With the recent closing of two of Chattanooga Housing Authority’s (CHA) largest properties and foreclosure rates at record highs, the Chattanooga renter’s market is saturated with individuals searching for housing with Section 8 vouchers. Vacancies are limited, and many of these individuals are struggling to find a landlord who will take these vouchers.
A new Catholic Charities program, entitled the S.M.A.R.T. program is providing a network for these individuals to improve their chances of finding affordable housing and education to improve their credit score and personal finances.
“In the current housing market, landlords can afford to be very selective, and rent is very high,” said Valerie Brown, housing counseling program manager at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee. “There is a stigma about section 8 vouchers, and many landlords won’t accept them. We’re trying to change that stigma.”
Ms. Brown, who provides housing and financial education on household budgeting, reverse mortgages and tax credits, has seen these housing problems first-hand over the recent months. Many individuals and families have reentered the rental market because of foreclosure or because they voluntarily gave up their home in a short sale arranged with the bank to prevent foreclosure. Ms. Brown said she received numerous calls from individuals and families desperately searching for affordable housing. They had little recourse after being turned down for housing.
“The renter’s market is flooded, and people don’t have anywhere to go,” Ms. Brown said. “I didn’t know if it was in my job description, but I wanted to help these people.”
Ms. Brown created the S.M.A.R.T. program, which stands for Smart Money and Rental Tools. The S.M.A.R.T. program creates a network of renters and landlords. The renters receive education about finances, improving their credit and good neighbor policies and are placed with landlords who agree to accept this financial training in lieu of good credit history.
Renters in the program complete a 12-hour course with three separate classes in budgeting, credit and being a good neighbor to become a S.M.A.R.T. tenant. These classes are taught by certified professionals from the University of Tennessee Extension, the Partnership Consumer Credit Counseling Service and the 28th Legislative District Community Development Corporation. While the individual is enrolled in the course, Ms. Brown searches for housing placement among her network of S.M.A.R.T. landlords.
Darren Gallaher, owner and property manager at Bescorp, Inc, was one of the first landlords to sign up for the S.M.A.R.T. program.
“I think the program is great. A lot of things are set up for people to fail,” Mr. Gallaher said. “People worry more about the dollar sign than really helping folks. This program will help people understand how to be better tenants and maybe get to a point where they can own a home.”
Mr. Gallaher manages 16 units in the Chattanooga area and several more in Georgia. He said he will both refer potential tenants to the program and work with the program to place graduates in housing. To Gallaher’s knowledge, this is the first program of its kind in Chattanooga, and he sees it filling a real need in the community.
“Many with Section 8 vouchers are lower income with a bumpy credit history, but they need a place to live too,” said Mr. Gallaher. “That’s what really fired me up, the fact that they can go to class to get a better financial education and awareness to help themselves.”
Each landlord will receive a sticker for their office identifying them as a S.M.A.R.T. Landlord to potential tenants. Landlords will be able to refer potential tenants to the program before leasing. If the tenant is late with rent, even once, they can be referred back to the program for further counseling.
“The landlords aren’t mandated to accept our tenants,” said Ms. Brown. “All the landlord is saying is they will consider the completion of this program in lieu of a tenant’s credit issues. Being designated a S.M.A.R.T. tenant will let landlords know that these individuals have taken the initiative to get into this program to get trained and improve their credit. ”
The first S.M.A.R.T. program course began in August. Two more courses are set for the fall. The next course will be held on Sept. 11, 18 and 25 from 1-3:30 p.m. All three classes will be offered on Saturday, Oct. 20, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For information on how to become a S.M.A.R.T. tenant or landlord, contact Valerie Brown at 423 267-1297 ext. 1606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.