Promoting Homeownership for Police Officers and Firefighters in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Market Street bridge in Chattanooga, Tennessee. An innovative program in Chattanooga is promoting homeownership for police and firefighters in the neighborhoods they serve and protect. The Chattanooga Police and Fire Fund for Homeownership program, a partnership among the city of Chattanooga, the Chattanooga police and fire departments, and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE), began in February 2012. City officials and CNE, buoyed by the early response to the program, view it as an important component of citywide revitalization efforts.
Part of an Urban Revitalization Strategy
Calling it “one of the most livable and vibrant cities in America,” Partners for Livable Communities awarded Chattanooga the 2010 Entrepreneurial American Community Award. Despite these tributes to the city’s quality of life, more than 50 percent of the police force and between 40 and 50 percent of the fire department reside outside city limits. “Here in Chattanooga, we’ve had many incentive programs to get people to move back downtown,” said Richard Beeland, the city’s director of media relations. “[The homeownership program] exists because we want to encourage people to live in our great neighborhoods; plus, we’d like to encourage our [public safety] officers to live in neighborhoods that they protect.” Tenasa Lucas-McGhee, a homeownership advisor at CNE, said, “The basic goal is to promote homeownership and to get officers to move into areas where revitalization is focused.”
It’s “Hard to Not Take Advantage of This Program”
The homeownership fund provides law enforcement and firefighting personnel with $10,000 toward the purchase of their first single-family, owner-occupied home anywhere within the city limits. Homes purchased in designated revitalization areas are eligible for $20,000. The assistance is provided in the form of a forgivable loan, with 20 percent of the loan forgiven each year across five years; officers who leave the force or sell the home during the five-year loan period are responsible for the remaining balance. In addition to financial assistance, CNE offers program participants a homebuyer education class. “Right now, in this economy,” said Nick Wilkinson, director of development at CNE, “it makes a lot of sense to provide incentives to get people to consider homeownership.” He added, “We’ve looked at a lot of incentive programs that are out there and we’re making it hard to not take advantage of this program.”
“Old cities like ours,” said Beeland, “have some great downtown neighborhoods. There are great areas, great people, and this is one of the tools to get people to benefit from our downtown.” The city provided $250,000 from the general fund to start the program for police officers. In December 2012, the program was expanded to include firefighters.
A Promising Incentive-Based Homeownership Model
Research suggests that increased police patrols in a community are an effective tool for curbing crime. “Having a stronger police presence in certain areas, called ‘hot spots,’” explained Paul Heaton, director of the RAND Institute for Civil Justice, “is a method that can reduce crime…. You might think of these housing incentive programs as an extension of [the hot spots] model.” However, Heaton added that a better understanding is needed of the benefits of police and fire officers living in neighborhoods.
Despite the lack of research showing that police and firefighter residency is associated with reduced crime rates or better fire protection, city officials believe that having officers live in the city is beneficial for other reasons. “People like to see officers living in their neighborhoods and to see police cars in their neighborhoods,” Beeland said. Chattanooga, he noted, wanted to encourage public safety officers to live in the city to increase the perception of safety in the city’s neighborhoods.
Another benefit is improved community relations for police and fire departments. “If your neighbor is a police officer,” Heaton said, “you may be more likely to have interactions with them, speak to the officers, make reports, that sort of thing.”
Heaton noted that housing incentive programs have generated a lot of interest nationally and that, in general, pairing financial incentives with housing can encourage officers to move. Although it’s too early to evaluate the effectiveness of Chattanooga’s homeownership program, feedback suggests that their incentives-based model is working well. CNE staff report “a lot of excitement” from the eight members of the city’s police and fire departments who have taken advantage of the program.
“Officers have put their lives on the line,” said Wilkinson. “This is a way of saying we’re going to take care of our officers and we’re going to take care of the neighborhoods that they protect and make these neighborhoods more valuable.”