A public housing victory

A public housing victory

February 28th, 2010 in Opinion Times

Agreement by the mayor's office and a pledge by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to let the Chattanooga Housing Authority build 18 new town houses at its Fairmount Avenue site in North Chattanooga is a welcome compromise -- and a welcome victory for the CHA. The city needs more quality public housing, and the CHA needs to be able to move forward on that goal when it has an opportunity. Now it can.

Still, the perplexing question about the struggle to get to this point remains troubling: Why, in fact, has Mayor Ron Littlefield been so persistent and vehement in his criticism of the CHA, and why did he suddenly soften his tone in the past two weeks and allow a compromise to go forward?

His sharp criticism over the past few months, both in public comments and to HUD in a letter, has not been helpful to an agency that the city needs, and should help, to be successful. In the context of that criticism, the compromise achieved in the past few days is remarkable.

Under the agreement, the CHA will be able to use most of the original $4.8 million grant that HUD had awarded it to demolish its existing 28 residential apartments at the Fairmount Avenue public housing site and replace them.

The town house redevelopment will feature green building and energy efficiency standards, some solar power, and pedestrian ways to reach Dallas Avenue and Normal Park School. It should be an asset to the CHA and public housing efforts. And it should serve as a model for quality housing and diversity in the broader North Chattanooga community.

Chattanooga needs that model. The Fairmount Avenue location is the only CHA site that lies north of the Tennessee River. That's a conspicuous reminder that if the mayor had killed the CHA's plan to redevelop the apartment site, as he apparently tried for months to do, the city would have been vulnerable to disparate impact lawsuit over the segregation of public housing.

An adverse decision against the city in such a lawsuit, had the CHA been forced to file one to keep its property in use for public housing, could have cost the city a range of punitive measures, including the loss of federal community development block grants used to fund many vital programs and services, .

If that prospect didn't influence Mayor Littlefield's abrupt shift away from adversarial tactics to block the Fairmount Avenue redevelopment, it should have. The criticism of the original plan for the hilltop site, including remarks by some in a public hearing, seemed racially tainted. It also generated speculation that opposition to the CHA's plan was aimed at making the site, and its views, available for upscale market development.

The CHA redevelopment was originally planned to include 48 new apartment units. After the mayor increased the volume of his criticism last fall of the CHA over the number of residents that plan would have placed on the dead-end street, the CHA reduced the planned redevelopment to 36 units.

Still angry, the mayor turned then to the City Council to secure an interim four-month moratorium on construction on the site pending a rezoning study, and took up the rezoning issue with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency.

After he threatened to block the construction with those moves, the CHA board and director Betsy McCright pledged to rebuild the existing 28 units even if it meant losing HUD's grant for a green development, won through a rigorous national competition. That, in turn, led to another round of snide remarks by the mayor against CHA's fight to save its Fairmount property for continued public housing.

The resolution reached last week marks an opportunity to put the city hall and the CHA on better terms. That should not be impossible. The criticisms that Mayor Littlefield has leveled at the CHA are rooted in actions by the agency's prior executive director. His lax oversight put the CHA in a fiscal hole through a fat bureaucracy and two flawed investments -- one on a new office building; another on the failed redevelopment of the 700 block of Market Street.

Under Betsy McCright's tenure beginning in 2008, staffing has been cut by 36 percent, the office building has been put up for sale or lease, and the CHA's operating budget has been put in order. The agency's seven board members, all appointed by Mayor Littlefield, have coalesced behind Mrs. McCright's tight management, and her goals of meeting the city's public housing needs.

The need is immense. The CHA has roughly 2,700 residents in dedicated public housing and another 2,800 in private housing through Section 8 vouchers. Yet some 4,000 people remain on the waiting list, and most will wait for a long time. Collaboration with the CHA will serve these people far better than excessive criticism.