Most people attending the Chattanooga Housing Authority's board meeting Tuesday were concerned about the sale of the Harriet Tubman site. But board members also struggled with a policy change that could leave older children of the opposite sex sharing bedrooms.
"It sounds as if we're going to be forcing a family with a teenage son to share a room with their teenage daughter and that just cannot be," said board member Edna Varner. "So it will be helpful to me to just talk through what a family's options are so I don't feel as if I'm voting for a family to do something that no wise parent would do."
CHA's current policy for Housing Choice vouchers allows boys and girls age 6 and older to share a bedroom with siblings of the same gender.
To save money and serve more people, board members on Tuesday unanimously -- but not enthusiastically -- approved a policy change that will provide one bedroom for every two people in a household, regardless of their age or gender.
The policy change goes into effect Nov. 1.
"It's all financially driven at this point," said Betsy McCright, CHA's executive director. "Do we philosophically agree with it? Probably not."
A family of four will only get a housing subsidy for a two-bedroom unit, but if the family has income to put with the subsidy, it may find a larger apartment. Also families can be creative about sleeping arrangements and have one member sleep on the fold-away sofa, CHA officials said.
Families can be creative to avoid having teenage siblings in the same bedroom, they said.
Board member Jim Sattler was unsettled by the policy change.
"I don't think people of the opposite sex need to be in the same room together. It's not healthy," he said.
"It just doesn't look right," said Eddie Holmes, board chairman. "We have so many people doing strange things these days and you don't want to create an environment."
CHA said the policy change will allow the organization to serve more people by renting more, but smaller units. It cost less money to rent a one-bedroom unit than to rent a two- or three-bedroom unit.
The housing agency said it has about 220 vouchers that it has not leased because it lacks the money to sustain them. Reducing the number of bedrooms allocated to a family also reduces the rent payment and leaves more money to fund those vouchers, said Tammie Carpenter, CHA's Housing Choice Voucher director.
It's a vicious cycle, McCright said. Funding for the voucher program is based on the number of vouchers leased, so if CHA doesn't lease all the vouchers, then it doesn't get full funding. Without full funding, there isn't enough money to operate the program, she said.
After discussing changes in the Housing Choice Voucher program, board members approved the sale of Harriet Tubman to Lakewood Realty Group of Chicago.
All six board members present approved the sale except Jim Steffes, who abstained.
Sattler said he would have preferred that the housing authority and the city pursued the plan proposed by Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke. That plan would have converted the 36-acre site into a job site and provided employment opportunities for residents of the community.
"I just want to go on record saying I think ... security is going to be an issue," said Sattler. "I do not believe we have any other choice right now."
Several residents in the audience also expressed disappointment at the way Lakewood was selected. They said their input was not considered.
Patrick Kellogg called for more transparency. He said residents should have been given opportunity to hear from Lakewood to know who their neighbors are going to be.
The Rev. Leroy Griffith said CHA did not make the right decision.
"There is going to be no accountability for the new owner. I think you may have made a serious mistake," he told board members.
HUD rules require CHA to sell property to the highest bidder.
Lakewood Realty Group purchased the site for $2.8 million and will spend $11 million to renovate the site. It plans to spend $3 million repairing roofs and $8 million repairing the interior of the buildings.
Lakewood officials said they want to start Phase I improvements in December. In addition to repairing roofs, improvements also include power washing the building, upgrading electrical service and refinishing each unit. They anticipate Phase I being complete December 2014.
Phase II is scheduled from January 2015 to December 2017. It will include renovating the interior of the units and achieving green certification.
Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at email@example.com or 423-757-6431.