published Saturday, June 29th, 2013

Return to Patten: Monthlong sojourn for elderly, disabled finally ends (with slideshow)

Joyce Walker, spokesperson for PK Management, right, talks with resident Angela Solomon.
Joyce Walker, spokesperson for PK Management, right, talks with resident Angela Solomon.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

WHAT'S NEXT

The following are conditions placed on the conditional [certificate of occupancy] for Patten Tower.

• An overall plan to improve each dwelling unit and a timeline showing when this will be accomplished.

• Implementation of the Revitalization Plan submitted June 20, 2013, by PK Management.

• Completion and inspection of remaining items documented on the attached letter (dated June 4, 2013) that have yet to be completed.

Source: Mayor Andy Berke's spokeswoman, Lacie Stone

Patten Plan
Patten Plan

Sally Blackwell and 240 of her elderly or disabled neighbors woke up May 28 to a full-scale evacuation of Patten Towers, alarms blaring around them as an electrical fire below ground ravaged the apartment building's infrastructure.

Now, after being kept away from everything she held dear for 31 days, Blackwell is happy to be back at the 11-story downtown Section 8 public housing site.

"You better bet!" Blackwell said Friday as she waited outside the building to go inside.

Unlike the emergency shelters and extended-stay motels where residents waited and hoped that they could return to the lives they left behind, Patten Towers -- old though it may be -- is still home for Blackwell and her neighbors.

"I've got a bathroom, and a hallway, and a living room and a kitchen here," she said.

At noon Friday, the city gave PK Management, which manages the building for California real estate magnate Greg Perlman, a conditional occupancy certificate that allowed residents to return.

City building official Dallas Rucker said Perlman's management company had replaced an electrical switchgear, restored emergency lighting, added a new backup power generator and provided plans to address other public health issues city officials found in a post-fire inspection.

As happy residents rushed back into their homes after the long, unplanned absence, Blackwell waited patiently for the halls to clear so she could better navigate with her walker to the elevator. She has a cracked hip and a rebuilt ankle, so getting to her 11th-floor apartment without a wheelchair was tough.

Blackwell normally uses a wheelchair, but hers doesn't fold so she had to leave it behind in the evacuation. It's a story shared by many of her fellow tower-dwellers, some of whom firefighters carried out of the building during the fire because the elevators had no power.

Resident Gloria Colvin celebrated her 60th birthday Friday. Though she was happy to return home, it wasn't the party she had in mind, she said.

Colvin was one of a few dozen residents told early Friday by PK Management officials that the building wasn't ready and they would not be allowed to enter. Chartered buses turned back toward hotels, and security guards blocked the way for those who arrived early and ordered residents not to speak to gathered reporters.

"[On Thursday], PK Management told us we were coming home. Today, they told us we weren't getting in," Colvin said Friday before the building was opened. "I ain't never been to jail in my life, but I might go today."

Yet hours after she was turned away, Colvin heard the building had passed its inspection. So she returned home a second time.

"I hope. I'm fixing to go through the door," she said while carrying bags of laundry and personal items.

The early confusion Friday has been a hallmark of the fiasco that kept 241 elderly or disabled residents shuffling among hotels, friends' homes, or the streets.

Area nonprofits have complained that communication from PK Management has been inaccurate or nonexistent.

"Communication overall has not been stellar. At some point it got to where we were just doing rumor control," said Rebecca Whelchel, director of Metropolitan Ministries.

ABOUT PK MANAGEMENT

PK Management/GHC Housing Partners -- Manager/owner of Patten Towers

• Gregory Perlman, the 'P' in PK Management and owner of GHC Housing Partners.

• Robert Kriensky, the 'K' in PK Management and chief operating officer of GHC Housing

• Jenee McClain-Bankhead, vice president for the northern division of PK Management

• Joyce L. Walker, director of community relations for PK Management and board member of the Perlman Foundation

Source: GHC Housing Partners

Who regulates Patten Towers?

• U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development -- Inspects building periodically, pays $156,000 in taxpayer dollars per month to Perlman, about 2/3 of the total rent for the building. Residents pay the remaining 1/3.

• Tennessee Housing Development Agency -- Conducted follow-up inspections to HUD inspections until contract dispute, collects certain reports and other documents from Perlman to ensure compliance with state law.

• Chattanooga -- Conducts code and fire inspections, will continue to monitor building more closely following fire on May 28.

PK Management spokeswoman Joyce Walker read a statement before residents were allowed to enter Friday, though she refused to answer questions afterward and did not address the conflicting stories given to residents by PK Management staff.

PK Management has made "all required repairs in less time than was expected," Walker said, before thanking Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's office and the numerous local nonprofits that fed, clothed and cared for displaced residents in the first days after the evacuation. Thereafter, PK paid to have residents put up in hotels.

For now, Patten Towers is operating on a contingency basis, and its occupancy license is conditional on PK Management continuing to fix the laundry list of problems identified in a post-fire inspection, Berke said.

PK Management has already provided comprehensive plans for analyzing and repairing the electrical and structural systems, and must adhere to those plans if the building is to stay open, the mayor added. The company also had to agree to cooperate with the Fire Prevention Bureau to ensure the building's safety.

Owner Perlman can collect his $156,000 monthly payment from the federal government only if Patten Towers remains occupied. Inspectors can cut off the cash if PK Management doesn't live up to its responsibilities.

Berke said city staff would remain in close contact with PK Management to make sure Perlman keeps his end of the bargain.

"This building is still not in a shape that these residents need," Berke said. "We're two doors down from Patten Towers. Before this fire happened, I've walked by Patten Towers and talked to residents. That's not changing. ... We're watching."

Blackwell said Friday she was looking forward to making her own cup of coffee, sitting down on her own chair and looking out her own 11th-floor window.

"That's the only reason I won't move down," Blackwell said. "I can see the mountains and all that."

Staff writer Ellis Smith contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter at @glbrogdoniv.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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