The Chattanooga challenge: Bringing its people in from the cold

About the Affordable Cities blog series and #BetterUrbanHousing
People living in cities across the world are facing the effects of the housing affordability and cost-of-living crisis. OECD Champion Mayors recently endorsed the new “OECD Brussels Blueprint for Affordable cities and Housing for All” at the Brussels Urban Summit where they shared innovative solutions to tackle these challenges and drive more inclusive economic growth. They continue to drive efforts that shape a more affordable, equitable and resilient urban future.

When I first took office as Mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2021, our city was in the midst of a homelessness crisis. We weren’t alone in that. The COVID-19 pandemic was fuelling a housing crisis in cities across America. Chattanooga’s own homeless population jumped nearly 200% between January 2021 to January 2022.

I knew from my first day in office that we needed to unite our community and take bold and decisive steps to tackle this challenge.

Helping the homeless

This April, we were able to confirm a 40% reduction in the number of people living on the streets of Hamilton County, TN during 2022. This progress is evidence that strong partnerships, ample resources and a focussed strategy can make solving the hardest problems possible.

Strategies for success

Our housing-first strategy, which recognises that the only durable solution to homelessness is a home, has been core to our success. Our teams and partners significantly increased their capacity over the past year to rapidly place residents experiencing homelessness in a permanent home.

Together, by streamlining processes and strengthening collaborations, we’ve housed more than 2,000 people since I took office. Once housing needs are met, our team follows up with supportive services to help residents reach self-sufficiency.

Our success was driven by three key actions:

  1. We used the convening power of the mayor’s office to bring local landlords together and convince many to open their properties to our unsheltered population using the additional financial support provided by the Federal HOME American Rescue Plan. This programme, deployed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), covers move-in costs and monthly rent for vulnerable residents until they were able to obtain a housing voucher.
  • HUD’s Emergency Housing Voucher program then allowed the Chattanooga Housing Authority to reserve a portion of its housing vouchers for people and families who were homeless or at-risk of homelessness – eliminating cumbersome lotteries and making them immediately available to those in greatest need.
  • We broke down silos by persuading dozens of partners – from service providers to landlords to nonprofits – to work together as part of a single continuum of care, which we chose our local homeless coalition to lead, supported by a team that had the expertise and relationships to succeed. The homeless coalition stepped up to the plate, and the city provided the needed resources with a new, well-funded 4-year contract.

At the same time, the City and our partners worked upstream to prevent more than 600 people at risk of homelessness from losing their homes in 2022. This is thanks in large part to an innovative new programme, our Eviction Prevention Initiative, that is working with landlords and tenants to prevent costly evictions for residents at risk.

Changing Chattanooga

Chattanooga remains focussed on building up its affordable housing supply, including by adding permanent supportive housing units for chronically homeless people to rebuild their lives. Through partnerships with community organisations and the conversion of an old extended-stay motel, 133 of these units will become available over the next two years – enough to house and support nearly all the 156 chronically homeless people identified this January.

To keep the momentum going in the short-term, my administration is continuing to strengthen and expand partnerships to close service gaps and find rapid housing solutions for residents in need. I have tasked our homeless coalition with prioritising rapid housing for veterans and households with children. We’re also working with landlords to open up more affordable units, as well as engaging the faith community, who play a critical role in providing resources and support to previously homeless residents working to rebuild their lives.

Our approach in Chattanooga in tackling homelessness is consistent with our broader “One Chattanooga” plan, which seeks to close the long-standing gaps in our city with focussed, intentional strategies and leadership that brings partners together from across our community to create lasting change. I am excited to be part of this mission alongside other OECD Champion Mayors dedicated to these goals.

About the OECD Champion Mayors Initiative
Created in 2016, the OECD Champion Mayors for Inclusive Growth Initiative is a global coalition of mayors who meet on a regular basis to share their experience in the pursuit of inclusive growth in cities. Since its inception, over 100 different mayors from around the world have joined the Initiative, contributing their voice to the global debate, and making major strides in their cities toward youth empowerment, sustainable climate policy and support for SMEs. The Champion Mayors will meet at the Brussels Urban Summit on 13 June to drive change on improving housing affordability and cost of living for residents in their cities.

Mayor of Chatanooga | + posts

Born in April 1967, Mayor Tim Kelly is a lifelong resident of Chattanooga. He found his first job at age 15, working as a busboy at the original Vine Street Market, and he continued to work through summers in  high school at the automotive dealership that his grandfather, Jim Ayers, founded in 1936.

Kelly graduated from the Baylor School in 1985 and went on to attend Columbia University in New York as a John Jay Scholar. After earning his undergraduate degree in 1989, he returned to Chattanooga to work at his family’s business. In the years to follow, Kelly expanded his family’s business and launched several successful ventures of his own, including co-founding Chattanooga’s local, independent  professional soccer club, Chattanooga Football Club, in 2009.

Kelly returned to school in 2010, enrolling in the Executive MBA program at Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business. He graduated two years later as a member of the Gamma Sigma honor society and a recipient of the Al Bows Executive MBA Outstanding Achievement Award, in recognition of his significant contributions to academic and community life.

Kelly has always been active in the community, working closely with local organizations to address community concerns and even teaching entrepreneurship and marketing as an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. He has served on boards and volunteered for scores of local nonprofits, including the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Chattanooga, the Benwood Foundation, River City Company, Allied Arts (now ArtsBuild), Chattanooga 2.0, and the  Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, among others.

Kelly announced his intention to run for Mayor on May 21, 2020, as an independent. He was inaugurated is the 74th Mayor of Chattanooga on April 19, 2021, and has since made great strides on his vision to create One Chattanooga - a city where every resident has the opportunity to thrive and prosper.