Homeless efforts gain, but city zoning vote imposes legacy cost on Union Gospel Mission

From left, Fred Katschke, Rick Hazelrig and Josh Harley of Union Gospel Mission enjoy a moment’s conversation at a disputed duplex which city government is blockading from its full use, keeping eight homeless men on the streets.

People count the cost of civil government as levies, imposts, taxes and fees. At 1040 time, half the people file tax returns and apparently owe something to Uncle; they know how much, given that they signed the sworn legal jurat on the form.But many other costs of civil government exist that have no tally, are not readily visible and for which no one cares. There are orphan numbers to which no one could legally attest.

On the homeless front in Chattanooga, local efforts have brought a success story in the numbers. The Chattanooga Homeless Coalition and other groups have brought chronic homeless down from an estimated 670 people in 2007 to 70 last year, according to a Times Free Press story Monday.

But a small minus calls out from among the harrumphing plusses.

Secret tally at Union Gospel Mission

In 2009 the Chattanooga City Council rejected a rezoning petition filed by Union Gospel Mission in a vote that briefly stirred concern for basic freedom and old-fashioned property rights. The council would not have gone so far as to shut down the mission. But it allowed itself power to thwart full use of a donated building near the mission’s facility.

Despite a recommendation to approve by planning commission staff, the city council voted 8 to 1 against allowing a zoning change that would have let UGM have full use of a donated facility. Only Andrae McGaryvoted in the mission’s favor. Opposition came from neighboring families who objected to some residents’ criminal records. At least one sex offender was enrolled in the ministry’s Grace Bible study program.

“Although we were quite upset and disappointed by the decision of the city to refuse us the full use of property that we have full legal access to,” mission director Jon Rector said, “we were not surprised by any means. It is becoming more and more common and accepted for our public leaders to be more concerned about doing what is best for themselves (keeping their elected positions) than doing what is right.”

For a third year now, the vote keeps eight homeless men wandering the streets and outside the pale of a Christian rehabilitation effort.

When built to serve the area housing market, the building was zoned for four apartments. At some point the zoning changed to allow only a duplex, but the building was “grandfathered” in. For a brief time the owner vacated and boarded up the facility. That act of business necessity caused the structure to lose its “grandfathered” zoning status. What is a four-unit apartment suddenly became only a duplex. The mission had obtained use of the building for five years in a donation by Volunteer Behavioral Health, which entered a $1 a year lease.

It’s as if zoning had changed around an old Target store and all that’s allowed in that cavernous structure is a small consignment shop for children’s clothes. This scenario is bigger in scale than the UGM case, but identical in principle.

F$156,000 direct cost to mission

It costs Union Gospel F$75 a week to house and feed a man, according Mr. Rector. If he can pay, UGM accepts money. UGM also accepts labor and in-kind services to cover costs. The blockade of the Volunteer Behavioral Health building takes from UGM F$600 a week or F$33,600 a year.

The potential loss over five years is F$168,000.

If UGM rented rooms at an extended-stay lodge, it would cost F$150 a week per man, or F$1,200 a week for eight souls. In barring UGM use of the favored building, government is dozering into its lap a theoretical bill of F$67,200 a year. Granted, UGM doesn’t have that kind of cash to throw around. But the calculation is not specious. How else might a reasonable man calculate the cost of property if not what it would cost to obtain its use on the open market?

The most familiar expression against unlawful takings is the Fifth Amendment to the federal constitution that says, “[N]or shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”

Sense of Christian resignation

Every regulatory action reduces an owner’s property value to some extent, and Mr. Rector acknowledges that not every regulation can be shown to be a taking. Still, to a nonprofit charity, the 2009 vote smells of seizure of the most casual and routine sort. It would seem invite an offer of compensation.

Mr. Rector expressed Christian resignation today at the state of affairs, and said the mission’s subjection to authority is necessary for it to have any influence on the homeless men it serves.

“We realize that ultimately God is in control and according to scripture He allows the rain on the just and unjust. We will continue to do what is required of us by the ‘law,’ and trust in the Lord to work out the details. We are committed to following what we believe is God’s will for the Union Gospel Mission and at this time, that includes abiding by the ruling of the authority God has placed us under — even civil authority.

“After all, this is a large part of what we teach the men who come to us for help, being a good Christian includes submitting to authority.”

Sources: Chattanoogan.com; “Coalition plans to house chronically homeless,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, May 7, Yolanda Putman; minutes of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, Sept. 14, 2009