Kudos to an East Chattanooga group for asking federal prosecutors to investigate the Chattanooga Housing Authority for a Harriet Tubman housing site bidding process that for two years has failed to sell the city's second-largest public housing site.
Frankly, though, this huge mess smells more like lost opportunities than illegalities. And it smells most like lost jobs in a community that sorely needs them.
The People's Coalition for Affordable Housing last week asked the U.S. Attorney General's Office to scrutinize "apparently irregular and illegal methods" of trying to sell the 36-acre ghost town where boarded-up brick buildings once housed 440 families.
Perrin Lance, president of Chattanooga Organized for Action, called the Housing Authority's methods "not transparent" and "secretive." "Someone outside needs to come in and look at this and make sure everybody is playing by the rules," Perrin said.
Early this year, the Chattanooga Times Free Press uncovered documents and interviews that suggest CHA ignored the highest bids, required exhaustive documentation from some buyers but not others, and ultimately failed to sell the complex to any of the half-dozen interested parties -- all while its executive director said publicly there were no solid offers.
Meanwhile, CHA is paying $200,000 to $300,000 a year to maintain the ruins of what was once one of the city's landmark public housing complexes.
But more to the point, the rules now appear to have the board once again advancing a Tubman sale to an out-of-town group -- the same group that couldn't come up with the money that it bid last year.
Chicago-based Lakewood Realty Group this time has bid $3.3 million -- up from $2.46 million Lakewood bid last year but couldn't get the financing for when it came time for a cash-in-full closing. Now, Lakewood only wants to put up $100,000 at closing. Who thinks this is good? Not only that, but CHA has estimated that making the 1953 and 1963 buildings of Tubman meet housing standards for the next 40 years would cost $33 million. Lakewood's Tubman remodeling plan calls for far less than that -- something more like putting lipstick on a pig.
But, of course, there's even more back story.
The only stipulation HUD has placed on CHA is that it accept no less than $2.46 million for the site. That minimum, along with a bidding process -- or lack of one -- that the coalition has questioned, left Chicago-based Lakewood Realty in mid-January as the lone potential buyer. When that deal fell through in late January, the board reopened the bidding and board members voted to take over from the CHA executive staff the authority to consider every offer.
"Every offer" would hopefully include one from the city to transform the complex into an industrial site. Mayor Andy Berke has offered $1 million and a 20-acre tract of land near Howard High School that was formerly another public housing site, the Maurice Poss Homes.
The Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce backs Berke's industrial plan for the Tubman site, as did the Chattanooga City Council last fall when it gave him the OK to budget $3 million for the Tubman purchase plus demolition and land preparation. The coalition seeking an investigation opposes industrializing the site. The group says that's where they smell political influence in sale delays.
We don't think there's malfeasance here, just ineptitude. The CHA board, and especially its administration, needs a public spanking.
Additionally, the city needs to up the ante (Hello, chamber of commerce: Where are you?) and make the highest bid.
America and Chattanooga know from experience that segregating poverty is no way to help people and no way to build a city. East Chattanooga needs jobs in easy walking distance to several other vacant, city-owned properties that can be deeded to developers of affordable housing. It does not need another 440-unit complex to house poverty. Tubman used to be known by a different name: Boone-Hysinger -- home to some of Chattanooga's worst crime.
As anti-gang activist Father Greg Boyle of California has said: Nothing stops a bullet like a job.
Another thing we know is that out-of-town landlords for "affordable housing," otherwise known as Section 8 or Housing Choice Voucher homes, often fail to maintain those homes. Witness: Patten Towers last year which caught fire after decades of several out-of-town owners failing to upgrade early 1900s wiring in the basement.
The mayor's office had to muscle the newest owner into bringing Patten Towers up to code and not charging rent as residents sat on cots at the Brainerd Recreation Complex where the Red Cross set up a temporary shelter.
Come on, Chattanooga. It's time to flex some muscle again.