Two years ago, more than 300 Chattanoogans lost their homes and walked into an uncertain future. It was 2012, and the Chattanooga Housing Authority (CHA) had just closed the Harriet Tubman housing development.
Through generations of disinvestment and marginalization, Chattanooga had abandoned Harriet Tubman long before the communities within were forcibly removed. Many residents, often single mothers and their families, were forced to leave as cycles of poverty and violence were perpetuated via neglect. These residents were sent into the streets and into a world of potential homelessness and constant uncertainty.
The fate of the Harriet Tubman site is equal in its uncertain future. Once again, the site has gone up for bid to be sold by CHA. This process has been closed and democratically inaccessible to the communities of East Chattanooga. It is unknown if the site will be replaced by better affordable housing for low-income people or with the industrial development goals of the Chamber of Commerce and the Berke administration. With the collapse and recent renewal of talks with Lakewood Realty, many East Chattanooga residents are scratching their heads.
The People’s Coalition for Affordable Housing, facing the potentially unlawful conduct with which CHA has handled the bidding process, has written letters to various investigative bodies asking for a thorough examination into CHA’s practices. But whether by design or oversight, the future of the Harriet Tubman site isn’t being determined by members of the community most directly affected.
If Tubman is to be developed, regardless of what it will be developed into, it should be developed by and for the people of East Chattanooga. It should developed by workers hired from East Chattanooga. It should be developed with living wages for every person hired on the project. It should be developed in an agreement with the input of the communities and persons directly affected by the development project in their neighborhoods.
To this end, community benefits agreements (CBAs) have a rich history in holding outside corporations and private entities accountable to the people directly affected by their operations. This legal contract would allow neighborhood associations and grassroots community organizations to determine the practices of these private development firms. CBAs have been successfully been used in cities from Atlanta to Denver to empower local communities and maintain a co-determinative relationship to development in their communities.
If such a document was agreed upon by whatever entity comes to Tubman and the neighborhood associations and grassroots community organizations within its borders, and was supported by local city government, the people of East Chattanooga could have guarantees that they would directly benefit from any development project.
A CBA could ensure:
• First-source hiring practices: A provision that jobs created by a development project would go to the people in the communities that need it most. Development that happens at Tubman should directly benefit East Chattanoogans, and this provision can guarantee that a certain percentage of the jobs must come from hires in the community. It could also ensure that ex-offenders are able to receive on-the-job training.
• Pro-worker contracting and living wages: These provisions can also be used to ensure that hiring practices are made in solidarity with organized labor groups in the city. A CBA could guarantee that union labor would get the contracts to build any new development. Living wage provisions would ensure that any potential employees would receive a wage that makes for a strong and empowered workforce and community.
• Environmental protections: By ensuring safe environmental practices, community organizations will be able to make certain that development on the Harriet Tubman site is eco-friendly and safe for the residents of East Chattanooga.
• Agreement for local businesses: It is also critical that local businesses be assured to benefit from any variety of development project over large corporate entities outside of the state or city. The people of Chattanooga should reap the benefits of the development rather than outside forces.
Regardless of what entity wins the bid for Tubman — whether it is for economic development or for affordable housing for low-income people — a community benefits agreement should accompany the deal. CBAs are the best way for communities to win guaranteed benefits in the form of jobs, living wages and environmental protections. Winning a better deal for Tubman is possible, and community benefits agreements can help lead us that way.
Perrin J. Lance is executive director of Chattanooga Organized for Action. Jefferson Hodge is a researcher for the organization.