In the roughly two years since Chattanooga purchased the former Airport Inn on Lee Highway to turn it into permanent supportive housing, police officers have recurringly found people trespassing in the now-shuttered building.
Occupants have broken windows, and in at least one case, kicked in an air conditioning unit and knocked a handle off a laundry room door to gain entry to the old hotel, according to police reports obtained through a public records request. At one time last summer, about five or six people may have been living there.
"In the interest of public safety, the city of Chattanooga took action in April 2023 to put an end to episodes of illegal trespassing and other criminal activity associated with the vacant Airport Inn and to secure the property," city spokesperson Kevin Roig said in a statement.
"The city is also using contracted security services at the property pursuant to its existing blanket security contract to supplement active patrol by the Chattanooga Police Department. The property has been without incident since the city took these measures."
Chattanooga has spent $22,668 to board up and secure the property, according to the city. The city used its existing contract with River City Remodeling, the vendor that code enforcement uses to board up derelict and abandoned buildings.
The city purchased the aging facility in October 2021 for nearly $2.8 million with plans to turn it into about 70 units of permanent supportive housing, a tool designed to help people adjust to independent living while also providing services like health care.
The building has been fenced in and closed to the public as officials work on recruiting a developer and service provider to complete the project. The Chattanooga City Council authorized staff to issue a request for proposals in January, and the city is nearing an agreement on its redevelopment.
On Aug. 29, the Chattanooga Housing Authority's board awarded 79 project-based housing vouchers to Shangri La Industries for the Airport Inn project, which is a key part of the financing for the redevelopment. Shangri La and Step Up, a nonprofit with a history of managing permanent supportive housing, have partnered for the past 15 years on about 25 projects.
"Shangri La handles acquisition and rehab construction, and Step Up handles supportive services and property management as well as community relations," Step Up President and CEO Tod Lipka explained in an August email. "Once the project is placed in service, Step Up staff live and work on site with tenants on a day-to-day basis and provide interface with the local community."
Step Up was allocated $1.5 million for permanent supportive housing in the mayor's One Chattanooga Relief and Recovery Plan, which outlined the use of $30 million of federal pandemic relief funding.
Calls at the Airport Inn have reduced significantly since April, Chattanooga police spokesperson Kevin said. There have been five reports since April 1, the most recent one being on April 26, when officers assisted public works employees in clearing potential squatters, though none were found inside the building.
"Officers check every person encountered for outstanding warrants and also try to get homeless individuals connected to medical or social services they may need," West said in an email.
Officers have also found evidence of drug use at the former Airport Inn. Last August, police arrested a man and a woman at the hotel after discovering an exposed syringe and glass pipes that officers believe the suspects used to smoke meth, according to a police report. Police also found "numerous burglary tools," including a saw, crowbar and door wedge, and the pair was "in use of utilities such as electricity, which would be billed to the city of Chattanooga."
"Police found the room to be in a disheveled mess as there was garbage and refuse laying about," the report states. The door had been forced open, and there was also a hole in the wall that used to a hold an air conditioning unit.
In October, an officer found a 27-year-old man wrapped in a comforter in Room 126. He had been staying in the hotel to get out of the cold. He had food, clothing, candles and drug paraphernalia within his reach, police say. The officer arrested him and transported him to the Hamilton County jail.
On March 19, an officer found an unresponsive man with glassy pupils and vomit between his legs suffering from an apparent overdose, according to an incident report. An officer administered two doses of the drug naloxone, which is designed to reverse the effects of an overdose, but the man later died at Parkridge North.
After being kicked out of the Days Inn on Shallowford Village Drive, the man, who was homeless, had been planning to meet his mother and her caretaker at a nearby Waffle House, according to police. In the meantime, he had been staying in one of the Airport Inn's rooms.