JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — With a crucial federal inspection looming that could impact the iconic John Sevier Center (JSC) building’s future, Johnson City Commissioners approved a $400,000 emergency request for elevator repairs at the iconic former hotel last week.
One of the 11-story building’s elevators hasn’t worked at all for about six months. Several residents told News Channel 11 that the other, which only reaches the 10th floor, frequently malfunctions.
“There is one senior, he’s older, and he has trouble with the stairwell,” Mary Scherzinger, one of three 11th-floor residents, said. “He has had problems getting into his apartment.”
Scherzinger said the bigger problem at the 150-unit high rise is the long wait times residents experience with just one working elevator. She recounted one time a wheelchair-bound military veteran wasn’t able to make it back to his apartment on time when he needed to relieve himself.
“He couldn’t get on the elevator because it was overcrowded with people waiting in the lobby,” she said. “You have to get in line to get on the elevator downstairs. He couldn’t make it and he ended up having to urinate in the elevator.”
Those long-running problems could cost the Johnson City Development Authority (JCDA) up to 10 points on June 14’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) “REAC” inspection. That outcome, in turn, could jeopardize the very reason JCDA bought the former hotel — a plan to build new assisted housing to replace the aging John Sevier’s 150 units and free the building for conversion to another use.
“Without this upgrade, they’d lose valuable points on that REAC inspection, which could potentially harm the transfer of the HAP contract,” assistant city manager Randy Trivette told commissioners, referring to the HUD contract that provides subsidized federal rental assistance for John Sevier residents.
All HUD-aided public and subsidized housing undergoes regular REAC (Real Estate Assessment Center) inspections. HUD’s website says they’re designed to “help ensure safe, healthy, decent affordable housing” and promote “sound property management practices.”
When JCDA purchased the JSC in 2019, the building came with a troubled REAC history. After easily passing with a score of 96 in 2012, the building slipped to a failing score of 47 in late 2015, followed by a 46 in early 2017.
The 2017 score was in the bottom 2% of the more than 24,500 multi-family housing complexes or buildings scored that year, with only 317 lower scores reported. Several thousand scores of 99 were awarded.
The REAC program is supposed to conduct annual inspections for failing units — a passing score is 60 — but the John Sevier hasn’t undergone a REAC inspection since the one that was released in early January 2017, with COVID-19 playing a significant role in that the past couple years.
Trivette told commissioners there had “been tons of money dumped into (the elevators) over the past few years just to keep them band-aided and keep them operating.”
He said parts for the antiquated electronics and controller system are “almost impossible to get,” and finding people who will work on that type of equipment is also difficult.
Scherzinger has lived at the JSC for four years. Even though she currently has to lug her laundry up and down a flight of stairs to get to the elevator, then the laundry room and also carry her bicycle up the same steps, she’s more concerned about her many neighbors with mobility issues.
She does worry about her safety sometimes, though.
“It’s a hassle to carry my laundry and my bike up and down the stairwell, and the stairwells are dangerous because a lot of homeless that come in the building sleep in the stairwell,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to step into when I go down the stairs. I don’t know what could be waiting for me when I get to the top of the stairs.”
JCDA Director Tish Oldham told commissioners the 11-story elevator has been under repair since before she began her job in early February.
“We have waited for parts, we have waited for labor, we have had people drive from Atlanta, we have had various things that have occurred and we are still waiting for parts on the 11th-story elevator,” she said.
Premier Elevator has agreed to contract terms for the repair. Oldham said the broken elevator will be overhauled first, with extremely old, analog-type equipment making way for computer-based equipment. Residents on walkers or wheelchairs will be recognized by infrared devices and not even have to hit the door buttons.
The upgrades are expected to take five to six weeks for each elevator.