The East Ridge Housing and Redevelopment Authority sent out “the letter” earlier this week that its five members knew was going to be a doozy.
The letters were sent to 2,500 individuals that either own, reside or do business out of 1,200 homes or commercial properties in the city. It informed its recipients that their address is included in an area where the ERHRA may “carry out its functions in an effort to protect and enhance existing neighborhoods, increase strength for existing and prospective commercial areas, and to provide creative approaches for renovation and redevelopment of properties.”
In previous public meetings the members of the ERHRA discussed the likelihood that this letter was going to send shock waves through the city and potentially panic a whole bunch of people.
They were right.
Social media lit up with hysterical residents saying they knew nothing about this housing authority thing. “The city was coming to take my house.” … “The city has been doing this type of thing for years.” … “What are they up to now?” … What is their plan?”
If you are concerned, panicked even, about the prospect of being in this “redevelopment boundary” you will have an opportunity to maybe, maybe have your fears addressed. The city is having a meeting on Thursday, May 3 at 5:30 p.m. at the Community Center where, presumably, members of the ERHRA board and East Ridge staff will provide answers as to what the heck is going on.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though. I don’t think the board members – Curtis Adams, Darwin Branam, Ruth Braly, Eddie Phillips and Earl Wilson – really know much more than the fact that there’s a map and there’s an official “plan.” By the way, those two elements are the basic requirements that state law mandates for forming a housing authority.
Beyond that, I think the ERHRA members are pretty much in the dark.
That begs the question; “who does know why this board was formed and what it will be used for?”
Mayor Brent Lambert announced in the spring of 2017 that he would create a housing and redevelopment board. I recall Councilman Jacky Cagle asked a few questions about it and he was given some vague answers about people in East Ridge having “unsafe and unsanitary” housing. During the April 27, 2017 council meeting, Lambert said that the City had the right to establish a housing authority if everyone in East Ridge, EVERYONE, did not have safe and sanitary housing.
Lambert alluded to the Cascades Motel on Ringgold Road. He referenced killings and murders at the location. Definitely not a safe place.
At some point Lambert made a statement that he wished we had a housing authority in place when Superior Creek Lodge was in its heyday. The housing authority could have been used to shut ’em down. Of course, the City did shut down SCL on the order of Brad Hayen, the city’s Chief Building Official at the time. “Life safety” issues was the justification for padlocking the joint and putting hundreds of people out on the street.
On May 25, 2017, the mayor got around to appointing the board members and nothing happened for months. Questions were asked about the East Ridge Housing and Redevelopment Authority and how it would work and what it would do, and Lambert was mum.
The ERHRA finally had its first meeting on June 30, 2017 and City Attorney Mark Litchford brought in his Tennessee Code Annotated volumes and began preaching from the book. Litchford was going to be the lawyer for this group, too. Bylaws were adopted. The chairman (Branam) and vice chairman (Phillips) were chosen. All its members took an oath and signed a document. East Ridge was now in the housing authority business.
Adams, the wise old politico that served as our Hamilton County Commissioner for 20 years, sat back in his black suit and took it all in. He first asked if the ERHRA could get some business cards. Then he asked if the “law” was going to be going with the ERHRA members when they “march up to the old widow woman and tell her she’s going to have to leave her house?” He asked the same question several more times as the rest of the board tried to keep straight faces.
In that meeting and subsequent ones, Wilson asked about vacant lots and houses in residential areas that were falling down and had been for years. Maybe the ERHRA members could be assigned to a certain area of the city and they would each focus on their area and report to the full board about problems.
Finally, Branam told the board that the ERHRA would focus on COMMERCIAL PROPERTY first. Judging from the faces of the board members sitting around the table, that little tidbit of information was news to them.
At one of the first meetings Attorney Litchford said the housing authority could and would act independently from the City. Litchford told the board that the housing authority could under state law “take” properties if it fell within the redevelopment boundary and the housing authority had a “plan.” If the property owner didn’t like it, they could just file a law suit in court and a judge would determine the issue.
City Manager Scott Miller has been on hand at all the meetings. At several of the meetings, Miller informed the housing authority that it could not “take” property for the purposes of economic development. The only legal way of “taking” private property away from its owner is to demonstrate that it is being seized for a higher public purpose to benefit all the citizens of East Ridge.
At several of the East Ridge Housing and Redevelopment Authority meetings, Wilson brought up a potential conflict of interest in having Litchford serve as both City Attorney and the attorney for the ERHRA. By this time Adams’s health had deteriorated and he had stopped attending the meetings, and the other board members couldn’t see any problems associated with Litchford having both jobs.
Miller, who has been in the business of running cities for 40 years, spoke up and said he had seen an instance in which the city was at legal loggerheads with its housing authority and there was a court case.
Chairman Branam just grinned and said that the board would deal with any conflicts as it pertains to Attorney Litchford, if they ever arose. He said that Litchford would certainly inform the board if he encountered any conflict of interest.
And that was the end of that.
In the beginning the ERHRA meetings were held on Wednesday’s at 10 a.m. Only two or three citizens ever showed up to attend. Wilson had a problem with having the meetings at such an hour when the vast majority of people in East Ridge had no chance of attending. He suggested moving the meetings to the evening. That simply wasn’t convenient for most of the board. The idea was dismissed until Mickey Spence, a private citizen, spoke up at a meeting and said it was just common sense to change the time if the board wanted to give any appearance of transparency.
And speaking of transparency, the ERHRA had a special called meeting on January 24, 2018 where the city gave 17 hours public notice. This reporter raised a fair amount of grief about it. Branam said he had no problem with 17 hours notice given to the good citizens of East Ridge. Attorney Litchford agreed. He noted that within an article published in East Ridge News Online two weeks prior about events at the meeting there was an announcement of when the board would meet again.
That, Litchford said, fulfilled adequate public notice under state law.
A complaint was filed with the state about the lack of public notice. The state Comptroller’s Office wrote a letter to the housing board and Mayor Lambert notifying the City of the complaint. Litchford responded saying that the Comptroller’s Office didn’t know the whole story.
At any rate, during its next meeting, the East Ridge Housing and Redevelopment Authority “reaffirmed” its boundary map by adding a couple of properties. They voted again on what they had passed, essentially fulfilling the remedy of having an “illegal” public meeting.
What’s next? Maybe at the May 3 meeting at the Community Center it will all become clear.
Surely, some city official, maybe Mayor Lambert can explain what in fact this housing and redevelopment authority is really all about.
I ain’t holding my breath on that one.