published Monday, November 8th, 2010

Wasted space

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    Staff photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press C.J. Johnson, maintenance technician at the Harriet Tubman Homes, replaces plywood on a door after readying a vacant apartment for a new tenant. Nearly 100 units at the 440-unit complex are vacant because of the costs of renovating the aging buildings.

Scores of apartments that could be used to house Chattanooga's poor sit empty instead.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority is like many such agencies across the country, saddled with a perennial backlog of needed repairs and not enough money to address them all.

CHA officials said the public housing site most in need of repairs is Harriet Tubman, where nearly 21 percent of its 440 units cannot be used because of major problems such as leaky roofs and plumbing, faulty electrical wiring and the presence of asbestos. Some units have been vacant for as long as eight years.

The picture is far better at CHA's other 11 public housing complexes, with vacancy rates all below 7 percent and turnaround times under six months.

In all, CHA has 186 vacant units that need repairs before they can be occupied. Almost half of those -- 92 -- are at Harriet Tubman.

Meanwhile, CHA's budget for maintenance has dropped in recent years, from $4.93 million in 2007 to $3.08 million in 2009.

"If we had the funding, we'd have all the units turned around," said CHA's asset manager, Doug Wrinn.

In the meantime, there are 2,183 people on CHA's public housing waiting list and more than 5,000 people applied recently when CHA made available 200 vouchers for private housing. More than 4,000 people a year in the metro area experience homelessness, city figures show.

Jerry Rice said even substandard housing beats sleeping under a bridge.

"I can't walk and I'm on the streets," said Rice, 47, while sitting in his wheelchair. He has diabetes and nerve damage in his legs. "I'd beg them to let me stay there."

George Neil, who said he's been homeless for six months, said he could make the roof repairs himself.

"If they put me to work, I'll fix them," he said while sitting in the day room at the Community Kitchen. "I'll bet any one of these guys you ask has experience repairing houses. If they put us to work and give us a place to live, we would gladly fix them all."

Sandra Henriquez, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, addressed the state of public housing in an Oct. 29 statement.

"Many of the nation's public housing apartments are old or in disrepair and are buckling under a $20 [billion] to $30 billion backlog in capital needs," she wrote.

"Public housing owners now must make tough choices between repairing roofs and replacing plumbing -- or worse, demolishing units altogether -- because there simply isn't enough money to go around," she wrote.

Tear down Tubman

Wrinn said the best plan could be to tear down Harriet Tubman and build housing similar to the Villages at Alton Park. Or give all the residents vouchers for private housing and use the property for commercial development.

It would cost about $20 million just to bring the Harriet Tubman site up to standard, according to a 2007 assessment conducted by Bradfield, Richards, Rhodes & Associates Architects Inc.

Facing those kinds of costs and other issues, the CHA board in September approved a five-year plan that calls for seven public housing sites, including Harriet Tubman, to be sold or demolished to clear the way for mixed-income housing. Whether the plan will come to pass depends largely on the availability of federal money.

CHA has torn down other public housing units deemed beyond repair.

It demolished Maurice Poss Homes in 2006, saying it would have cost about $50,000 per unit to bring each of the 188 units up to HUD standard.

The year before, CHA demolished 60 units at Harriet Tubman.

Today, CHA officials say the average cost to make a standard vacant unit fit for occupancy is $3,000 to $6,000. The average cost to turn a unit at Tubman is $4,000 to $11,000.

Of Harriet Tubman's 92 vacant units, 44 have been off line for at least a year.

Roofing is the big problem, said Wrinn, standing in back of a Harriet Tubman apartment where wood on the roof is exposed.

"See the gutters falling? The wood is rotting behind it," he said.

The rotting wood causes water leaks that eventually make the apartments uninhabitable, he said.

"The real issue is that Harriet Tubman is 60 plus years old," Wrinn said. "Because it hasn't been renovated it has a lot of physical needs and they cost a lot of money."

Chattanooga City Councilman Peter Murphy said he has given legal counsel to several Harriet Tubman residents and is familiar with the site.

"It's amazing how many units are boarded up," he said. "For the longest time I didn't know why, but it comes down to they became unlivable and the housing authority doesn't have the money to make repairs."

Public officials are also trying other avenues in an effort to improve Harriet Tubman.

The Hamilton County government, city officials and CHA are going after a $250,000 Choice Neighborhoods planning grant that would be used to blueprint a better Harriet Tubman and East Chattanooga community.

Officials expect to know within six months if they will receive the planning grant from HUD. If they get it, the group will have the opportunity to apply for up to $31 million to carry out their plans.

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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EaTn said...

Public housing should be a contract with occupants to maintain the inside and outside the structures unless they are physically unable to do so.

November 8, 2010 at 4:58 a.m.
Tax_Payer said...

Tear it down and turn it into commercial / industrial property, where poor people can work to earn money to pay mortgages and automobile finances!

November 8, 2010 at 5:48 a.m.
Beamis said...

With no money, why is the CHA using Obama stimulus money to build a new instant ghetto on Fairmount Ave. instead of trying to maintain the ones it already has?

November 8, 2010 at 6:56 a.m.
rolando said...

It wouldn't be so bad if the copper pipes, copper wiring, bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances, etc didn't turn up missing all the time. Or if the door skins didn't have to be replaced or the windows plywooded over [as in the photo]. Or if the inner walls didn't have big holes punched in them, lighting fixtures torn or taken down. Etc., etc.

Finally, maybe it would save money if the Agency started awarding contracts based on lowest competent bid instead of using some minority- or race-based system. Requiring cash bonds with high penalties/forfeitures for non-completion, on budget/on time, for any reason other than natural catastrophe, no-excuse-accepted is also a good thing. Firm bids with no extensions, etc allowed.

Finally, require a high percentage of able-bodied new occupants to contribute their time -- painting, scut-work, etc. Then we will see just how badly contractors want the work.

Finally, limit the number of occupants to pre-established family members only with eviction for violators.

Get costs under control or sell the property. Period.

November 8, 2010 at 7:04 a.m.
rolando said...

Finally, all contracts must have a "Legal US residents only" clause covering their workers -- with steel-trap jaws for violators. Establishing residency must be a contractor responsibility with extreme penalties for violators. Federal systems exist to establish residency...

November 8, 2010 at 7:09 a.m.
rolando said...

I just noticed the heavily screened-over electric meters. Says something right there...

November 8, 2010 at 7:11 a.m.
sunnydelight said...

Rolando forgot one important thing. Drug test every occupant and do it often. Randomly , on the spot with no advance notice .

November 8, 2010 at 7:22 a.m.
Allison12 said...

The Housing Authority, like Chattanooga government, are the worst run taxpayer funded entities in Hamilton County. Failure to budget and plan for maintenance, speaks volumes to poor management. The CHA is on the federal watch list for being a poorly run organization. I could understand, 1 year, but year after year, the CHA continues to have major problems. The waste and incompetence is typical for the Chattanooga government. As a taxpayer in Chattanooga, the decision becomes to have confidence that the Littlefield administration will address poor management, or to move the one of the surrounding cities in Chattanooga where I don't have to pay the second highest property taxes and the highest stormwater fees in the state. I would not mind if I were paying for quality.

November 8, 2010 at 7:35 a.m.
champ1 said...

"The picture is far better at CHA's other 11 public housing complexes, with vacancy rates all below 7 percent and turnaround times under six months." Let me just tell anyone reading how pathetic this statement is. The average "turnaround" time for a unit in privately run property management companies is 5 DAYS! 6 MONTHS!!! ARE YOU KIDDING Me! Unbelievable. Just unbelievable...

November 8, 2010 at 9:52 a.m.
Allison12 said...

"Wasted Space" perfect title for current City Adminstration, got to go and connect dots.

November 8, 2010 at 2:18 p.m.
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