IF YOU GO
• What: Chattanooga Housing Authority informational meeting
• Topic: Potential revitalization opportunities for College Hill Courts, East Lake Courts and Harriet Tubman Development, the agency's three largest public housing sites
• When: Noon-1:30 p.m. today
• Where: CHA central office, 801 N. Holtzclaw Ave.
• Who: Purpose Built representatives, CHA, Westside residents and Mayor Ron Littlefield are expected to attend
Westside residents last week descended on City Hall on foot and in wheelchairs to protest a proposal for community revitalization that would destroy more public housing.
Today they'll find out if their voices matter.
Purpose Built, the Atlanta-based nonprofit specializing in community revitalization, will meet today with Westside residents, officials with the Chattanooga Housing Authority and Mayor Ron Littlefield.
"We want the housing authority to put a stop to the demolition of public housing and the displacement of residents before this goes any further," said Roxann Larson, president of the Dogwood Manor Resident Council and Westside resident.
The Purpose Built issue has been simmering for months, but new developments in the last few days suggest that today's meeting could be pivotal:
• City Councilman Andraé McGary told residents Thursday that CHA Executive Director Betsy McCright and the housing authority are not their enemy and that, unless some action is taken, Westside public housing eventually will disappear under the sheer weight of deteriorating facilities and the lack of money to maintain them.
• Amin Ali, co-owner of Golden Gateway Apartments in the Westside community, said Atlanta developers have approached him twice, once in 2011 and once this year, about purchasing his building.
"The property is not for sale, I told them," he said.
The name of the developer is a "private matter," Ali said, and he didn't know if he had anything to do with Purpose Built, but the developer said he wanted the property to put 300 apartments on it for students.
• Some Westside residents said, given the chance, they could raise money to help defray CHA's maintenance costs on the complexes and even do some of the work themselves. CHA has said it needs $50 million to bring College Hill Courts up to standard. College Hill is one of three public housing sites on the Westside owned by CHA.
At a Westside meeting Thursday, McGary, whose district covers the community, said Purpose Built can't take any action concerning College Hill Courts unless the nonprofit goes through the CHA board because the authority owns the property.
McCright said she knows CHA will be involved in what happens to College Hill, but she's still gathering information about how the decision process works.
"We're just trying to keep our minds open and look for options," McCright said. "The purpose on Monday is to get information and share as much as we can with residents so they can understand the situation we're in. We want to encourage them to approach the problem in a positive manner."
McGary said Westside residents need to keep open minds.
"If residents have decided that they are not in a position to be supportive of anything the housing authority wants to do, then we will end up with another Harriet Tubman situation," McGary said.
Harriet Tubman, the CHA's second-largest complex with 440 units, is being emptied and put up for sale because the buildings are deteriorated and CHA can't afford to fix them or demolish the site.
One major problem is the federal government has abandoned the idea of maintaining 300- or 400-unit, high-density public housing complexes like the ones in Westside, McGary said. If residents do nothing, he said, there will be no money to fix leaking roofs and broken air conditioners.
"It is my desire to see you treated with dignity, but it is only a matter of time before College Hill gets like Harriet Tubman," McGary told the group Thursday.
RESIDENTS AS RESOURCES
Chris Brooks, the co-founder of local advocacy group Chattanooga Organized for Action, said Westside residents are aware of the lack of funding, but they also believe they can help find a solution if they are seen as resources.
"The greatest underutilized resource in public housing is the residents," said Brooks.
Westside resident Karl Epperson suggested allowing residents to solicit home improvement stores such as Ace Hardware and Lowe's for donated materials that skilled residents could use to make repairs and reduce maintenance costs.
College Hill Courts resident Catherine Nunley suggested having more residents pay a flat-rate rent. She said charging a flat rate instead of allowing some people to pay only $50 could generate more money for maintenance.
Given time to plan, several residents said, they could seek out grants and come up with alternatives to tearing down public housing.
From 1999 to 2011, Chattanooga lost 750 public housing units, dropping from 3,692 to 2,942.
Across the country, more than 10,000 public housing units are demolished or sold annually, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, and more than 165,000 units have been demolished or sold since the 1990s. Most were not replaced, the coalition said.
Meanwhile, more public housing residents are given vouchers to defray private-market rent, but those don't always cover utilities. Vouchers expire after four months if not used, and some tenants haven't been able to find landlords to accept them in that time.
From the time Westside residents heard that Purpose Built may come to their community, dozens organized to say they didn't want community revitalization that meant less public housing.
They embarked on a citywide campaign to unify all public housing residents. They created a petition, signed by 1,226 people, requesting unit-per-unit replacement of public housing. They marched last week to the Chattanooga City Council to present the petition.
CHA has said it doesn't have enough money to do unit-per-unit replacement, but Purpose Built does offer a way for some public housing to be available and in good condition. It also provides hope that its mixed-income housing model will end a generation of poverty and inspire residents to more self-sufficiency, CHA officials said.
Public housing residents have been told CHA officials must have a relocation plan before they can be moved, but some are skeptical.
CHA has acknowledged that fewer than one-quarter of the people ousted from the Spencer J. McCallie Homes complex came back after the new one - the Villages at Alton Park - was finished in 2005. Housing officials said many people didn't want to come back because they received rental vouchers, yet there are so many people were on the waiting list for the Villages at Alton Park, CHA stopped taking applications for the site.
Beulah Washington, a former McCallie Homes resident, said she was hurt and confused when she wasn't able to get back into the Villages after passing a background and credit check. She now lives in the Westside and said she will fight with all the strength left in her 67-year-old body before she allows her home to be taken again.