Battling Blight in Memphis

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee’s second-largest city has become a national model for eliminating the scourge of abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

In 2012, New Horizon Apartments, located midway between Elvis Presley’s Graceland and Memphis International Airport, had a major problem. The recently renovated complex was wedged between two burned-out buildings that were often targeted by vandals. But these kinds of contradictions are built into the cityscape. “Memphis is like a checkerboard: One street over, it’s horrible blight and the next street it’s just the nicest neighborhood you’ve ever been in,” says Ryan Poe, a life-long Memphis resident who writes for The Commercial Appeal, the city’s daily newspaper. “Growing up in Memphis, blight is a daily sight, and you know, you’re used to it.” Yet the checkerboard quality of blight erodes the quality of life in a neighborhood, depresses property values, and frustrates residents.

Private developers were interested in acquiring the derelict buildings near the apartment complex. Yet there is plenty of red tape involved in cleaning up and clearing out these types of properties, beginning with issues like unpaid property taxes that can be on the books when people try to take over abandoned buildings. To help get their plan moving, developers contacted Steve Barlow, a lawyer and community activist who founded Neighborhood Preservation Inc. (NPI) five years ago. The nonprofit organization has helped transform Memphis by confronting its decades-old problem with abandoned and decaying homes and buildings.

“We took on the Cazassa Project [named for the street where the buildings stood] because no one else could or would,” Barlow told The American Prospect. When he visited the site nearly four years ago, he discovered a burned-out car near one of the decaying buildings’ entrances. “It was positively a dumping ground—a major disaster,” Barlow says. NPI assumed the financial risk for the redevelopment project, acquiring one of the properties, while persuading Memphis officials to continue to maintain and improve the adjacent 1,000-unit residential complex.

“It was really exciting because within about six months, both sides of the street were clean after maybe years of this abandoned complex just really causing problems for everybody,” Barlow says. After completing the Cazassa Project, Barlow and NPI went on to become one of the leading forces in blight elimination and helped launch a city-wide collaboration to fight decay last year.

Today, NPI also focuses on blight-reduction policy advocacy, and the nonprofit has stepped up several times to help renovate properties that present overwhelming challenges for the Memphis community, including crumbling historic buildings that are at risk for collapse, like the 124-year-old Clayborn Temple, the largest church building in America south of the Ohio River.

Like many American cities, Memphis lost its manufacturing base years ago. In 1983, Firestone closed a plant that once employed more than 3,000 people and produced more than 20,000 car and truck tires a day. As residents moved away from the city in search of new employment opportunities, Memphis annexed surrounding towns to bolster its tax base. Between 1970 and 2010, the city grew from 208 square miles to 323 square miles, a 55 percent increase, but the city’s population increase only by 4 percent, from 619,757 to 645,237.

But that strategy did not pan out. As people left, the frequency of services like trash removal and street cleaning dropped off. The homeowners who remained no longer maintained their properties, and investors saw no reason to spend money on renovating houses that would soon fall into disrepair: In some neighborhoods, a house that cost $75,000 to build would only sell for $50,000.

Memphis “was still working with the same amount of tax dollars over a larger geographical area,” says Emily Trenholm, a former director of the Community Development Council of Memphis. “Resources often go to the new and shiny rather than the poorer neighborhoods,” she adds. “Once [blight] started it was very difficult to eradicate, because blight eradication is expensive.”

Low-income residents comprise 27 percent of the city’s population and some poorer neighborhoods saw little to no investment for 20 to 30 years. There are still some 10,000 vacant residential properties and 20,000 to 30,000 vacant lots spread across the city; 2,500 of those properties are in poor to severe condition. Vacant and abandoned properties are not just an eyesore, they are also a magnet for break-ins, sexual assaults, and drug activity. Former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, who served from 2009 to 2015, recalls an attack on a female police officer who was stabbed by a man after responding to a call at a vacant property.

As Memphis continued to grapple with its aging and decaying infrastructure, the national predatory lending crisis hit already vulnerable residents. Before the banks could foreclose on some 15,000 homes, their owners fled. Between 2005 and 2015, homeownership among African Americans in Memphis dropped by 15 percent.

“In a city like Memphis, epidemic doesn't begin to describe it,” says University of Memphis Law professor Danny Schaffzin. “We're now ten years removed from the peak of the foreclosure crisis, but as dire and immediate as the impact of that crisis was, you are still able to drive around and see the [blight] that's directly an outgrowth of that crisis.” Commercial development is also weak. Projects like a 16-story apartment complex southeast of the Mississippi River, a new Sears Hometown store, and a boutique hotel slated for the old Memphis central police station have finally been jumpstarted after stalling during the economic downturn.

The city’s success in the blight fight stems from its collaborative approach with federal, state, and local lawmakers, philanthropists, and community leaders. In 2016, the city allocated $3 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grants (which the Trump administration zeroed out in its first budget) to residential redevelopment projects.

When Memphis won a 2012 lawsuit against Wells Fargo for its predatory lending practices, one of the first cities to do so, city officials steered the $400 million settlement payout to homeowners’ down-payment assistance and blight-remediation initiatives. Before he left the mayor’s office, Wharton started an anti-blight campaign, filing 500 lawsuits against absentee landlords under the Tennessee Preservation Act, a state statute that forces property owners to clean up properties or forfeit them to nonprofit groups like NPI.  

Wharton’s initiative was so successful—much more successful than NPI’s volunteer board of real-estate professionals initially anticipated—that the nonprofit turned its attention to working with state lawmakers to devise blight-elimination strategies and best practices for Tennessee’s urban areas. Historically, private-property owners had strong protections under the state constitution: Foreclosing on a neglected property and selling it to another owner can sometimes take several years, which means neighborhoods have dozens of tax-delinquent properties, but few interested buyers. Elected in 2016 after campaigning on a platform to reduce blight, Wharton’s successor, Mayor Jim Strickland, is so optimistic about the city’s gains that he is at work on a proposal to persuade Amazon to open its second headquarters in Memphis.

Meanwhile, the state’s own down-payment assistance program funds up to $15,000 for purchase of homes in 17 Zip codes: 14 of those Zip codes are in Memphis. This year, the Bloomberg Foundation will fund innovative data collection initiatives in Memphis and 99 other mid-sized cities that want to create blight-prevention strategies to improve neighborhoods, but do not have the funds or professional staff to do this work.

In 2015, Joe Schilling, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank who recently worked on city sustainability issues in Alexandria, Virginia, helped to launch a similar effort in Memphis along with representatives from city government, academia, nonprofit and private advocacy groups. Unveiled last year, the Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter is a plan that included a city-wide group pushing to alleviate blighted areas across Memphis. 

“Every property comes to [a state of] distress in a different way,” says Schaffzin, the law professor. “There's no one solution for this. You can't say we're going to change our policy on how we collect property taxes and our blight is going to go away.”

But perhaps the biggest step forward has been in enforcing the regulations already on the books. Schaffzin and Barlow set up a Neighborhood Preservation Clinic at the University of Memphis Law School. This first-of-its-kind clinic focuses on code enforcement and preventing blight by giving third-year law school students the opportunity to represent the municipality in cases involving negligent property owners.

The team soon discovered that unflinching code enforcement was the key to sprucing up (or tearing down) affected properties. After representing the city in several successful lawsuits against negligent property owners, they realized that the weaknesses in the city’s property maintenance code program needed to be addressed—which led to the establishment of the country’s first Strategic Code Enforcement Academy created through the collaboration of NPI and the University of Memphis Law School. Memphis now leads the country in filing lawsuits against property owners who let their properties fall into disrepair.

“Thinking about code enforcement strategically has [had] a huge evolution in Memphis,” says Schaffzin. Part of that strategy rests on cultivating better community ties and insisting on specific building standards. “[Enforcement teams] need to be well-resourced, well-trained, and supported because they are the eyes and ears on the street. They have the relationships, often with homeowners and neighborhoods,” he adds.

In May, the academy invited local officials and community leaders from Memphis and seven other cities (Chattanooga, Tennessee; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Providence, Rhode Island; and St. Louis County, Missouri) to explore ways of strengthening municipal code enforcement efforts.

After attending the academy’s first conference, Lisa Fries, a Providence senior assistant city solicitor who serves as a city housing court prosecutor, says that the city probably could get more residents involved in combating blight if they knew what city officials had already accomplished. “We don’t do a good job of showcasing the work that we’re doing [in Providence’s] code enforcement department,” Fries says. “We need to be communicating and inviting [local] stakeholders to the table.”

Meanwhile, Barlow wants to see Memphis think big on blight by moving from working on projects block by block to tackling blighted areas on a larger scale. “If we have 1,000 of a specific type of abandoned property, how do we fix 1,000 and not 20, and how do we fix it so that the land is usable 30 or 40 years from now, and not just clean for the next 5 years?” Barlow says. “It’s never going to be easy and it’s never going to be quick, but we have to think carefully about what difference we want to make and where.”


CORRECTION: Memphis does not pay back-taxes on abandoned homes and then sell those homes as reported in an earlier version of this article.



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