November 17, 2023 9:00am

Note to Tennessee lawmakers: City needs flexibility to expand affordable housing

Power Poll members are clear: Tennessee should keep its $1.9 billion in education funding

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

Amid a time of high interest rates and low-than-normal available housing inventory, eager (and often discouraged) homebuyers, developers/builders and elected leaders are grappling with a persistent shortage of affordable housing.

Easy, quick answers are elusive. That’s not to say Chattanooga isn’t trying. Mayor Tim Kelly and his administration unveiled an affordable housing action plan in August. And recently, state Sen. Todd Gardenhire met with city and state housing officials at City Hall to hear about the obstacles municipalities face in helping fill the need for affordable housing.

In this month’s Power Poll, more than two-thirds of respondents support changes to zoning regulations that are said to thwart efforts to build this type of housing.

In response to the question: “Do you think zoning requirements should be amended to help spur development of affordable housing?,” a healthy majority — 68% — said “yes” while 14% said “no” and 17% indicated they are unsure.

In August, City Councilman Darrin T. Ledford raised concerns about Kelly’s housing plan and wondered if elements of it would require a tax increase. The mayor said tax hikes have not been part of the discussion.

Ledford wrote that as the council begins a review process “for installing an entirely new zoning code, it is important to also focus on encouraging ‘workforce’ housing and homeownership opportunities to keep pace with economic growth. Promoting these two options should be a major part of the overall housing strategy as we recruit new businesses to our city and county.

RiverWorks Marketing Group Steve Errico co-owner is casting a wary eye on the evolution of zoning changes.

“It will be interesting to see if the zoning changes are primarily motivated for the good of the entire community or will be utilized to enrich those in the inner circle or cater to a specific group,” he wrote. “It will not be an easy process.”

And perhaps that is why Power Poll members aren’t so sure cities like Chattanooga will get the help they need from state legislators.

Just a quarter — 25%% — said lawmakers agree to change state law to accommodate municipalities’ need to develop housing. The remaining 75%? Well, they are in the “no” or “unsure” camp.

Responding to the question, “Do you think the Tennessee legislature will approve changes in state law that would allow cities to boost the supply of affordable housing?,” a third — 33% — said “no” and a substantial percentage — 42% — said they are unsure.

Another issue in which local Power Poll members have very strong opinions and some uncertainty about how legislators will go is the idea of Tennessee rejecting $1.9 billion in federal money for K-12 education.

Power Poll respondents were more clear on this as any issue in recent memory: A whopping 78% percent said Tennessee should not turn down the money.

Just 10% said “yes” while 12% were unsure.

Legislative leaders set up a task force to analyze the federal money, where it goes and for what, as well as any “strings attached” that come with it. Those meetings ended this week, but more could be scheduled. Recommendations are expected before the start of the next General Assembly in January.

Supporters of the idea argue that the state has the money to replace the federal dollars and can better target use the funds. But opponents have said the case hasn’t been made about onerous “strings attached.” In addition, they said if the state is so flush with cash, it should go ahead and invest some of that $1.9 billion in schools and teachers. And state Sen. Bo Watson reminded the public that in rejecting the federal money, Tennessee is simply sending our taxpayer money to other states.

Almost a third — 31% — of Power Poll respondents predicted legislators and Gov. Bill Lee “ultimately will reject federal education money.”

Another third — 35% — said “no” and an equal percentage said they are “unsure.”

A final question in this month’s Power Poll tipped ever so slightly into 2024 presidential politics (couldn’t help it).

In answer to “Will Donald Trump be the Republican nominee for president in 2024?,” 38% said “yes” while 33% checked the “I am not going there” response. Seventeen percent said “not” and 12% said they are unsure.

“If President Trump and President Biden are the two best candidates our two primary political parties can find, then the system is irreparably broken,” wrote Scott Simmons of Miller and Martin. “The country needs a fresh wave of young leadership. Unfortunately, in a new social-media age, extremism on both sides of the aisle appears to be the new norm.”

The political season is heating up!

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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