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Among the tangle of government agencies responsible for the welfare of Patten Towers' displaced residents, the buck ultimately stops with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is required by law to ensure decent, safe and sanitary standards for the building's 241 elderly and disabled tenants.
But it's unclear whether the agency maintained adequate oversight of Patten Towers, which a recent city inspection found is unsafe for habitation without months of repair work.
Inspectors haven't inspected the building for more than two years due in part to a contract dispute at the national level, said Cheryl Jett, director of multifamily programs at the Tennessee Housing Development Agency.
For more than a decade, HUD officials contracted with the THDA to take care of everything from inspections to rent payments, Jett said. THDA cut a check on behalf of HUD to the building's owners -- about $120,000 every month, or $1.4 million per year -- to cover taxpayers' portion of the rent.
But in 2011, HUD decided to rebid all its contracts, and told the state agency to stop its inspections of Patten Towers. HUD would do the inspections itself while it rebid the contract, state officials were told.
"Prior to 2011, whenever there was an inspection, if there were problems, THDA would have to follow up on those when we go to the property," Jett said. "But because our contract with HUD changed in 2011, we haven't done that task, and we haven't done management and occupancy review since that time either."
It would have worked out, except HUD, hampered by lawsuits and delays, never followed through on its end. The last HUD inspection of Patten Towers was on Feb. 3, 2011, said Gloria Shanahan, public affairs official for the department. That means that HUD never inspected Patten Towers under current building owner PK Management, which bought the 11-story building for nearly $7.6 million in June 2012.
HUD planned to inspect the building in June, spokesman Joseph Phillips said on Wednesday, but the agency was unable to do so because of the fire. That could violate HUD's own rules, some of which require buildings to be inspected every 12 months. There now is no inspection date set, "given the current circumstances," Phillips wrote.
In an emailed statement, HUD said much of the responsibility for residents' welfare rests with PK Management, the building's private owners, as well as with local code and fire inspectors. HUD's only enforcement mechanism is to simply cancel a contract, the agency said, which could cause more harm than good if residents are evicted as a result.
"HUD doesn't have the authority to tell anyone to do anything," said Ed Ellis, HUD field director for East Tennessee. "As far as formal enforcement, we don't have that."
Yet HUD's own materials, accessible on its website, make a number of demands upon building owners and property managers, such as no exposed electrical wiring and a sprinkler system or other fireproofing in boiler rooms.
A handbook entry for HUD agents says that "HUD has the authority to impose civil and criminal penalties in the event that owners and/or their agents violate program requirements," such as a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment, or referral to the attorney general.
A written example of a theoretical violation in the handbook begins, "A physical inspection of a Section 8 substantial rehabilitation project revealed electrical hazards and inadequate heating."
HUD required reporters to file open records requests for specific inspection reports. Those reports have not been turned over.
South Carolina-based PK Management declined to answer questions for this story, a pattern it has repeated throughout an ongoing crisis that has required assistance from the Red Cross, Salvation Army and a host of Chattanooga and Hamilton County agencies.
But aside from the building owners, city inspectors also bear some responsibility to care for the poorest of the poor, HUD said.
Code inspectors typically enter the building whenever there's a big renovation, such as a new roof. Fire inspectors usually inspect a building after a fire or close call.
A city inspection done in February 2013 of a new cooling tower for the building's air conditioning did not turn up any issues with the building's wiring. Nor did the daily lights-flashing, sirens-wailing visits from six companies of firefighters, including a call about an electrical problem in January.
"The building was up to code," said Jeff Cannon, deputy chief of staff for Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.
That clean bill of health contrasts with an inspection after the basement electrical fire, which revealed a number of serious problems with Patten Towers that were not caused by the fire.
Equipment was modified with no evidence of permits and inspections. Boilers' barometric dampers, which regulate the flow of hot gasses, were installed incorrectly. Structural steel in the basement was exposed by careless maintenance. There are rat feces in the ventilation system.
Previous city inspection reports show only minor problems at the building, right up until it caught fire. Fire officials haven't revealed exactly how the fire started in the basement of Patten Towers.
While HUD did not immediately offer copies of its inspection reports, the agency did reveal that it is not normal for dozens of firefighters to regularly visit its Housing Choice voucher facilities.
"No," wrote the agency's public affairs department in response to a question about whether very many of the agency's properties see six companies of firefighters summoned nearly every day.
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6315.