Electrical fire isn't only problem with Chattanooga's Patten Towers, residents say

Electrical fire isn't only problem with Chattanooga's Patten Towers, residents say

May 31st, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Local Regional News

Margaret Zylstra, an RN with the Hamilton County Health Department, talks with Patten Towers resident Pearly Hockenhull outside the Brainerd Complex on Thursday. Hockenhull was outside the Patten Towers when it caught on fire Tuesday night. Her medications were brought to her Thursday.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

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HOW TO HELP

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The idea behind the Section 8 voucher program is to provide "decent, safe and sanitary" housing to low-income families at an affordable price, according to guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But the reality at Patten Towers is nothing like that, residents insisted Thursday to anyone within earshot. When they're not corralled into an emergency shelter because of an electrical fire, Patten Towers residents live in a decaying marble fortress in Chattanooga's central business district, forbidden even from bringing visitors inside what was once the city's premier hotel, they say.

Private management companies, paid primarily with taxpayer cash, have raked in millions of dollars while deferring maintenance on necessities like air conditioning, elevators and crucial electrical wiring, residents report.

They say the building generates an estimated $140,000 per month in rent, but one of the two archaic elevators the 241 residents use to access its 11 floors is often out of service. When the laundry room roof began leaking, residents said they were forced to wait nine months to wash their clothes on-site.

"I've been there 10 years, and every time the air went out, it stayed out for a week," said resident George Landers, who pays one-third of his retirement income to building owner PK Management. "It gets fixed when they get around to it."

Yet despite Tuesday night's basement fire that left the entire building's elderly and disabled residents temporarily homeless, the managers expect the rent checks as usual, PK Management representative Candace Sharp told residents as they waited for lunch from a Salvation Army truck Thursday.

"The rent's still due," Sharp told a huddled group of residents in the Brainerd Recreational Complex gymnasium. "And the post office is holding your mail."

A corporate spokesperson for PK Management did not return phone calls seeking comment about alleged maintenance shortcomings. Nor did a spokesperson for HUD.

Few options

It will be difficult for many to get the rent money. Some who have jobs walked to work from Patten Towers, at 11th and Market streets, to nearby places of employment. That's not possible in suburban Brainerd.

"We paid rent last month, and what did it get us?" shouted a man, who later would not give his name.

Patten Towers in Chattanooga

Nearby, a few residents lay motionless in their cots, their Red Cross-issued washcloths carefully folded over their eyes to block the bright overhead lights while they tried to nap through the impromptu meeting. Others, still wearing Tuesday's smoke-stained clothes, raged against what they see as the latest in a series of inadequate measures by South Carolina-based PK Management and government housing officials.

Residents are upset that they can't return home to grab extra clothes, toiletries or medicine. None relishes the idea of spending another night on a folding cot in a gymnasium, sharing a pair of showers with their neighbors. An entire building's worth of rotting food awaits their return. And the rent is due.

For many residents, Patten Towers is their last, best hope. Some have been homeless before. Many have one or more physical or mental illnesses that require near-constant medical care or supervision. The majority have no family or friends to take them in.

They don't know what happens next. No one can tell them when they'll be going home. No one knows what to do with them while Patten Towers' fire damage is patched up. No one stepped forward to take responsibility.

Little information

The Chattanooga Fire Department remained unable to provide safety records or inspection data for Patten Towers -- information that reporters initially requested Wednesday morning.

Chattanooga officials skipped a morning news conference at the shelter, and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke would not answer questions through the day about the city's handling of the emergency.

Instead, Berke said in an emailed statement Thursday evening that his top priority is the health and well-being of the residents. A spokesperson clarified after Berke released the email that the city is providing security for residents and inspecting Patten Towers, as well as examining long-term solutions for residents' housing needs.

Elizabeth McCright, interim executive director at the Chattanooga Housing Authority, said the local agency has no ownership interest or clients in Patten Towers. She referred questions to PK Management.

It was Kimberly George, director of marketing and development for the Salvation Army, who took control of what she called the biggest humanitarian disaster to hit Chattanooga since Hurricane Katrina.

She gathered residents for meetings and worked to drum up financial support to pay for the 1,800 meals and 2,700 drinks that have been served through lunch on Thursday.

"I think this is even worse than the [April 27, 2011] tornadoes, because with the tornadoes, everyone had family they could stay with," George said.

Despite the challenges, many residents made the best of things. Some sat outside on the lawn of the Brainerd Recreational Center, enjoying a light afternoon breeze and watching planes take off from the Chattanooga Metropolitan airport.

Jeff Braswell, who has lived on the seventh floor of the Patten Towers for about six months, said staying at the shelter has been a good way to meet his neighbors. John Cross was seated under a tree near the parking lot of the recreation center with his brother, Frankie. He said the shelter workers were treating them well, but that he was ready to go home.

Long-term questions

But their next "home" may not be Patten Towers, officials hinted throughout the day.

Gary Hilbert, code enforcement officer for the city, spent the afternoon examining charred wiring in Patten Towers' basement.

"There are several things they need to do to get people back in there, even on a temporary basis," said Hilbert. "I think it would take several days to get everything done. They'll probably have to replace the main switchgear [primary electrical closet] to get everything up and running."

The Red Cross and Salvation Army are prepared to keep sheltering their 184 residents through the weekend, George said. But after that, Patten Towers' management should step up to the plate, she suggested. The building's corporate owners are expected to appear at a 10:30 a.m. press conference today, she said, to answer questions.

"I've been with the Salvation Army for 15 years; this is the first time I've seen where a disaster like this has lasted this long," George said. "These folks have no one, and that's why they're staying in a cot in a shelter. They are very close to homeless themselves, and they have no other resources -- or I don't believe they would be living at Patten Towers."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.