Q and A: Chattanooga’s new chief housing officer hopes to help provide more affordable housing

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Nicole Heyman spent about 30 years in New Orleans before starting her tenure a few weeks ago as Chattanooga’s new chief housing officer.

She was there after Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 storm that struck the city in 2005. Heyman said the incident quadrupled the number of empty, blighted lots and houses in the city to an estimated 100,000.

As director of the New Orleans vacant properties initiative from 2008 to 2010, she collaborated with city leaders to come up with a strategy for effectively rebuilding neighborhoods after the storm. She spent the next six years at the Center for Community Progress, where she helped communities across the state find ways to address vacant properties and disinvestment.

“Immediately after Katrina, the work was very much focused on property reclamation,” Heyman said in a Tuesday phone interview, “and figuring out how to as quickly as possible get control over those abandoned, empty lots and put them back into productive use, specifically for the housing needs that residents were facing after the loss of their properties.”

Leaders have reduced that number significantly, Heyman said, but there’s still probably 25,000 lots remaining.

“I think the work that was done immediately post-Katrina was necessary,” she said, “but isn’t necessarily indicative of some of the really good work that’s happening in New Orleans now just because it’s so attenuated in time.”

For the past three years, Heyman served in the administration of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. There, Heyman created the office of community assets and investment, which she said was laser-focused on inventorying city-owned properties and finding creative ways to use that land to spur affordable housing and job creation.

Now, as Chattanooga’s chief housing officer, Heyman will help steward the use of $33 million the city recently set aside for affordable housing efforts in its fiscal year 2023 budget. So far, about $15.2 million has been allocated. Chattanooga officials hope to raise an additional $67 million through partnerships with nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and the private sector. Heyman’s salary will be $137,917.

“Chattanooga is definitely at a tipping point,” Heyman said. “There’s potential for us to be able to prevent huge segments of residents from being priced out of their home and stopping displacement before it happens.”

Q: What brought you to Chattanooga?

A: I was really intrigued by the job posting to see a city the size of Chattanooga at the cusp of having a real affordable housing crisis dedicate the types of resources … to address the issue, and then I read the One Chattanooga plan and was really sold.

I have to say that plan really embodies the beliefs and values of this city and align very well with my belief and value system. The opportunity to come in and help a community prevent significant displacement and to prevent some of the explosive growth that has priced local residents out of cities across the country, coupled with a real belief in the vision of the One Chattanooga plan was a really compelling reason for me to pursue this opportunity.

Q: How does Chattanooga compare to New Orleans, and how will you bring your skills to bear here?

A: There are some similarities, and there are some differences, but I think there’s one thing for sure in every community: There’s no single, silver bullet strategy that’s going to solve an affordable housing crisis. I think New Orleans and Chattanooga are like many communities across the country struggling with deep affordability problems.

I think in Chattanooga, what we really need to do is entice investment in the market. I think we need to figure out ways to incentivize our market rate developers to not just produce our higher-income housing, but to really be intentional to ensure that Chattanoogans can access quality housing at every price point.

What I plan to do is work really closely with City Council and our neighborhoods to understand better the magnitude of the problem and use available data to identify the number of housing units that we need to ensure that everyone in Chattanooga — no matter their ZIP code or socioeconomic status — has access to quality affordable housing in the neighborhood of their choice.

That means we really need to stack our toolkit with all the available tools, including incentives, land use and zoning changes, and lending products that will catalyze affordable housing preservation and development citywide. One of the biggest differences between the New Orleans affordable housing ecosystem and what we have here in Chattanooga is that Chattanooga hasn’t built out that toolkit, yet.

So we have some tools in the toolkit, but there are a lot more that we can add to ensure that there’s funding flowing and incentives and land use changes so that we preserve the affordable housing and naturally affordable housing units that we have now, but also build new units that are available at every price point.

Q: You mentioned that Chattanooga is at a “tipping point.” Can you elaborate on that? Is that because wages haven’t kept up with the cost of housing?

A: I think nationally wages have not kept up with the price of housing. Chattanooga was once a really well-positioned city with affordable housing opportunities for anyone who wanted to live in Chattanooga. Any Chattanoogan could for the most part find an affordable product.

We struggled in some neighborhoods, and I think that’s indicative of every older city in the country, but the influx of out-of-state folks gobbling up properties in the city of Chattanooga has just exacerbated what was already happening as the market was increasing and things became less affordable.

The mayor understands that we have a limited supply of housing — all housing, not just affordable housing, right? … But we also need to be mindful that there are outside influences that we have folks coming in from out of state and purchasing wholesale large amounts of our current affordable housing stock.

And in some cases they’re even taking units offline by not doing one-for-one replacement as they develop and flip these houses for rental or higher-priced ownership. So where we are now, I believe, is wrapping our heads around what those numbers are, who those out-of-state influences are, and really coming up with ways to halt and hopefully reverse what those outside pressures have done.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @flavid_doyd.