Neighbors Should Welcome More Neighbors With Union Avenue Development

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Residents of Chattanooga can look at Atlanta and Nashville and breath a sigh of relief that housing prices here are cheaper than those to the south and to the west. 

That will not continue to be the case, however, if we stifle new housing development at every turn. Home prices in Chattanooga rose at an average of 7.2 percent over the course of 2017,  and the median rent has risen at three times the rate of income over the last three decades. 

The rising cost of housing in Chattanooga is a prime indicator that there is demand for new housing, and if supply cannot rise to meet it, the prices will only continue to go up. With more and more people fleeing the northeast for southern cities, the need for housing will continue to increase, and if nothing is done, it will displace low-income residents. 

That brings us to Union Avenue. Accusations were made of residents of Highland Park by the CEO of Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, a non-profit housing organization over a proposed apartment development on a vacant lot, and some concerns of the development should be addressed. 

It is unfair for the CEO of CNE to accuse the fine residents and my former neighbors in Highland Park of coded racism. There are plenty of reasons for someone to oppose new development without ulterior motivations. But that doesn’t mean the reasons stated are worth scrapping the apartments. 

At least one resident has complained that the apartments are ugly. The aesthetic value of any given building is subjective—which is why some people prefer certain homes to others—and is not a valid reason to exclude others from a chance to afford a place of their own. Arguing for the integrity or the character of the neighborhood falls along the same lines. Historical preservation taken to its extreme has lead to delaying housing projects over the significance of a laundromat.  

An underlying assumption in the attractiveness or character of a building is the effect it will have on others’ property. Given the current state of the lot is vacant and the previous use was a crumbling ruin of a dorm room, it would be hard to argue that converting that space into apartments will somehow decrease the value of surrounding homes. 

Another claim made was a desire for townhomes and a desire for “what’s best for the space.” Compare the supply of eight townhomes to the supply of 49 apartment units, and it becomes obvious why the apartments will go further to improve affordable housing in the neighborhood. And while some neighbors may deem single-family homes “what’s best” for the space,  the low-income worker who could have afforded an apartment but not a home would probably disagree. 

All three of these examples and more, including the always recurring line to “just build it over there” are forms of what’s called NIMBYism, or Not In My BackYard. It describes a mindset of people who are not opposed to development per se, but are opposed to it near their home.  

NIMBYism comes in many forms, and uses tools like historic preservation, multiple review processes, neighborhood character and the zoning code to block or draw out development to the point that it becomes infeasible. This leads to low-density development, inflated rent and home prices, and a housing affordability epidemic that is sweeping America’s legacy cities. 

That isn’t to dismiss the concerns of NIMBY advocates altogether, but rather, to address them head-on. Many of the historic walkable neighborhoods we have come to love in Chattanooga could not have been built under current codes. Creating a denser area attracts retail development, which could go a long way for Highland Park’s charm and economic growth.  

Density also creates what famed urbanist Jane Jacobs calls the “sidewalk ballet,” creating a place for various types of people during various types of day that keep sidewalks vibrant and keep eyes on the street—something that goes towards combating crime that has plagued Highland Park.  

Cities should be made to be enjoyed by everyone. As Jacobs puts it, “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”  

Having experienced the beauty of Chattanooga myself, I can’t blame anyone for trying to find their place in our city. So instead of seeing the outward aesthetics of an apartment building, see instead the home it can create and the vitality it can bring. Make Highland Park a neighborhood for more neighbors. Be a neighbor for more neighbors. 

Ethan A. Greene
Former resident of Bailey Avenue, a graduate of UTC, a masters student of city and regional planning, and a writer on urban issues



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