A controversy's racial tone

A controversy's racial tone

June 10th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The proposed three-way land swap of properties owned -- and unwanted -- by city government, the county school board and the Chattanooga Housing Authority shouldn't be controversial. Even as amended, it's still mutually beneficial for each party. Regrettably, however, it's been played by political and racial concerns that have threatened to unwind it.

The properties involved in the patiently negotiated deal are:

• Dogwood Manor, the last of the three West Side high-rise towers off Martin Luther King Boulevard for low-income seniors and disabled citizens that the city still owns. Though the building is fully occupied, city officials have long wanted to sell it and get out of the housing business.

• The vacant, old East Brainerd Elementary school on East Brainerd Road near Gunbarrel Road, which the school board owns and can't use.

• The cleared, vacant 20-acre site of the former Maurice Poss Homes, which lies off South Market Street between Interstate 24 and Howard High School. The CHA doesn't want the site and has tried for six years to sell it -- and the school board needs it for facilities for Howard High School.

Under the proposed land deal, the city would transfer Dogwood Manor, worth roughly $1.7 million, to the CHA. The school board would transfer the East Brainerd Elementary site, worth around $2.3 million, to the city, and receive $430,000 in cash. And the CHA would transfer the Maurice Poss site, worth about $1.87 million, to the school board, pay the school board and the city $726,902 and receive a portion of the old East Brainerd Elementary land. If the original plan stands, the CHA would receive another land swap with the city.

The city would sell the balance of the 9-acre East Brainerd Elementary site for development and recoup the value of the Dogwood Manor. In sum, each party would receive full value in land or cash for the properties they let go.

The school board would use its new site for a future stadium and track for Howard High School to replace, at last, facilities that are flood-prone and built on toxic landfills. The CHA's land swap with the city would be designated for future housing for low-income seniors and the handicapped. The city would gain equity for its building and be out of the housing business.

The numbers and property values in the exchange add up fairly for each party. The deal also reflects constructive, thoughtful collaboration among government entities in the broad public interest. But though two county commissioners, Greg Beck and Warren Mackey, helped negotiate the deal, the faction of the commissioners led by Fred Skillern wrongly attempted last week to squelch the efforts of the elected school board to close the deal.

Skillern, a long time critic of Howard High School, and his minions apparently think the deal -- though based on market appraisals -- is unfair to the school system, never mind the board's agreement. They're also steamed that they weren't informed about the negotiations until an agreement had been ironed out. In fact, they just can't restrain themselves from playing nit-picking nanny to the school board, and venting their apparent prejudice against helping the city's oldest, black-majority school.

Councilman Jack Benson, whose district contains the East Brainerd property, also improbably led a 5-4 vote last week to defer approval of the deal, as well. He said potential developers and some East Brainerd-area residents were irate about the prospect of having a public housing area for low-income seniors and disabled citizens in their neighborhood. "We've got a nice subdivision east of it," he said.

That disquieting remark suggested both an elitist and racial undertone. Though the CHA presently has no public housing in East Brainerd, there is a dearth of affordable housing for seniors and the disabled. The recent sale of the Saint Barnabas apartments on Sixth Street made that indisputably clear. Many of the seniors forced to move from the complex could find no alternative.

City officials now seem to favor another land swap with the CHA that would let the city sell all of the East Brainerd Elementary site for market-rate commercial or residential development. That may resolve the City Council's split in the pending Tuesday meeting, but it will take something more -- from both the City Council and the County Commission -- to salve the discriminatory racial wounds that both bodies opened in contesting the land swaps in the first place.