Minister seeks historic status for public housing

Minister seeks historic status for public housing

July 30th, 2012 by Yolanda Putman in News

The Rev. Leroy Griffith talks about the efforts to repair and restore the College Hill Courts complex Wednesday. A community movement is attempting to raise money for the College Hill Courts apartment complex by having it placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The complex was built in 1940, but Chattanooga Housing Authority officials say they don't have the funds for repairs.

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

Oldest public housing sites

Site // Year built // Units

College Hill Courts 1940 // 497

East Lake Courts 1940 // 417

Harriet Tubman 1952, 1962 // 440*

Emma Wheeler 1963 // 340

*Fewer than 40 units occupied

Source: Chattanooga Housing Authority

POLL: Should the city's largest and oldest public housing sites be listed on the National Register of Historic Places?

Westside residents haven't stopped trying to save the public housing in their neighborhood.

The Rev. Leroy Griffith, president of the Westside Community Association, wants to get College Hill Courts and East Lake Courts, the city's largest and oldest public housing sites, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

He sent a letter this month to Vice President Joseph Biden, asking him to help get the public housing sites listed on the register. In March, he sent a similar letter to President Barack Obama.

"As we understand the applicable federal law and regulations, the president has the power to make College Hill Courts and East Lake Courts a national historic site by declaring them to be such, with or without approval of the secretary of the interior," according to the letter. "If such is the case please ask him on our behalf to act quickly."

Griffith has not received a response from either letter.

But if he is successful, the Westside Community Association will seek 501(c)(3) status, he said, making it a tax-free organization and allowing it to go after federal and state money to repair the 72-year-old sites that house nearly 1,000 families.

"We are committed to restoring this place and to bringing it up to code," said Griffith, who lives in the Westside community just a few feet away from College Hill Courts.

Jeff Joeckel, a National Register archivist, said states may have laws that differ but nationally, even if a building is on the National Register of Historic Places, the building can be torn down if the owner wants it destroyed unless the building has federal funds attached to it.

To be on the National Register, buildings usually must be at least 50 years old and still look the same as they did when originally built, according to the National Historic Register website. The property also must be proven to be significant in the history of the area, including events, activities or with the lives of important people in the community, the website says.

The nominations are reviewed by the state Historic Preservation Office, a process that takes a minimum of 90 days.

Once the state OKs a site, completed nominations are submitted to the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., for final review. The national park service makes a decision within 45 days.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority did not respond to emailed questions on whether it would allow the public housing sites to be placed on the registry.

CHA officials have estimated it would take about $50 million to bring College Hill Courts up to standard. CHA officials have said the authority doesn't have the money to do it, but they add that, if nothing is done, College Hill and East Lake will continue deteriorating and will become uninhabitable.

Housing and city officials explored the possibility of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Purpose Built communities coming to Chattanooga and replacing the nearly 500 units of housing in College Hill. The new housing would be mixed income with a limited number of public housing units.

Several Westside residents objected to the proposal, saying it further would reduce public housing when nearly 1,500 people are on CHA's waiting list.

Meanwhile, people still are vacating Harriet Tubman, whose 440 units were once the second-largest site in the city, because the buildings went into disrepair. CHA cannot afford to repair Harriet Tubman and is trying to sell the complex or will tear it down.

Griffith said he is committed to seeing that people have the public housing they need.

"I'm a person who believes that if I don't love my neighbors, why in the heck am I a minister," he said.