Need for jobs wins out; Chattanooga's Harriet Tubman site sold to city

Need for jobs wins out; Chattanooga's Harriet Tubman site sold to city

March 12th, 2014 by Yolanda Putman and Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

POLL: Is the city the best buyer for the Tubman site?


The need for affordable housing in Chattanooga was one of the issues raised in the course of the discussions about the former Tubman public housing site, and City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem said those concerns are legitimate.

More than 1,000 people in the Chattanooga area are awaiting federal housing vouchers.

Hakeem noted that the city has a plan to give away city-owned land to private developers to build affordable, quality housing.

The developers will be required to rent to tenants who fall within a "very low" income range.

Hakeem said 15 percent to 20 percent of the housing in East Chattanooga is vacant.

"Housing is a legitimate concern and it has to be addressed, but the tone and tenor of the discussion so far has not been productive," he said. "Instead of confrontation, we need to come to the table to see what options are available and work to change things."

- Joy Lukachick

Yusuf Hakeem

Yusuf Hakeem

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority Harriet Tubman complex in East Chattanooga sits vacant, as seen, on Monday. The Chattanooga Housing Authority took the city's offer Tuesday for $2.6 million cash.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority Harriet Tubman complex in...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

Perrin J. Lance, left, voices his opinion requesting the Harriet Tubman complex be used for housing again during the Chattanooga Housing Authority's board meeting on Tuesday. The Chattanooga Housing Authority voted unanimously in favor of selling the former Harriet Tubman housing complex to the City of Chattanooga at a sum of $2.6 million for light industrial use.

Perrin J. Lance, left, voices his opinion requesting...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

After two years of fruitless efforts to sell what was one of the largest public housing complexes in Chattanooga, the housing authority on Tuesday accepted the city's offer of $2.6 million in cash.

With the agreement, Mayor Andy Berke pledged that his proposal to demolish the former Harriet Tubman housing site and turn the 36-acre tract of land into an industrial project will bring jobs to East Chattanooga.

"The way to raise this neighborhood is by bringing jobs here. That benefits East Chattanooga and helps the entire city," Berke said at a news conference in front of the empty, boarded-up site.

Berke said the city is still exploring ways to bring jobs to the area, including job training and demolition and construction jobs.

Earlier, in a special called meeting, the Chattanooga Housing Authority board voted unanimously to accept the city's bid over those from three other developers, including an offer for $700,000 more from the Chicago-based Lakewood Realty Group. That was the group that the housing authority originally picked over the city, but the company since had failed three times to complete the deal.

Several board members said they chose the city's plan to tear down the buildings over proposals to renovate or rebuild low-income housing, in part, because they believed that was the best opportunity for the area.

"Lots of cities have affordable housing. Look at Detroit," said board member Jim Steffes. "You need jobs."

The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce estimates that about 30 companies at any one time are considering expanding into Chattanooga. Officials believe the Tubman site - the second-largest available plot of city-owned land - could be what helps attract one of them.

With easy access to a rail line, along with nearby throughways, the Tubman site would be ideal for an auto manufacturing company, said Charles Woods, the chamber's president of economic development.

The city's successful bid came in the final stages of negotiation. Its original offer consisted of $1 million and the 20-acre Maurice Poss Homes site valued at $1.87 million.

CHA Board Chairman Eddie Holmes said at Tuesday's meeting that the housing agency had no desire to deal with the Poss Homes property, which the CHA gave to the city two years ago.

But the city's offer of $2.6 million cash was enough to seal the deal. The money is scheduled to be paid seven days after the City Council approves the expenditure.

Naveed Minhas, CHA's vice president of development, said the other developers either had too many contingencies attached to their offers to gain CHA's approval or their bids were lower than the minimum $2.46 million sale price required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

City Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem, who has been advocating for the city to get the property, said he is ecstatic.

"It gives hope for the residents of East Chattanooga that the city is committed to doing things differently than it's been done in the past," he said.

Before the vote, community residents were torn on what should be done with the dilapidated site, some advocating new housing and others in support of jobs.

Perrin Lance, president of Chattanooga Organized for Action, said he represented residents who wanted affordable housing.

But since the board did not choose housing for the site, Lance is asking the city to sign a community benefits agreement to ensure that area residents are hired at livable wages to work on the site.

Sit of former Harriet Tubman public housing site.

Sit of former Harriet Tubman public housing site.

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

"These kinds of deals get done all the time and people get left out," Lance said. "This is not just dollars and cents. These are people's lives, and we need to get a guarantee."

Berke said the city hasn't ruled out a community benefits agreement but there have been concerns in other cities about such agreements. The city plans to examine best practices in other cities before agreeing to one type of arrangement.

"We want to be balanced," Berke said. "We have to have an approach that recognizes that we want to bring good jobs to East Chattanooga and to build a quality site here."

East Chattanooga resident James Moreland said he was happy that the city was able to buy the Tubman property.

Moreland, who lives about 1.5 miles from the Tubman site, said his organization, the East Chattanooga Improvement Corp., represents several residents weary of the crime that has plagued the area and who don't want it to return.

Speaking after the CHA meeting, he said he particularly looks forward to one thing.

"I am waiting on the bulldozer to go over there and start tearing that eyesore down," he said.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at or call 423-757-6431.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at or 423-757-6659.