When Nicole Heyman moved from New Orleans to Chattanooga last fall, people naturally assumed she left her home of 30 years to take a job as the city’s chief housing coordinator. But they were wrong.
Heyman hadn’t mulled leaving the Paris of the South, or even thought she ever would. “Who leaves New Orleans?” she asks rhetorically. “My life was there.”
But then Heyman was presented with an opportunity to apply her values in a way that would impact lives. As chief housing coordinator in Chattanooga, she’d stand at the vanguard of Mayor Tim Kelly’s efforts to ensure every resident – including working individuals – has access to affordable housing.
So, Heyman left New Orleans not to take a job but to make a difference.
“Mayors often talk about the need for affordable housing. But very few of them put money behind their promises,” Heyman says. “Even fewer place $33 million of unrestricted general funds on the table and then say, ‘I’m going to find someone who can leverage this into real money.’ Mayor Kelly wasn’t just saying the words. That appealed to me.”
Heyman also found that the tenets outlined in Kelly’s One Chattanooga Plan, which details the practical steps the city can take to ensure every resident can prosper, aligned with her ideals.
“This administration has articulated a belief in making Chattanooga better for everyone. It recognizes that we’re fortunate to be attracting investment and individuals from across the country, but also that we’re on a trajectory to outgrow our housing stock. It recognizes that we have to balance attracting investment and being welcoming with adding rooftops.”
The values that will guide Heyman’s work as chief housing coordinator were forged in the aftermath of devastating Hurricane Katrina.
In the years before Katrina killed nearly 1,400 people and did more than $100 billion worth of damage, Heyman worked as a toxic tort defense lawyer, handling mostly asbestos defense cases and hating every billable minute of it, she says.
But as the hurricane razed buildings in New Orleans and flooded 80% of the city, it also shifted the foundation on which Heyman was building her life.
“The things I felt were important the day before Katrina arrived – getting up, going to work, practicing law, becoming a partner – became absolutely unimportant for a lifetime,” she recalls. “I had a career and a life and then suddenly everything was upside-down and sideways. And that substantially changed the lens through which I saw life.”
While earning a Master of Laws at Tulane with an eye on possibly teaching, Keyman began doing pro bono work focused on changing local laws to allow New Orleans to assemble properties faster in the wake of Katrina.
“The day before Katrina, we had 25,000 vacant and abandoned properties in New Orleans. The day after Katrina, we had 75,000. And the city needed tools to assemble those properties and put them back into productive use,” she explains.
A few years after the waters receded in New Orleans, the thundering crack of the national housing crash cost even more New Orleans residents their homes. In the wake of the infamous collapse, Heyman accepted a position with the New Orleans Vacant Properties Initiative, which deepened her understanding of the tools that could be used to remediate blighted properties, including code enforcement, taxation and foreclosure.
While working for the nonprofit initiative, Heyman was part of an effort that returned 10,000 properties to public use. Through a statewide legislative effort that changed laws related to blight and tax foreclosures, she helped to establish the best use for those properties.
In 2016, Heyman expanded her reach beyond New Orleans when she began working with a Washington, D.C.-based group called the Center for Community Progress. The agency helped governments across the country return abandoned, tax-foreclosed properties to productive use.
Then came the day a friend who’d worked for Kelly showed up at her door with a bottle of wine in one hand and a description for a job in Chattanooga in the other.
“Mayor Kelly had reached out to friends around the country and said, ‘We need to fill this position.’ And one of his trusted advisers said I should consider it.”
Leaving her home of three decades wasn’t easy, but Heyman tackled the transition like she did the other challenges she’d faced: she dove in head first.
Instead of dipping her toes into the local waters, she spent three months driving its streets, taking tours and engaging people along the entire economic spectrum in conversation. Essentially, she says, she simply “watched, listened and figured things out.”
The most important lesson she learned, Heyman says, was that the local housing shortfall touches everyone, either directly or through association with a friend, family member or co-worker.
“Someone would ask, ‘Why are you here?’ And I’d say, ‘To help develop a plan for building more affordable housing in the city.’ And they’d say, ‘My daughter is taking classes at UTC, and she’s living in an apartment with four gals and sharing a bedroom because she can’t afford to live near the university.’ And the next person would say, ‘I’ve worked in Chattanooga all my life and I’m struggling to make ends meet because my landlord raised my rent by $500 during COVID.
“Not one person said, ‘There’s no problem.’ Everyone could touch at least one human being who needed more stability.”
During these conversations, Heyman often encountered misperceptions about the nature of affordable housing. When she used the term, for example, many people pictured public housing.
Heyman used her dialog with others to begin changing how the public defines affordable housing. “It’s not tall buildings crammed with poor people; it’s a mixed income approach to housing,” she explains. “When we say, ‘affordable housing,’ we’re referring to housing a working person can afford. We’re trying to make sure everyone who wants to reside in and serve this city has an affordable place to live. It’s that simple.”
While defining affordable housing is simple, achieving it won’t be, Heyman admits. One thing that will help, she adds, is being mindful of not just the executives who are making Chattanooga their home but also the people for whom the city has always been home.
“The people who have lived here for a long time are the backbone of this city. The statistics about who’s moving here and how much money they make and how educated they are are shiny and fun, but those people don’t drive our school buses, they don’t collect our garbage, and they don’t draw our blood when we’re at a hospital.”
These are the people who need housing but are at risk of being nudged out of the city as housing costs outpace welcome but insufficient increases in local wages, Heyman says.
“HUD defines cost-burdened as spending 30% of your income, including utilities, on housing. If you pay more than 50%, you’re severely cost-burdened. A lot of working Chattanoogans are paying 50% or more of their income on rent. And that’s a problem.”
The high cost of housing is just one of the issues Chattanoogans need to address, Heyman says; the other is the inadequate supply of accommodations for people who are earning $35,000-$50,000 annually.
This group is feeling the impact of the arrival of new residents from across the country more acutely than any other group, she suggests, because the influx is pushing them down the housing chain to where home ownership and rental options are limited.
Ultimately, all of Chattanooga will feel the impact as these laborers leave the city to find stability elsewhere, Heyman speculates.
“We’re quickly adding more people than we have housing at all of our affordability levels to be able to run the city. Our hotel and restaurant industries are still strong, but people are moving further and further away from the city center because rents are very expensive. And the further you push people out, the more they’re inclined to look for jobs where they live.
That could be devastating, Heyman continues.
“Our hotels are still strong and we still have a lot of great restaurants, but to keep those industries healthy, we need a mix of housing for everyone.”
This brings Heyman to the question of how. Fortunately, she says, her experiences working in New Orleans and for the D.C. group filled her toolbox with implements she believes will be useful in Chattanooga.
One of these tools is the affordable housing fund the city is seeking to establish. In addition to setting aside $20 million to use as leverage, the mayor’s office is asking banks and Community Development Financial Institutions to respond to a Request for Proposals to help assemble a substantial fund that will allow the city to issue low- or no-interest loans for the development of affordable housing.
The fund will make the city more competitive than banks as it targets local developers who are searching for more economical ways to build housing, Heyman adds.
“Say you’re a developer who wants to build 50 rental units. And I have cheap money to give you. But in order to receive a loan below the prime rate, you have to agree that a percentage of the units will be affordable to families making $35,000 a year.”
Heyman won’t be asking developers for 100% affordability, as that could lead to concentrated poverty, she says. Rather, she’ll be looking for a healthy mix of incomes.
“Pricing 20% of your development at something a household making $35,000-$50,000 a year could afford would be reasonable,” she estimates. “But I’d rather it be more. If you’re building 100 units, 33% would be nice.”
Heyman says she believes Chattanooga’s developers will be willing to provide the level of affordability the city needs. In addition to the interest rates being attractive, she says, she believes builders will appreciate the opportunity to give back to the community that supports them.
“When people aren’t paying more than 30% of their income on housing, their children can attend good schools, they don’t have to worry about health care or child care, and they don’t have to choose between paying their rent or paying for their prescription. If I were a developer, I’d be proud to offer a working family a quality place where they can live within their means.”
As Heyman settled in to her new job in November, Kelly issued a statement that praised her background and set high expectations for the work she’d be doing on behalf of all Chattanoogans.
“The creation and preservation of homes everyone can afford is not only one of our residents’ top priorities but also one of the most important tasks before this administration. Nicole brings vast experience in helping to create data-driven and community-informed strategies to help residents live in a quality home they can afford – and I’m excited for her to get started.”
Six months later, Heyman says she’s even more focused on making it easy for everyone to live, work and thrive in Chattanooga.
“The working families in Chattanooga are just as important as the executives who are coming here to oversee our larger companies. They’ve been here for a long time and are in jeopardy of being displaced. As Chattanooga grows and becomes the city everybody is imagining it could be, we need to make sure we’re not leaving them behind.”