Mountain T.O.P. Takes on the Housing Hurdle

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

In her work for a nonprofit tasked with addressing the needs of Plateau residents, Mountain T.O.P. Program Director Julie Keel hit on a difficult truth: “Housing is hard, and housing is always part of the conversation.” Regardless of the challenge — education, work force development, climate change, helping those in recovery reenter society — “You always bump into housing,” Keel insisted. Acknowledging the critical role housing plays, Mountain T.O.P. recently hosted a Housing Summit. Among the 44 attendees were representatives from the sheriff’s office, the Grundy County mayor, SETHRA, mental health and social service agencies, Catholic Charities, Housing Sewanee, the University Office of Civic Engagement, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA), USDA Rural Development, as well as architects, sustainability coordinators, and loan agencies. “It was a group of people I’ve never seen together before in my experience,” Keel said.

The total absence of affordable homes on the market tops the list of problems the group addressed. Even if prospective homeowners educate themselves about the challenges of home upkeep and mortgages and qualify for a low-income loan, “they can’t qualify for purchase because the cost of homes has increased so much,” Keel said. A once “affordable” home costs two to three times what it did before the housing boom. “We couldn’t build homes fast enough” to meet the need, she observed.

Grundy County has only 220 “affordable rental” units available on a sliding scale with a SETHRA housing voucher. “We often don’t see the problem of homelessness here,” Keel said. “People live in crowded conditions and the woods hide things.” Many who own property or whose families own property, but no house, live in campers, cars, and sheds. The Chattanooga Homeless Coalition offers help for those homeless because of circumstances such as a house fire or an abusive relationship, but the closest shelter is in Cleveland, Tenn.

Grundy County is unique for having both a high level of poverty and a high level of home ownership, but the homes are frequently old and unsound making the occupants especially vulnerable to high utility bills, storm damage, and other climate change factors. Auburn University’s Front Porch initiative designs energy efficient small one-and-two-bedroom homes as a housing solution, arguing the higher monthly mortgage payment is offset by lower utility and maintenance expenses. Green Space, a Chattanooga nonprofit committed to regional sustainability, plans to pilot a program showing the cost benefits of health care insurance providers investing in sustainable housing to keep people healthy and safe. Keel cited “Housing First” homelessness assistance data which shows providing a person with a safe, affordable residence made them far more successful in addressing other life hurdles such as substance abuse. Critical to understanding the problem, a mortgage that eats up more than 30 percent of a family’s income qualifies as “substandard housing,” Keel said.

What is on Mountain T.O.P.’s housing-solution horizon? With continued funding from USDA Rural Development and THDA now a funding source, Mountain T.O.P. will continue its home repair mission and possibly build a home from the ground up. Call (931) 692-3999 or visit the website <> to request home repair help. With Grundy County lacking resources such as Housing Sewanee and Habitat for Humanity, Mountain T.O.P. wants to launch a Housing Subsidiary Development Organization or attract a HSDO to the area.

Mountain T.O.P. hosts a monthly Housing Advisory Council and offers Housing Counseling, 2-5 p.m., Wednesdays, at the Littel-Partin Building (old Grundy County High School). Walk-ins welcome or phone (931) 692-3999 for more information.

Keel stressed housing solutions differed from case to case. If the hurdle to home ownership is a low credit score, the first step may be to remedy that problem. For the homeless who own land, “It makes no sense to say sell the land,” Keel said. “Home ownership is the biggest builder of wealth.”

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