Jane Tjahjono’s article from a couple of weeks ago, “Praying and Looking Off the Mountain,” reminded me that I’ve been wanting to write a Bagpipe article for a while now. If you recall, Jane’s excellent article challenged students to look beyond the confines of Lookout Mountain and be dedicated to praying for those suffering in our world. Similarly, I want to suggest that we can do a better job engaging the wider Chattanooga community; we can play a small part in the efforts to alleviate the pains of those suffering locally.
The title “The Renaissance City of the South” belies the harsh reality of many of those living in Chattanooga. A New York Times article last year highlighted Chattanooga as having a poverty rate of 27%, almost twice the national average.
Among the many implications of such a high poverty rate, for the sake of brevity, I will highlight just one. Chattanooga is a city with an affordable housing crisis. According to the Chattanooga Affordable Housing Report that was released in 2012, one in two households in the city’s urban core live in unaffordable housing—meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs. The Report also states that about a quarter of renters are severely burdened, spending over half their income on housing costs. Things do not seem to be getting better, either; Chattanooga is among the top ten US cities with the fastest growing rents. There is currently a deficit of 4000 affordable housing units, and this number will increase by around 1000 with the planned demolition of the public housing projects of College Hill Courts and East Lake Courts.
This affordable housing crisis is foreign to us who are concerned with where we will live during the Carter renovations and what happens when a flaming golf cart puts a few halls out of commission. This is not to make light of our living concerns, but to highlight the fact that many of our fellow Chattanoogans live much less privileged lives than we do.
Chattanooga is in many ways a divided city between those who are able to enjoy the coffee shops, the music venues, and the restaurants we all frequent and those who are concerned with where next month’s rent is going to come from.
Unfortunately, this division is quite noticeable in the varied median incomes according to race in Hamilton county: around $51,000 for whites, $28,000 for Hispanics, and $27,000 for African Americans. This income disparity according to race correlates to the affordable housing crisis in that two Chattanooga zip codes rank in the top fifteen most gentrified zip codes in the nation—according to a 2012 study done by the Thomas Fordham Institute. The income inequality in Chattanooga is startling when you realize that within fifteen minutes you can drive from the Westside, where the median household income is just below $10,000, to Lookout Mountain, TN, where the median household income is around $120,000.
You might readily agree that poverty, racial inequalities, and affordable housing crises are unfortunate, but you might also leave the solutions up to tax dollars, city officials, and revitalization. Evidenced by the fact that–due to lack of funding–the Chattanooga Housing Authority is continually having to close down public housing facilities and that gentrification is often facilitated by revitalization efforts, this passive agreement is clearly not working.
Instead, I suggest we follow the aggressive biblical mandate of helping the poor and oppressed. From the harvest and year of jubilee laws in Leviticus to Jesus’ missional statement of proclaiming “the good news to the poor” to the concern for the poor in the early church, the Bible demands an active approach towards poverty and oppression alleviation.
I challenge Covenant students to engage more aggressively in local efforts to stem poverty and create a more equal city. The first step to engaging more actively is volunteering. Volunteer at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, help tutor at Hope for the Inner City, or learn more about housing justice by going to one of Chattanooga Organized of Action’s events. Although mopping floors at the Community Kitchen might not seem like a way to curtail the endemic homelessness in Chattanooga, it will help to garner within you an appreciation for the biblical mandate to fight poverty and injustice, which will carry over into your post-Covenant professional lives of business, medicine, art, or whatever it may be.