Cook: Will there be peace in Dogwood Manor?

Cook: Will there be peace in Dogwood Manor?

July 11th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Dogwood Manor is located at 959 Gateway Ave. in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

If you live in Dogwood Manor Apartments -- the 136-unit low-income housing high-rise that overlooks downtown and is home to elderly Chattanoogans -- cut this column out and tape it to your fridge. Stash it under your mattress. Save it in the pages of your Bible.

Because when renovation day comes, here is what Betsy McCright, executive director of the Chattanooga Housing Authority, promises: No one at CHA will try to turn Dogwood Manor from low-income housing into out-of-price, market-based or mixed-income apartments.

"That is a guarantee," she said.

It better be a good one.

Last month, the City Council approved -- as part of a messy, three-way land swap -- the sale of Dogwood Manor, which it purchased in 2001 for $1, to CHA. This marks the sale of the last public housing property owned by the city, which not only affects hundreds of Chattanoogans but is a symbolic action, as well.

"This is going on all over the nation," said Roxann Larson, president of the Dogwood Manor Residents Association and regional vice president of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants. "Our legislators are trying to balance the budget by cutting out funds for the poorest of the poor instead of going and taxing ... the 1 percent," she said.

What does it say when our city divests itself of all its public housing properties? Isn't that part of its responsibility? Like fire, police, urban planning and education?

Even if CHA assumes ownership of Dogwood Manor, residents still are worried.

"They will probably turn this around and sell it for profit," said Larson.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will approve the sale only if CHA promises to convert Dogwood to public housing, which is how McCright can make her guarantee. If the sale is approved, CHA -- already underfunded because of budget cuts from Washington, D.C. -- will begin to consult with engineers and architects about renovation. Then it may be months or even years, McCright said, before renovation begins.

On June 28, she walked into the first-floor community room at Dogwood Manor to speak with residents.

"The purpose of this notice is to inform you that there is a possibility that you may be displaced as a result of the proposed project," reads the second sentence of the letter handed out that night.

There is no reference in the letter on whether residents will be able to move back. Or how long the renovation will last. Or when it will begin.

"This is a fluid process," said McCright. "There is nothing set in granite or stone."

Imagine being 85, with no family, on fixed income, and being told that in the future, there is a "possibility" you will have to move.

"Agonizing," said Adair Darland, 70. "I moved in expecting to live here until the day I died."

So now Darland and other residents are at a crossroads. In its letter, the CHA promises relocation assistance to qualifying residents (pay your rent, don't break the law). But this assistance is forfeit if residents leave before receiving "a formal notice of relocation eligibility."

That formal notice may come only 90 days before renovation begins.

"It's a Catch-22," said Darland. Some senior housing complexes in the city, she said, have two-year waiting lists.

"If we move now, we don't get any help," she said. "If we don't move, we may not have anywhere to go."

Residents pray for certain things whenever renovation comes: Don't do it all at once. Work three floors at a time, which allows residents to move to any open apartments in the tower.

Darland wants CHA to "prequalify" residents before renovation, so that -- if displaced -- they can be assured they have a Dogwood Manor apartment waiting for them.

"That would bring so much peace to everybody," she said.

Peace. The one thing you hope for as you grow old.