Memphis Fights Blight: Collaborating to Win the Battle Against Vacant and Abandoned Property

Steve Barlow

In March 2016, Neighborhood Preservation Inc., a policy advocacy nonprofit focused on vacant and abandoned properties in Memphis, Tenn., held the inaugural Blight Elimination Summit at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis. (See photos below). The event featured the release of the Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter—a landmark 23-page document that lays out a shared community vision of making Memphis blight-free for good. The charter states: Every neighborhood in Memphis and in Shelby County has the right to be free from the negative impacts and influences caused by vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties.

Douglas Scarboro Crowd at Blight Elimination Summit

TOP: Douglas Scarboro, regional executive of the Memphis Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, speaks at the Blight Elimination Summit.

BOTTOM: SRO crowd at Memphis’ Blight Elimination Summit.

The charter outlines our community’s core principles related to blight and nuisance property abatement, and establishes a clear starting point for getting down to the hard work of cleaning up our city. The Blight Elimination Summit featured a number of innovative and successful efforts in Memphis and Shelby County that respond to the serious challenges presented to neighborhoods when owners of real estate walk away without looking back. (See photo below.) A short video describing the challenge of blighted property in Memphis was produced for the event (viewable at vimeo.com/159494677).

Nuisance properties in Memphis

Dangerous nuisance properties dot the landscape of inner city Memphis. Neighborhood Preservation Inc. is focused on practical policy solutions to make Memphis blight-free for good.

Many of the projects that were discussed at the Blight Elimination Summit were a long time in the making, while some were just starting. This article briefly describes some highlights of what the people in Memphis have been doing together to solve the challenge of blighted and abandoned property in our city.

Data First

The charter planning team recognized that data about the inventory of blighted properties in Memphis was the starting point for developing intelligent strategies to address the challenge. In response to the demand for a better understanding of this inventory, Neighborhood Preservation Inc., Innovate Memphis and the University of Memphis Center for Applied Earth Science and Engineering Research launched the Memphis Property Hub (the Hub). Memphis’ first data intermediary, the Hub provides local blight fighters with a central, regularly updated online warehouse for specific information about each of the 243,053 parcels in the city of Memphis. The Hub was developed in partnership with Case Western Reserve University and modeled after Cleveland’s Northeast Ohio Community and Neighborhood Data for Organizing (NEO CANDO) data warehouse.

The Hub includes data gathered from the Bluff City Snapshot, a comprehensive parcel-by-parcel survey conducted in 2015 by the city of Memphis (see Table 1). Teams photographed and graded each property in the city. The Memphis Parcel Survey—a Memphis-specific smart phone app—was used to collect data on the properties. The completion of the Bluff City Snapshot generated a wealth of useful data and actionable information that will aid in the development of strategies to respond to blight in Memphis.

TABLE 1

Bluff City Snapshot: Specific Blighting Influences

Item No. Blight Indicator Parcel Count
1 Litter 23,802
2 Overgrown vegetation 12,234
3 Trash 8,066
4 Dumping 911
5 Fallen tree(s) 1,410
6 Abandoned vehicle 2,029
  Total 48,452

NOTE: These data, along with many other objective data points, are available in the Memphis Property Hub.

Take it to Court!

The charter planning team recognized that code enforcement officers who enforce compliance with property maintenance ordinances are the community’s first line of defense; improving code enforcement in Memphis was included at the top of the list of priorities. Best practices for restructuring code enforcement and improving the department’s efficiency have been adopted in Memphis. Mayor Jim Strickland, who took office at the beginning of 2016 and endorses the charter, appointed a subject matter expert as director of code enforcement. Work to modernize the property maintenance laws of Memphis is now underway, and for the first time in our community’s history, all anti-neglect enforcement operations for residential, commercial and industrial property are directed by a single leader with years of hands-on experience in this complicated field.

Memphis and Shelby County have long boasted one of the most innovative specialty courts in the nation—the Shelby County Environmental Court, designed to handle property neglect and housing cases and presided over by Judge Larry E. Potter. Beginning in the spring of 2015, the city of Memphis entered into a unique partnership with the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis and established the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic. Under the direct supervision of clinic faculty, upper-level law students get hands-on experience representing the city in lawsuits filed in Environmental Court against the owners of blighted and abandoned properties. Clinic students handle all aspects of the lawsuits—which assert claims under the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act—from preparation of the initial complaints to conducting hearings and status settings during weekly court appearances. Throughout the semester, clinic students participate in a classroom seminar and make community presentations focused on the complex legal, economic and social issues surrounding real property abandonment and neglect.

This partnership has recently grown to include a neighborhood preservation fellow. Resident at the law school and funded by the city, the fellow has added terrific depth to the clinic team and enabled it to further enhance its efforts to combat blighted properties in Memphis through the vehicle of litigation. (See photo below.)

Environmental Court

Judge Potter in Environmental Court with Spring 2016 Neighborhood Preservation Clinic students.

Policy Advocacy Work

Neighborhood Preservation Inc., the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis, the city of Memphis, Shelby County Government, the Greater Memphis Chamber and a host of other allies in the fight against blight have been working collaboratively for several years to improve and streamline the delinquent property tax foreclosure process in the state of Tennessee. The most recent legislative session resulted in a great leap forward, reducing the amount of time it takes for property tax collectors to reclaim and reuse abandoned real estate in Memphis and other cities in Tennessee. Due to collaborative planning and joint advocacy, the shortest possible path from tax delinquency to tax sale—as well as placing the property into the hands of someone who will maintain the property and pay taxes—has been reduced from approximately six years to 18 months.

Neighborhood Preservation Inc. and its partners also worked diligently to establish a new City of Memphis Land Bank Authority (known locally as the Blight Authority of Memphis), authorized by state law in 2015 and formed in Memphis in November 2015. This new quasi-governmental agency is charged with the reclaiming and reuse of vacant and abandoned property in the city of Memphis; Neighborhood Preservation Inc. and the Community Development Council have committed startup funds to hire a highly skilled executive director.

In all that we do, Neighborhood Preservation Inc. seeks to make our vision for a blight-free Memphis a reality. The scourge of blight has many sources and causes; it will not be remedied in a single year or a single political cycle. For the first time in Memphis’ history, however, myriad partners from throughout the public and private sectors understand the depths of the crisis and its daily impact on the safety, prosperity and quality of life of our citizens. We are acting strategically, but with urgency, by collaborating around implementing innovative, smart programs and policies. Together, we can make Memphis blight-free for good. To learn more, visit Neighborhood Preservation Inc. at npimemphis.org. The Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter is available at memphisfightsblight.com.

Steve Barlow is president of Neighborhood Preservation Inc. and an attorney with Harkavy, Shainberg, Kaplan & Dunstan in Memphis, Tenn.

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