Where there's smoke ... Patten Towers residents secure in hotels until June 21

Where there's smoke ... Patten Towers residents secure in hotels until June 21

June 15th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Patten Towers residents stand outside of the closed building waiting for information on when they can move back in to their homes after 241 residents were evacuated Tuesday evening when an electrical fire broke out in the basement.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that nearly three weeks after a May 28 electrical fire at Patten Towers, reporters have confirmed the building had not been inspected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or its contractors in more than two years.

As Chattanooga Times Free Press reporter Ellis Smith pointed out Friday, it is HUD's duty by law to ensure decent, safe and sanitary standards for the Section 8 building's 241 elderly and disabled residents. But not only were conditions clearly unsafe there, no one was watching.

Tennessee Housing Development Agency blamed HUD.

For more than a decade, HUD officials contracted with the Tennessee agency to take care of everything from inspections to rent payments, and the THDA cut a check on behalf of HUD to the building's owners -- about $120,000 every month, or $1.4 million per year -- to cover taxpayers' portion of the rent.

But in 2011, HUD decided to rebid all its contracts, and told the state agency to stop its inspections of Patten Towers. HUD would do the inspections itself while it rebid the contract, state officials were told.

HUD planned to inspect the building in June, spokesman Joseph Phillips said on Wednesday, but the agency was unable to do so because of the fire. That could violate HUD's own rules, some of which require buildings to be inspected every 12 months.

It certainly wouldn't seem surprising to Patten Towers residents, who had lived with the rat feces in the ventilation system for years, and with elevators and air conditioning that was chronically down, and with the scream of fire engine sirens at the door daily.

PK Management, the building owner of almost exactly a year, confirmed Friday that PK will pay for residents to remain in hotels until June 21. Joyce L. Walker, PK's Director of community relations, did not address additional questions, including whether that means the building will then be safe for rehabitation.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and his staff took a big step forward in early June to shame the management company into moving the residents off cots. The city didn't have to do anything, but -- as Berke's people have said -- these are city residents and they needed help.

It's still unclear why the previous city administration's inspectors found no problems while a post-fire inspection found clear problems -- equipment installed with no permits, structural problems from lax maintenance work, and switch boxes dating back decades, among other things.

HUD, too, raises that question.

Code inspectors typically enter the building whenever there's a big renovation, such as a new roof. Fire inspectors usually inspect a building after a fire or close call. But at Patten Towers, a city inspection done in February 2013 of a new cooling tower for the building's new air conditioning did not turn up any issues with the building's wiring.

And the daily lights-flashing, sirens-wailing visits from six companies of firefighters, including a call about an electrical problem in January, didn't elicit a deeper look either. According to the city's paperwork from that time, the building was up to code.

Does anyone smell smoke?