Displaced residents of Patten Towers received the word they'd been waiting for Thursday afternoon—time to go home.
The tenants, who have been dispersed across the city in shelters and hotels for exactly one month after a fire gutted the 100-year-old building's basement May 28, were told to have their belongings packed and ready to move by mid-Friday morning, when charter buses were scheduled to arrive at hotels and shuttle them back to their downtown apartments.
For many, the packing didn't take long—their belongings for the past 31 days could fit inside a single trash bag.
Hoping to beat the rush, several residents arranged for their own transportation to the building.
When they arrived, the doors were still barred. Rumors began to swirl.
Frustration set in as residents began to hear word that the building had not passed inspection. Phone calls were made, and information was passed to neighbors who continually pulled to the curb in other vehicles, ready to move back in.
"It failed," they were told.
Angela Golden, who has lived in Patten Towers for seven years, said she was told that the building didn't clear inspection by officials for PK Management, a South Carolina-based company that owns and operates Patten Towers under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Section 8 low-income housing voucher program.
"They said we needed to be packed up by 10:45 this morning because the bus was coming to get us," Golden said, "Now, they say it won't be ready until Wednesday, so they're trying to get our hotel rooms back. I'm so worn out by this."
Representatives from PK Management were nowhere to be found as rumors continued to spread.
"They said we'd be able to move back in today, but they never told us the building had cleared the inspection," Henry Donnahue, another resident of Patten Towers, said. "So I guess that's what it is."
Then, in an abrupt turn of events, city inspectors emerged from the building with members of Mayor Andy Berke's administration. Inspection of the building had been ongoing all week, and upon Friday's review, the building passed. Dallas Rucker, a building official for the city of Chattanooga, said PK Management would be issued a temporary certificate of occupancy, allowing the residents to return to their apartment homes immediately.
"The life safety issues are in place now to allow occupancy of the building," Rucker said. "The other issues are mostly cosmetic … but the main safety issues are addressed, and we feel comfortable with the occupancy."
Within minutes, staff for PK Management opened the building's doors, allowing residents inside.
"I'm glad to be home," one yelled.
"Thank you, Jesus," said another.
Joyce Walker, director of community relations for PK Management, read an official statement from the company. Walker thanked city officials and a handful of the 27 area nonprofits, churches and relief agencies that offered assistance for the immediate needs of residents over the past month, the majority of which are low-income, elderly or disabled.
Walker defended her company, which repeatedly shunned inquiries from multiple press outlets regarding their involvement with the 241 displaced tenants and declined to give updates on the progress of repairs being made to the facility.
"Despite in the past what has been stated by many of you in the press, we have stepped up to the plate," Walker said. "We are confident that no other management company of multifamily housing could have accomplished what we did."
Originally, PK Management estimated it would take six to eight weeks to repair the facility.
The opening of Patten Towers marks the end of relief efforts by multiple agencies that banded together to provide care and assistance to displaced tenants. Greg Waite, CEO of the Red Cross of Southeast Tennessee, said his organization would return to "standby mode," ready to answer the call in the event of a future emergency.
Waite praised the efforts of community agencies and volunteers that banded together in the past month.
"The partnerships that have surfaced from this event; the communication between the 27 different agencies, including the city and multiple departments; the partnership and cooperation that has surfaced from this; have been incredible," Waite said. "I've worked in four different states, on numerous operations, and I've never seen this level of cooperation between government and nonprofits. In this community, the people came to the table. They really stepped up."
Walker added that PK Management would focus on restoring the residents "sense of normalcy" after today's move.
The city's inspection of Patten Towers is ongoing. Because the certificate of occupancy is temporary, officials will continue to conduct routine checks on the facility and ensure that additional requirements are met to allow continued occupancy.
According to the mayor's office, additional requirements include but are not limited to a comprehensive analysis of both the building's entire electrical system and the structural system.
In a press conference Friday at City Hall, which is one block from Patten Towers, Berke said that despite being happy for residents to return to their homes, he was still not satisfied with the conditions at Patten Towers. The mayor participated in a walk-through of the building earlier this week and said the conditions of units did not meet standards.
"I'm glad to see them moving back, but I want to be clear about one thing," Berke said. "I'm not happy with where we are. We still have much work to do going forward. The quality of life has to continue to improve at Patten Towers."
Berke called for regular meetings between the mayor's office, city officials and PK Management to make the building both an asset for the city and a better place for residents to live.
The mayor said his most recent conversation with PK Management officials came two days ago, when he stressed to them issues regarding the quality of individual units.
"This building is still not in the shape that these residents need," he said.
Officials in the mayor's office later said that members of Berke's administration would continue looking at "longer-term solutions to prevent absentee landlords from taking advantage of Chattanooga tenants."
By 12:30 p.m., the first bus had arrived at Patten Towers. Residents stepped off the bus one by one and walked down the sidewalk into their home for the first time in a month. Some shouted for joy; others made the walk in silence.
"We've been played like yo-yos today, back and forth, back and forth," one resident, David Elliott, said.