Scores of apartments that could be used to house Chattanooga's poor sit empty instead.
The Chattanooga Housing Authority is like many such agencies across the country, saddled with a perennial backlog of needed repairs and not enough money to address them all.
CHA officials said the public housing site most in need of repairs is Harriet Tubman, where nearly 21 percent of its 440 units cannot be used because of major problems such as leaky roofs and plumbing, faulty electrical wiring and the presence of asbestos. Some units have been vacant for as long as eight years.
The picture is far better at CHA's other 11 public housing complexes, with vacancy rates all below 7 percent and turnaround times under six months.
In all, CHA has 186 vacant units that need repairs before they can be occupied. Almost half of those -- 92 -- are at Harriet Tubman.
Meanwhile, CHA's budget for maintenance has dropped in recent years, from $4.93 million in 2007 to $3.08 million in 2009.
"If we had the funding, we'd have all the units turned around," said CHA's asset manager, Doug Wrinn.
In the meantime, there are 2,183 people on CHA's public housing waiting list and more than 5,000 people applied recently when CHA made available 200 vouchers for private housing. More than 4,000 people a year in the metro area experience homelessness, city figures show.
Jerry Rice said even substandard housing beats sleeping under a bridge.
"I can't walk and I'm on the streets," said Rice, 47, while sitting in his wheelchair. He has diabetes and nerve damage in his legs. "I'd beg them to let me stay there."
George Neil, who said he's been homeless for six months, said he could make the roof repairs himself.
"If they put me to work, I'll fix them," he said while sitting in the day room at the Community Kitchen. "I'll bet any one of these guys you ask has experience repairing houses. If they put us to work and give us a place to live, we would gladly fix them all."
Sandra Henriquez, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, addressed the state of public housing in an Oct. 29 statement.
"Many of the nation's public housing apartments are old or in disrepair and are buckling under a $20 [billion] to $30 billion backlog in capital needs," she wrote.
"Public housing owners now must make tough choices between repairing roofs and replacing plumbing -- or worse, demolishing units altogether -- because there simply isn't enough money to go around," she wrote.
Tear down Tubman
Wrinn said the best plan could be to tear down Harriet Tubman and build housing similar to the Villages at Alton Park. Or give all the residents vouchers for private housing and use the property for commercial development.
It would cost about $20 million just to bring the Harriet Tubman site up to standard, according to a 2007 assessment conducted by Bradfield, Richards, Rhodes & Associates Architects Inc.
Facing those kinds of costs and other issues, the CHA board in September approved a five-year plan that calls for seven public housing sites, including Harriet Tubman, to be sold or demolished to clear the way for mixed-income housing. Whether the plan will come to pass depends largely on the availability of federal money.
CHA has torn down other public housing units deemed beyond repair.
It demolished Maurice Poss Homes in 2006, saying it would have cost about $50,000 per unit to bring each of the 188 units up to HUD standard.
The year before, CHA demolished 60 units at Harriet Tubman.
Today, CHA officials say the average cost to make a standard vacant unit fit for occupancy is $3,000 to $6,000. The average cost to turn a unit at Tubman is $4,000 to $11,000.
Of Harriet Tubman's 92 vacant units, 44 have been off line for at least a year.
Roofing is the big problem, said Wrinn, standing in back of a Harriet Tubman apartment where wood on the roof is exposed.
"See the gutters falling? The wood is rotting behind it," he said.
The rotting wood causes water leaks that eventually make the apartments uninhabitable, he said.
"The real issue is that Harriet Tubman is 60 plus years old," Wrinn said. "Because it hasn't been renovated it has a lot of physical needs and they cost a lot of money."
Chattanooga City Councilman Peter Murphy said he has given legal counsel to several Harriet Tubman residents and is familiar with the site.
"It's amazing how many units are boarded up," he said. "For the longest time I didn't know why, but it comes down to they became unlivable and the housing authority doesn't have the money to make repairs."
Public officials are also trying other avenues in an effort to improve Harriet Tubman.
The Hamilton County government, city officials and CHA are going after a $250,000 Choice Neighborhoods planning grant that would be used to blueprint a better Harriet Tubman and East Chattanooga community.
Officials expect to know within six months if they will receive the planning grant from HUD. If they get it, the group will have the opportunity to apply for up to $31 million to carry out their plans.