The family of Chattanooga mayoral frontrunner Andy Berke owns property that sits amid one of the largest hotbeds of crime and gang activity in the city.
The Woodlawn Apartments, located on Wilson Street and Arlington Avenue, in East Chattanooga, is owned by Woodlawn Apartment Co., a company formed by Berke's late grandfather, Harry, his father, Marvin, and uncle, Ronald, property records show.
Berke distanced himself from the issue Thursday, issuing a statement that he has no personal involvement in the property.
"As one can see from examining property records, Andy Berke has no ownership in the Woodlawn Apartment Complex, either through a partnership or personally," a campaign statement read. "He has no decision-making or management authority and has no personal connection to the property."
In calling attention to the family's ownership of Woodlawn, Berke opponent Robert Chester Heathington Jr. made the most dramatic splash in what has been a lackluster mayoral campaign.
Similarly, Woodlawn Apartments contrast sharply with the high-powered nature of the Berke, Berke and Berke law firm and with one of Berke's television campaign ads in which he declares, "I want to see people feel safe as they walk down the street."
The apartments are widely known for the drug deals that go down there and for being Crips gang turf. According to the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, nearly 60 percent of residents in the neighborhood live below the poverty level.
Against that backdrop, and with less than two weeks to go until the March 5 election, Heathington questioned whether Berke, if elected mayor of Chattanooga, has the credentials to reduce crime. Heathington acknowledged that Berke had no ownership stake in the property; however, he insisted the former state senator should have some responsibility.
"I think you should have the decency, or your family should have the decency, to clean it up," Heathington said.
Ronald Berke, responding to questions Thursday via email, said Thursday that his partnership recently changed management companies. A "great deal of work" has been done to improve the property visually and to enhance security.
"The management company employs numerous security options, including two SWAT team members and other police officers on a contractual basis," he said.
Because of privacy reasons, he declined to detail other properties the family owns.
Andy Berke's campaign said Thursday that he owns only his home and is in a partnership where his law practice is on Frazier Avenue in North Chattanooga.
A 2012 gang assessment study shows that East Chattanooga, where the Woodlawn Apartments are located, is the top area where gang crime has taken place over for the past five years.
Boyd Patterson, gang task force coordinator, said Thursday he could not speak directly about Woodlawn, but noted there is entrenched gang activity throughout East Chattanooga.
"East Chattanooga is a hotbed of gang activity," he said.
At a news conference at the apartment complex Thursday afternoon, Heathington claimed the Berkes have not provided adequate security and that those who live in the complex "live in terror." If elected mayor, Heathington said he will see that the area gets special attention.
"We're going to clean this area up," he said. "And we're going to send the bill to who owns it."
He also said Berke has not been forthcoming on how crime should be reduced.
Stacy Richardson, Berke's campaign manager, said the senator has given details of crime reduction strategies, including setting data goals and monitoring, looking to other states with crime initiatives and testing children for strengths to put them on the right path.
"Andy has said that he will support our police officers and make sure they have the tools to do their job," Richardson said.