Officials acted heroically and in good faith in ousting hundreds of poor people from their domiciles over two days in East Ridge, Tenn., saving lives and keeping people from harm.
That is the story of an eviction of 800 people in an extended-stay hotel, Superior Creek Lodge, which serves as a low-end place of residence in the Chattanooga area.
Initial reports citing the Salvation Army said 1,500 people were ousted, among them 300 families. Attorney Jerry Summers of Chattanooga, hired by hotel owner David Gysin, says 450 people among 138 units were refunded their money by Mr. Gysin as they were ordered out. Two of the four buildings were emptied after dark Sept. 9 amid a driving thunderstorm staggered by flashes of lightning. The 800 figure is one supplied by Dick Cook, a veteran journalist who runs Eastridgenewsonline.com. The lodge has 266 units.
Good faith and due process
The story of the ouster Sept. 9 and 10 touches on constitutional rights and how commercial government despoils the poor. Though residents pay in advance by the day, week and month, many had residency and domicile at Superior Creek Lodge. They were ousted on the orders of interim city manager Mike Williams, who also is fire chief, without due process of law. Due process implies the right to be heard, the right to appeal, the right to demand evidence prior to being deprived of a right, piece of property or liberty.
Mr. Williams acted on two rationales. One is fairly called the pretext; the other an economic development subtext that requires Mr. Gysin’s ownership of the highly valuable land be so oppressed as to induce him to liquidate.
And all amid general public applause, as city residents view SCL residents as low-lifes, welfare dolers, potential criminals — as low-income and ill-educated denizens oriented to pilfering and shabbiness who should grace other towns with their presence. One news outlet’s reader survey shows 9-to-1 support of the city’s action.
The rationale on the scene was supplied Sept. 8 in a building inspection that showed wood rot under eaves and balconies, making Buildings A, B, C and D under “imminent danger of failure or collapse,” an “immediate danger to human life or safety,” according to the city’s letter informed Mr. Gysin.
The city’s actions bring to the story its own civic blight. Mr. Williams had city police pound doors and evict the first wave of residents Wednesday at night without warning. “Chief Williams said his first move was to contact the city attorney in an effort to act in good faith and by the letter of the law,” one report says. “Before returning to the scene, he said he reached out to multiple charitable agencies to get assistance for the families, but only the Salvation Army arrived.”
Hal North, the city’s attorney, stretched the cloak of good faith as thin as a beggar’s blanket by citing the peril of collapse and the necessity to act hastily. The extravagant prospect of buildings collapsing with people in them justifies the instant removal of families. “Life safety always takes place over convenience,” according to a paraphrase of Mr. North’s words. “It would have been unconscionable for them to stay there one more night to assure no tragedy would occur. The right thing was done, and it was handled by the book,” he said.
A report by TV9 of Chattanooga raises the question of why the wood rot and other structural problems at the public accommodation took so long to be discovered.
“They are not happy,” Mr. Williams said on the first day of the city’s largest humanitarian disaster in years, “but they are cooperative, and I think people understand our concern. Our concern is their welfare, No. 1. That’s why we were here.”
The city appears to have allowed for an extraordinary humanitarian crisis, used emergency conditions to justify an exercise of police power, and salved the wounds of bad publicity for its actions with justifications regarding the safety of men, women and children.
Mr. Williams acted solely under authority of the city’s executive branch, under police powers and free, it would appear, from the judicial review required in disputes over proposed eviction between landlord and tenant.
To date no aggrieved tenants have sued. Many are so bereft of options and assets they are satisfied to have receive full rent refunds from David Gysin. Police power cannot be exercised arbitrarily, capriciously and unreasonably, and by one authority can “infringe upon constitutional rights” only when the infringement is necessary “in the promotion of the health, safety and welfare of the community.”
A showing of good faith would have accounted for the due process rights of Mr. Gysin and his 800 lodgers, would have allowed for a judicially supervised remediation program sought in an emergency hearing. City court judge J. Cris Helton could readily have granted that and overseen the rights of all parties facing hostile police action.
Commercial government on prowl
East Ridge’s seizure of Superior Creek Lodge by condemnation may prove economical, because by condemning the property it need not pay for it under the takings clauses of the U.S. and state constitutions. By condemning the structures, it immobilizes its owner and forces him to recalculate his commitment to the property as a business.
The condemnation turns a F$3 million investment by the Gysin family into a liability. Mr. Gysin now affords counsel from Mr. Summers, has hired engineer Brian Adams and architect Tom Bartoo to evaluate costs of repair and will have to engage contractors and others to fix four three-story buildings, with costs likely passing the millions. In recent court action Superior Creek Lodge agreed to help reduce criminal activity by spending more than F$500,000 for security fencing and access controls. As long as Mr. Gysin can attain at least the prospect of profitability to sustain the enterprise, he will invest in the facilities in hopes of recouping his sudden onrush of expense and loss.
But the city hopes he will quietly lick his wounds, count his expenses as uncompensated losses, and sell his property to other profit-seeking companies so the land might be put to a possibly better use than low-income housing for the area’s low-wage workers and transients.
City governments, like their betters in county and state, have long been tempted to play capitalist. East Ridge in the raid on Mr. Gysin’s business plays that role with the bandit mask — the role of parasite or predatory capitalist.
The city covets the land on which Superior Creek sits along a federal interstate highway exchange, the first one in Tennessee along the Georgia border. It covets it on behalf of developers and retailers first as host, then for itself as tax skimming parasite.
The area is part of a profit-seeking entity the city created in June 2012 under Tennessee’s 2011 border region retail tourism development district act (Tenn. Code Ann. § 7-40-101).
The district is a highly gerrymandered affair, consisting not just of a block of properties along the interchange with the highway, but most of the city’s businesses, according to a working draft of the proposal (“incentive agreement relating to border region retail development district”).
The flashing dollar signs in city officials’ unblinking eyes are the promise of sharing in the state’s share of sales tax proceeds. The border retail district act lets East Ridge snag 75 percent of the state’s take in taxes (by “apportionment and distribution”) for 30 years or until city or corporate debt on retail development is paid.
The clock begins to toll once a triggering act of an “extraordinary retail or tourism facility” is built within the district. Scale is important, with the facility “reasonably anticipated to draw at least one million (1,000,000) visitors a year upon completion” and “be expected to require a capital investment of at least twenty million dollars ($20,000,000) including land, buildings, site preparation costs, and is reasonably anticipated to remit at least two million dollars ($2,000,000) in state sales and use tax, annually, when completed.”
Well under way is development of Jordan Crossing, a retail and dining development in a low-lying area prone to flooding. From that site alone the city expects at least F$1.5 million additional tax revenues a year. The city’s revenues in its 2015 budget are F$22.6 million.
If Superior Creek Lodge is destroyed, developers can scavenge Mr. Gysin’s land, build a development on the site and bring in millions in tax revenues if the economy holds up and the American consumer goods buying binge on credit continues.
Meanwhile, poor families such as the Ben Strickland’s have no cheap options for housing. He is a gravedigger and she holds jobs as store clerk and waitress for themselves and their children. As part of a refugee flood, they’ve been forced to take charity since being victimized by the city’s parody of good faith.
Neither attorney Hal North nor Mayor Brent Lambert returned my calls seeking comment.
— David Tulis is a host 9 to 11 a.m. weekdays at AM 1240 Hot News Talk Radio, covering local economy and free markets in Chattanooga and beyond.
Sources: Kate Belz, “Border status could be ‘game-changer’ for East Ridge,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, June 5th, 2012, http://www.timesfreepress.com/
Dick Cook, “Officials Going Room-to-Room in SCL Assessment,” Eastridgenewsonline.com, Sept. 16, 2015, http://www.
Gail Perry, “East Ridge Citizens Question Timing Of Superior Creek Lodge Mass Displacements,” Chattanoogan.com, Sept. 11, 2015
David Cook, “Cook: Superior Creek Lodge situation is a crisis on top of a crisis,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, Sept. 20, 2015