Earlier this month East Ridge Mayor Brian Williams invited everyone to come to Local Coffee for an event called “Meet the Mayor.”
About 30 folks showed up and talked about our city and what it’s gonna take to make East Ridge a better place to live. The discussion was lively, interesting, sometimes pointed and at others, poignant.
Housing, crime, schools, transportation, leadership, money and politics were topics that dominated the two-hour exchange that residents had with Mayor Williams and Assistant City Manager Kenny Custer.
Many people in the room recalled fondly the days when East Ridge had a community swimming pool that was a gathering place for kids and their parents alike. They remembered a thriving business district when Osborne Shopping Center had Loveman’s, Kingwood Pharmacy, a men’s shop, florists and a bakery. They remembered a high school, junior high and elementary schools that those living in East Ridge took great pride in and supported with all their Pioneer hearts.
People at “meet the mayor” were asking what happened to all that? Where did it go? How can we get back to those glory days? These are some complicated questions, no doubt.
I’m going to offer a harsh, politically incorrect, personal opinion. Stop reading if you might be offended. East Ridge got poorer. I hate to say it but we’re just not as well off as many folks in Hamilton County and across the state.
The median household income in East Ridge is $39,300, according to Data USA. That’s compared to $51,300 for our neighbors across the Volunteer State. The same source tells us that in East Ridge 51 percent of the houses are owner-occupied. The state-wide average is 66 percent. About 14 percent of our neighbors in East Ridge live below the poverty level.
Some people at the “meet the mayor” event were downright angry about houses in their neighborhood that are dilapidated to the point of falling down. One is hard pressed to visit any neighborhood in East Ridge that doesn’t have examples of neglected properties. What’s the city doing about it? Don’t we have codes? Aren’t there rules about cutting your knee-high grass? What about all that crap, including junked cars, in the front yards?
Here’s what the City of East Ridge is doing. It has a codes enforcement division staffed with, if I’m not mistaken, five employees. Three of the staff are charged with enforcing the rules on about 8,500 residential properties. Those code enforcement officials are citing people to a hearing before the Administrative Hearing Officer, a judge who directs property owners to clean it up or pay a fine.
Last year the city formed an East Ridge Housing Commission. It’s five members hear appeals from property owners whose houses have been condemned. This board has the unenviable task of hearing excuse after excuse from property owners about why their houses are literally falling down.
City officials say that one of the bigger problems in this system is finding the property owner – many live out of town or even out of the state – to serve notice to appear. The housing commission is reluctant, and rightly so, to order the bulldozing of a house without first hearing from the owner.
City Attorney Mark Litchford counsels the board to use an abundance of caution and patience in these cases. So, sometimes month after month passes before any issue is ever addressed, much less resolved. And, in the ensuing months, the neighbors of these distressed properties have to live next door or across the street from these eyesores that are potentially driving down the value of their homes.
What young couple or retiree in their right minds would want to buy a house in a shabby area where their neighbors just “stay” and don’t actually have a real vested interest in East Ridge? Well, perhaps quite a few, if the price is right.
According to a realtor friend of mine, the average selling price of a house in East Ridge has risen over the last couple years. How can that be? Is it that the houses in East Ridge are more affordable?
Here’s what East Ridge has always had going for it … location. And know this, that’s not going to change.
We here in Pioneerville can get to downtown Chattanooga’s cultural delights in just a matter of minutes. The shopping and dining Mecca of Hamilton Place is a five-minute drive up Interstate 75. I’ve said it for years, East Ridge is similar to the Northshore of Chattanooga in its proximity to everything people want.
So, here’s how we can make East Ridge the new Northshore, in terms of a desirable residential area. We double or even triple the staffing in codes enforcement. It’s going to cost some money, for sure. Common sense tells me that three staffers just can’t get the immense job of making sure that darned near 10,000 buildings (residential and commercial) are up to code. It’s going to take boots on the ground.
The city must take a systematic approach to lifting up our neighborhoods. Divide the city into a grid and assign a codes person an area of responsibility. Homeowners with neglected properties will be held accountable. No more complaint-driven, reactive action by codes enforcement that opens the door to residents dragged into City Hall to complain “but there are neighbors down the street who are doing the same thing.”
Block by block the East Ridge that we once knew could be returned to a place where people want to buy a house and raise a family. It’s already convenient. Let’s make it as desirable as we possibly can.