It took a fire to burn away the veil that obscured the grime and filth at Patten Towers, the public housing project in downtown Chattanooga that was able to pass federal, state and local inspections for years in spite of a laundry list of health and safety defects that remained hidden from public view.
Though six companies of firefighters routinely were summoned to Patten Towers for a daily lights-flashing, sirens-wailing race to deal with largely trivial problems and false alarms, combustible conditions still lurked in the basement, leading to a 1,500-degree electrical fire in late May.
Now, six months after the blaze that created a month-long humanitarian crisis -- the worst in Chattanooga since Hurricane Katrina -- residents say building owner Greg Perlman, prodded by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, has fixed the tower's safety problems and upgraded living conditions from appalling to acceptable.
Perlman's company, PK Management, came under fire for bungling, delaying and generally mismanaging its response to the fire, to the point that the local Salvation Army and Red Cross were forced to spend almost all of their emergency funds to take care of residents. Under pressure from federal, state and city officials, the California real-estate mogul began to get personally involved, and money began to flow toward renovating Patten Towers and giving its residents a chance at a decent place to live.
Yet even today it's difficult to pin down what constitutes actual progress at Patten Towers. Despite assurances from Perlman, many promised improvements to individual dwellings have failed to materialize, leaving some of the building's physically or mentally disabled residents still living in squalor.
"You get something fixed and you think everything is going great, then 15 minutes later something happens and you think, 'This place is never going to be great,'" said Jeff Cannon, who is one of only a few outsiders allowed to walk through the structure.
Cannon, the city's chief operating officer, has taken a personal interest in the Section 8 project's 241 residents. He says that even when workers aren't fixing the building's faults, mentoring programs and frequent checks by city officials are helping the residents begin to take responsibility for their own destinies and work together as a community. But it's impossible to understand how far the people of Patten Towers have come without taking a moment to consider how bad they had it just six months ago.
Inspection reports, residents and city officials revealed that the electrical system dated back to the building's construction in 1908. The 11-story building's two elevators seemed to remain out of service for prolonged periods, they noted. The rooms hadn't been painted in years, but the lighting was so bad that the unnatural stains on the walls didn't show up except under close inspection. Even the emergency lighting didn't work -- a big problem when there's a real emergency.
The cracks at the tops and bottoms of doors allowed sounds to freely travel into and out of rooms. Smells from hundreds of people cooking meals wafted through the hallways, creating an olfactory stew that nearly overshadowed the haze of tobacco and marijuana smoke that stuck to the molding carpet in the no-smoking building. It was unpleasant, Cannon said.
The odor might have been tolerable if the air conditioning did anything to recirculate fresh air from outside. But the air often didn't flow for months, unless it was coming in through cracks in the single-pane windows that did little to shield residents from extreme temperatures. When the air did blow, it was blowing built-up rat feces through the vents into their rooms, a post-fire inspection showed.
Most of this has been fixed, to some degree. Workers have scrubbed the walls and removed the stains in most cases. The carpet is either new or substantially cleaned. New doorstops help block cracks underneath some of the poorly installed doors. New windows for many residents, new lights in the halls and lobby and working elevators have given residents hope.
Next week, the city's building inspectors will verify that the last of the fire hazards have been cleared. The city will examine safety fixes to the combustion air system for Patten Towers' boilers, and will check the spray-on fireproofing workers have added in the basement, where the electrical fire threatened the building's structural integrity.
Perlman originally promised that the building would be fixed up and ready for a "grand reopening" by the end of November. Now he says any such reopening isn't likely to happen before April 2014. He chalks up the months of delays to the three-week government shutdown and the resetting of a scheduled inspection by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to February.
"As soon as we pass that [HUD inspection], then we're going to get onto more of the aesthetic, nice improvements we want to do on the interior on the building," Perlman said. "We've taken care of a lot of the nasty stuff that was going on there."
City officials, who work next door to Patten Towers and have made its residents' well-being a personal crusade, back up most of Perlman's story. The more horrifying living conditions have been fixed, they say, and neighborhood specialist Ty Armour is teaching residents how to create their own version of a neighborhood association. Yet many problems remain.
Drug abuse and barely-treated mental illness are a daily reality in the building, where residents continue to smoke in their rooms, the halls and the stairwells despite the presence of next-door neighbors living on pure oxygen. The building's managers remain focused on long lists of rules -- just last week they distributed thick legal documents to residents, some of whom can't read.
For some of the building's sick and dying residents, it remains a challenge for their caretakers to enter the structure, which is overseen by hired guards who are ordered not to allow the media or any ordinary visitors to enter without a special invitation. This system largely prevents the public, which pays substantially all of residents' rent at the Section 8 project, from seeing what their tax dollars are going toward.
But there's not much to see. The halls of the formerly grand hotel that once hosted presidents and dignitaries are featureless and drab, if a bit cleaner than they once were. The lobby has been renovated, brightened and expanded to allow residents an area to congregate without standing around outside, but much of the former commercial space is still darkened and closed off. There's a recreation area next to a working laundry room, although it's only open during working hours.
Perlman kept his word to hire a service coordinator, who is working with Armour to help residents learn to solve their own problems instead of pulling the fire alarm whenever there's a concern, said Donna Williams, head of Neighborhood Services in Chattanooga.
"It's about the people too, not just the building," Williams said.
Officials acknowledge that in taking a special interest in the well-being of Patten Towers' residents, city administrators have moved into uncharted territory not covered by traditional municipal laws and rules.
Some of the conditions attached to Perlman receiving a permanent occupancy permit are more specific than is typical for private property owners, and are targeted at things that will make residents' lives better, not just comply with a federal safety checklist. It's a more muscular role for city government, and one that Berke's administrators are comfortable filling.
"[Berke] made it clear, even the non-law stuff, it has to be done," Williams said. "Here's what you have to do as a technical thing, but it's a humanitarian issue in other regards."
In the course of dealing with the fire, the subsequent care and feeding of hundreds of residents for a month and now the aftermath, city officials say they've learned something that can be applied to other problem projects.
"If you were to make a list of places where 200 or more people live in the city, I don't think there's any place that would come close to Patten Towers," Williams said. "But are there places where there's opportunity to love on more low-income residents? Yeah, we've learned a lot from this and we intend to do that. Patten Towers is not an anomaly."
Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 423-757-6315.