OECD “Mayor of the Moment” interview with Tim Kelly, Mayor of Chattanooga, United States
Q. In June, the Chattanooga City Council approved your 2024 budget, aimed at advancing the city’s “One Chattanooga” priorities. What has been achieved so far through this initiative? What do you hope to accomplish in the next phase?
A. Last year, our team put together a bold, actionable plan to build a better city, the One Chattanooga plan. That plan acknowledges, with openness and candour, that our story has historically been a tale of two cities, and that the community must come together to change that. The first Chattanooga boasts opportunity and prosperity – it’s home to the zip code with the best health outcomes in the State of Tennessee. Just a mile away, however, is a zip code with the second worst health outcome in the state. City-wide, one in four children are still living below the poverty line, and concentrations of poverty continue to plague our urban core, too often preventing our youth from reaching their full potential.
A year into the plan, it’s working – and we have a number of wins to show for it. We have reduced homelessness by nearly 40%. Homicides in the city are down 24% and non-fatal shootings are down 48%. We are addressing the root causes of violence with strategies through our new Office of Community Health, and we have created hundreds of new affordable housing units with the help of a new Chief Housing Officer. And for the first time since our school system merged with our county’s twenty-five years ago, the city is funding educational initiatives in our city schools.
Our 2024 budget builds on our current momentum and continues the critical work of creating One Chattanooga. We’re expanding our work on affordable housing, economic development, and other issues, and we’re also focused on ensuring that we’re a responsive and effective local government, reducing wait times for maintenance and service requests by a full day.
Q. One of your major successes recently has been a 40% reduction in homelessness in Chattanooga. What did it take to achieve this?
A. Through our housing-first strategy, we have made great strides to ensure every Chattanoogan has a place that they can call home.
We’ve helped get 2,000 people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing since taking office. Every January, the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition conducts a “point in time count” – a count of the number of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness throughout the county on a single night. The 2023 point in time count showed a 39.8% reduction in the number of unsheltered people living on Hamilton County streets compared to 2022. The overall number of people experiencing homelessness, including those living in temporary shelters, decreased by 32%. This is record-breaking progress for the City of Chattanooga, and it’s one of the accomplishments that I am most proud of as mayor.
Accomplishing this was difficult but was not really the result of any brilliant new insights or strategies. Rather, it was simply the application of the sort of leadership that only mayors (and their staff) can provide: bringing teams together from across the city- both our own Office of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and the various external non-profits who work in this space- and making sure those teams were working together in a committed, engaged way, fully owning their mission to get people housed, and insisting that we do better for our most vulnerable residents. We also used the convening power of the Mayor’s office to bring landlords together and ask them to consider opening their doors to tenants they would not have considered housing before, offering to cover the first month’s rent and an expanded security deposit so that they didn’t have to worry about a tenant damaging their property. We were able to mitigate the numbers of people being pushed onto the street by standing up an Eviction Prevention Initiative with the help of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.
We have committed $100 million over the next five years to address the affordable housing problem. We have more than 600 affordable units in various stages of development right now, and we’re working to get them on the market as quickly as possible. And while permanent housing is the goal, there are intermediate steps we continue to take to assist those experiencing homelessness. We recently launched a pilot program opening two 3D-printed shelters for unhoused Chattanoogans. These single-unit structures are safe and secure, temporary structures of use by people waiting to be transitioned into permanent housing.
Q. Tennessee has been facing extreme heat waves. What is Chattanooga doing to keep its residents cool?
A. Chattanooga is a very “green” city, but until recently, we had not fully embraced this as our city identity. Earlier this year, however, our team announced our climate action plan, a community-wide roadmap for how we will capitalize on the outdoor resources and growing green economy. The plan is made up of six ambitious goals that will protect our environment, but also bring significant economic and quality of life benefits to our community: Modernised smart growth and zoning policies, preserving and improving our city’s natural resources, becoming a national leader in the green economy, achieving net-zero carbon emissions in city government by 2040 and city-wide by 2050, and reducing disparities among socially and economically-vulnerable communities. The goal is to improve quality of life for all Chattanoogans and save the city millions of dollars over the next 20-25 years.
It’s working. Early on in my administration, we partnered with TVA, local utility provider EPB, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to expand the Home Uplift Program, an initiative that provides home energy renovations for people in need, saving them money on their electric bills in the process. Qualifying homeowners receive home energy upgrades at no cost, saving the average household $400 per year on energy bills. Alongside our partners, we have contributed $7.4 million to support this effort, and nearly 800 homes have already received home energy renovations, leading to a carbon reduction of 2.3K metric tons of CO2e, which equals avoiding the use of ~266,000 gallons of gasoline or 2.6 million pounds of coal.
Finally, after a long planning and public engagement period, we recently announced the City’s first Parks Master Plan in twenty five years, intended to expand and amplify our parks, greenways (and blueways!) and conservation areas to give more Chattanooga residents areas to find cool, shady places to take in our great outdoors.
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.