The Chattanooga Housing Authority has demolished four of its public housing developments in recent years. That leaves a total of 16 sites owned or managed by CHA.
* Spencer J. McCallie Homes: demolished 2001-2003
* Rev. H.J. Johnson Apartments: 2005
* Maurice Poss Homes: 2005
* Harriet Tubman Development: 60 units demolished in 2005
* Fairmount Avenue Apartments: 2010
* Harriet Tubman: sale or demolition proposed by 2013 pending HUD approval
IF YOU GO
* What: Next meeting of Chattanooga Housing Authority board
* When: 12:30 p.m. May 10
* Where: Chattanooga Housing Authority central office, 801 N. Holtzclaw Ave
Harriet Tubman residents and surrounding homeowners warn that closing the public housing development as planned could cause crime to spread in residential areas from North Brainerd to Alton Park and set the stage for new violence among rival gangs.
“It’s going to be war,” said Tubman resident Jessica Drew.
They say they’ve seen it happen before.
Jesse Phillips, 75, said her Menlo Street neighborhood in North Brainerd, about three miles from Harriet Tubman, was a nice community occupied mostly by senior citizens when she moved there in 1966.
Since then, though, it has become more infiltrated with people participating in criminal activity, and the closure or demolition of other Chattanooga public housing sites helped to feed the problem, she said.
Problems started in the late 1980s with the closing of the privately owned Citico Apartments, she said. Then the city’s largest public housing site, Spencer J. McCallie Homes with nearly 1,000 residents, was demolished in 2002 and Poss Homes, with about 500 residents, closed three years later.
With each closure, Phillips said she saw more crime in her neighborhood.
“It used to be a calm neighborhood,” she said. “Now we have gangs walking through intimidating people.”
Chattanooga police Officer Tetzel Tillary, who once patrolled Maurice Poss Homes and now patrols the area around the East Lake Courts public housing complex on Fourth Street, said Drew and the homeowners have cause for concern.
“The problem (gang violence) exists. It’s probably a bigger problem than when they tore Poss Homes down,” Tillary said. “Violence has increased. Gang involvement has increased.”
The concern comes amid a recent rash of violence that left 16 people shot — and four of them dead.
With the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies showing a sharp rise in robberies and burglaries from 2005 to 2009 in the area that includes the Tubman site, Phillips and other concerned homeowners hope to convince federal officials to deny permission to close Tubman.
Betsy McCright, executive director of the Chattanooga Housing Authority, said that concerned residents and homeowners are “entitled to their opinion. I don’t happen to agree with it and it’s unfortunate that they feel that way.”
Drew and her 3-year-old son are among 315 families the Chattanooga Housing Authority proposes to relocate in hopes of selling or razing the Tubman property. Housing officials say it would cost $33 million to bring the site up to good repair.
With 440 units, Tubman is CHA’s second-largest public housing site. If housing officials are successful in gaining federal approval for their plan, Tubman will become the fifth public housing site closed or demolished within the past decade. The site once had 500 units until 60 were demolished in 2005.
Officials say residents will have the option to take a voucher to rent a private home or to relocate in East Lake Courts, College Hill Courts or Emma Wheeler Homes public housing sites.
But there are fears that either option could lead to more crime, even bloodshed.
The potential problem with Tubman residents relocating from East Chattanooga to East Lake Courts or Emma Wheeler Homes is that the Crips gang claims Tubman as part of its territory area while the Bloods are in East Lake Court and Emma Wheeler Homes in Alton Park on the city’s south side, said Drew.
“You’re moving from the Eastside to the Southside,” she said. “It’s just Crips out here. Southside is Bloods, and you’re moving in their territory.”
Homeowners also worry that Tubman residents who choose to relocate with a voucher may come to Eastdale, East Chattanooga and North Brainerd for rental housing, spreading more crime and poverty.
“I’m not saying that everybody living in Harriet Tubman is bad,” said Cynthia Cash, president of the North Brainerd Neighborhood Association. “But that area is where they find many gang members when they want to arrest them.”
And, she said, “the more they tear down housing where there is a criminal element, the more it spreads to other neighborhoods.”
CHA’s McCright took issue with that notion.
“Poverty does not equate with crime,” she said. “Unfortunately, many people broad brush our housing choice voucher program to be just ripe with criminals, and it’s simply not the case.
“We have many people who happen to be poor who are hard-working people, and they’re raising their kids in the best way they can every single day.”
But Phyllis G. Betts, director of the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis, said Cash’s concerns are supported by research.
“The general relationship between clusters of poverty and crime is well established,” said Betts, whose center specializes in research and community-based problem solving on housing neighborhoods, and community development. “So if you have poverty moving to neighborhoods and concentrating in new neighborhoods, you’ll probably see an increase in crime.”
But relocating public housing residents is usually not the only factor that contributes to the problem. Low-income people tend to move to neighborhoods that are declining in property values to begin with because most cities keep building new subdivisions and people who can afford it keep moving farther out, said Betts.
“Because the demolition of a public housing site is so visible, people associate all the change in a neighborhood with that event, but that’s one event,” she said.
“If you look at other indicators, there is probably evidence that property values in their neighborhood were stable or declining compared to newer neighborhoods. They weren’t getting younger families with more education and income.”
CHA’s four largest housing sites are located in the five sub-areas of Hamilton County that typically account for the most crime, according to figures from the 2010 public safety report issued by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies.
Harriet Tubman is in the area that the Ochs report refers to as Amnicola/East Chattanooga; East Lake Courts is in Ridgedale/Oak Grove/ Clifton Hills; College Hill Courts is in Downtown Chattanooga; and Emma Wheeler Homes is in South Chattanooga. Bushtown/Highland Park, which sits adjacent to the East Chattanooga area, is the only neighborhood that the Ochs Center identifies as a high-crime area that doesn’t include a public housing site.
Together, the five areas comprise what is the bulk of the city’s urban core.
Crime declined slightly in Chattanooga from 2003 to 2008, according to the Ochs report.
But during that period, the five sub-areas that accounted for just over 14 percent of the county population were home to 40 percent of its robberies, 41 percent of aggravated assaults, 31 percent of burglaries and vandalism and 40 percent of drug offenses, according to the Ochs report.
And despite the overall moderation in crime, some of these sub-areas recorded substantial increases from 2005 to 2009. The number of robberies and burglaries more than doubled in the Amnicola-East Chattanooga area that includes Tubman, and assaults and vandalism also rose.
That’s what worries Cash and other homeowners from the Eastdale and North Brainerd area through the Wilcox Tunnel, just a short distance from Tubman.
Cash said they plan to express their opposition to CHA’s plans for Tubman directly to HUD. Cash said homeowners will ask HUD to reject the proposed closure.
Otherwise, Cash agrees with Drew, the Tubman resident, on what would result.
“It’s going to be 24-hour gun wars,” Cash said.
Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...
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