastors like Hartmans are offering fresh hope to affordable housing advocates who fear more long-term residents will be priced out of Chattanooga while leaders work toward deregulation. City officials cite an immediate deficit of 1,800 affordable housing units.

Owings wasn't the only person Hartmans brought around.

After a former member, who lived nearby, spoke against the project at a meeting held at the church, Hartmans followed up and found pain beneath the man's anger.

He felt abandoned by the Episcopal church when it moved away from him ideologically, he told Hartmans.

"He just assumed it was a national church agenda, to tear down this little local church," Hartmans recalled in an interview. "I was able to say to him, 'That is not true. This is an idea that was born out of this community.'"

More clergy — inundated with requests for help finding housing or avoiding eviction — are naming housing a priority.

"Pastors are recognizing that this is a crisis," Hartmans said. "We have two or three young families who can't find housing... A lot of people going to church are older, and they are living longer than they expected. Financial planning for retirement is not working. They are facing the issue too.

"The issue has come to our front door."

When their first child was born, Hartmans and his wife bid on 10 houses already under contract before finding one two years ago.

"The only reason we were able to get into this house was because it was owned by a deacon," he added.

Kingdom Partners, the local nonprofit helping St. Alban's and Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist leaders further their large-scale affordable housing projects, has recruited funding partners — including the city, as well as banks and foundations — to help churches develop smaller affordable housing units. One hundred units are expected to result from the initiative over the next three years.

In May the nonprofit hosted a summit, bringing nearly 100 pastors and other community leaders together with city staff to discuss how churches and nonprofits could better use their land and what public subsidies might be available to make affordable housing development possible.

"It's not just here. Other cities are taking action with churches and being aggressive," Kingdom Partners Executive Director Oliver Richmond said in an interview. "It has been a realization: Churches have a lot of property."

A "yes, in God's back yard" movement is rising, he said.

___

Hartmans moved to Chattanooga in 2001 after growing up in Knoxville and took a job bartending at Big River Grille in the tourist district downtown, where he became a manager.

Then in 2007 he was invited to travel with a Catholic program to Peru.

"I met an orphan," Hartmans said. "She was just so generous and kind and had an infectious spirit. One of the most horrible places I have ever been in.

"Jesus became real to me. I came back and went to seminary."

Around the same time, St. Alban's — founded in the 1980s as the county's northern Episcopal outpost — was hemorrhaging conservative members opposed to the denomination's acceptance of same-sex marriage.

Still, Hartmans found a dedicated remnant remained when he arrived in 2017 to serve the church as a part-time priest, splitting attention between St. Alban's and St. Thaddaeus' Episcopal Church.

The group had created a community garden on part of its 7-acre wooded property off Hixson Pike, near the entrance to Chester Frost State Park, and began hosting a market on the weekends. Worship services were made more welcoming to children, and the church began offering a free community meal once a month.

"We realized that we wanted to remain viable and we had something special and we wanted to stay together and keep working together," Dean Cress, former senior warden at St. Alban's, said.

Attendance grew modestly.

"He was so dynamic, draws you right in," Penni Dickerson said, recalling in an interview when she heard Hartmans preach for the first time four years ago. "I said, 'This is my kind of church. Not a big church. Not a fluff church. A down-to-earth church that is community oriented."

The church's financial trajectory was troubling, however.

"It became clear that many of the donors are going on fixed incomes and know that they will die in the next ten years," Hartmans said.

Hartmans spoke with other local pastors who were beginning to see housing as both a problem and solution and latched onto the idea. In England, where church decline has hit harder, a lot of religious spaces have been transitioned to housing, he learned.

"You have God's resources just sitting here and not being used. It is really a waste," said Cress, who sat on the church committee that began meeting weekly to flesh out a plan.

Mark Straub, a retired affordable housing developer who consults for Kingdom Partners and was continuing to help Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist with its affordable housing plan, was then invited to St. Alban's.

Developing affordable housing was a complex business, Straub taught.

A large share of affordable housing is subsidized, and for-profit developers building affordable housing are lured through low-income housing tax credits issued by the federal government through the IRS and allotted to each state based on population.

For example, a $1 million project could receive 9% of that estimated cost in tax credits from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, which creates the guidelines for issuing the credits and selects from proposals each year, and over a decade the project could receive $900,000.

Recipients sell the credits to businesses looking to pay less in taxes.

"That gets the equity into the deal," Straub said in an interview. "They can fund between 70 and 90% of a project's cost."

Along with Kingdom Partners, Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, the nonprofit that has built and managed a large share of Chattanooga's affordable housing stock, and the Chattanooga Housing Authority became partners in the endeavor.

"You won't find someone raising their own funds to build housing to rent under market rate," Cress said. "This whole issue has to be dealt with by nonprofits."

When Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist Church wasn't selected in 2022 to receive tax credits for its 63-unit affordable housing project for seniors, those advancing St. Alban's affordable housing plan feared for the future of their project.

St. Alban's application would be competing with a new application from Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist Church, still hoping to secure its own tax credits, and over the past decade state officials have awarded far fewer tax credits to the Chattanooga area than the state's other large metro areas.

Martina Guilfoil, the head of CNE and a partner in the St. Alban's project, had tried to lobby state administrators on behalf of Chattanooga's affordable housing projects, as the competition for this year's credits ensued.

Between 2010 and 2022, the Nashville area received more than $632 million in tax credits to build 7,654 units, while Memphis received more than $306 million to build 4,545 units and the Knoxville area received more than $177 million to build 2,335 units. The Chattanooga area, however, had been awarded a little less than $75 million to build 635 units, she wrote Ralph Perrey, executive director of THDA.

"I don't believe there is any way to justify this gross inequity," Guilfoil wrote to Perrey last year. "Some speculate that the scoring has been skewed to effectively make it impossible for Chattanooga applications to score well... However, the data is clear that Chattanooga has been left out and denied the ability to use LIHTC to create affordable housing for our residents. I am calling this to your attention in the hopes that this decade-long discrimination ends now."

For a good part of the last decade Hamilton County was not very favorable to affordable development, Perrey said in an interview over the phone.

"The way the courts have interpreted property taxes, unless the local government made some arrangement like a payment in lieu of taxes, they ended up taxing the development on the value of the tax credits we give them. The one counteracts the other," he said. "We awarded tax credits to a place called Alton Place in Chattanooga and, because of this, they were being taxed at a rate of $2,000 per unit, which at the time was almost double what was being charged to market rate properties close to the river. This was a real discouragement with developers. We went a number of years without having an applicant wanting to build in Hamilton County."

In the meantime, city officials were looking for ways to help more local projects secure these coveted tax credits.

(READ MORE: Eviction prevention initiative poised to continue under Legal Aid of East Tennessee)

"We are doing that by working more closely with the applicants, by finding ways to support those projects with city-allocated federal dollars already earmarked for affordable housing, and by looking at ways to improve our local policies in areas where they are effectively negating the federal tax benefit," Nicole Heyman, the city's chief housing officer, said in an email. "Private investors are our strongest partners, and if we want them to go after federal tax credits, we have to do everything we can to create a local ecosystem that encourages affordable housing development."

"We expect tax credits to come to Chattanooga," Heyman said in an interview in mid-August.

As the announcement time neared, Gary Hathaway, senior pastor at Greater Tucker Missionary Baptist, was similarly expectant.

"I am pro pastor standing on the front lines. Even with the friction that we had, I felt very good going before the city council. I could articulate the need," Hathaway said. "We believe for us this is the right thing to do. We think our chances are good."

As he waited with fellow parishioners, Cress admitted faith was hard to sustain, but the potential joy of a finished product was impossible to ignore.

"I will confess when I started this I was hopeful but not optimistic. All the stuff that had to be accomplished just seemed rather overwhelming. None of us had ever done anything like this," Cress said. "The farther along we have gotten, the more excited we have all become about what it would mean if we could bring it into fruition.

"It would be one of the greatest things I have participated in."

___

When the final announcement came down from the state just before Labor Day, the news was hard to swallow.

Neither Chattanooga project received tax credits, which were instead awarded to 12 projects: four in the Nashville area, three in the Knoxville area, four in West Tennessee and one in Greene County, near the North Carolina state line.

Now, it's difficult to know what life remains in the two local projects. Supporters, still reeling, aren't sure what's next.

Hartmans lost his mother within days of the disappointing announcement, and now is a time for grief.

Other funding partners might be found. New tax incentive policies might get approved, making housing development subsidies more readily available. The city might help secure other federal funding. Maybe they will apply again for tax credits. Inflation could fall. After all, they believe mountains can move.

The projects aren't dead, they say, because they aren't giving up.

When he comes to mow the church property, Cress said he is still being approached by people who heard St. Alban's might be building affordable housing and hope they can get on a list to secure a spot.

"There is such a deep need," he said.

Contact Joan McClane at [email protected] or 423-757-6601.

Upcoming Events