ByTeresa Cheeks Wilson
The Binghampton Development Corp. (BDC) was founded by the Christ United Methodist Church to improve the quality of life in the Binghampton community. Located at the geographic center of Memphis, Tenn., Binghampton is a historic community that began as an independent and racially integrated rural Memphis town. When citizens started moving away from the city’s central corridor, Binghampton began to experience poverty, the decline of homeownership and an increase in vacant and blighted properties.
Combating blight is one of BDC’s key priorities. In Binghampton, 17 percent of the housing units are empty or abandoned. Like many community development corporations, BDC supports and revitalizes the community by offering a wide range of services, including property redevelopment, job training and preparation, and empowerment programs for those who are economically oppressed.
In 2011, the BDC purchased what is now the Tillman Crossing apartment complex. Tillman Crossing was a significantly blighted property with most of its units designated not fit for habitation. Although there were discussions about condemnation of the 20-unit property, BDC purchased it and began rehabbing the complex. (See Figure 1.) The renovation was achieved through generous support from the city of Memphis’ Housing and Community Development Division, the Shelby County Environmental Court, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency (THDA), Christ Community Church and Christ United Methodist Church. Robert Montague, executive director of the BDC, said, “THDA was a great partner and provided a substantial amount of funding under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program for this project.”
In April 2013, the BDC reopened the Tillman Crossing apartments and launched the new and innovative Asset-Building Program (ABP). ABP provides an opportunity for residents to create wealth through rental, an option only offered in a few places outside of Memphis. According to Noah Gray, BDC property manager, “Homeownership is a central wealth-building mechanism in the United States, but residents of neighborhoods plagued by issues of systemic poverty are often excluded from this opportunity. The Asset-Building Program allows residents of Tillman Crossing to build wealth as well as contribute to the health and management of their community.” Tillman Crossing is now an affordable rental property, with 80 percent of the units rented to households at or below 80 percent of the area’s median income of $26,000.
With the rental ABP, residents can earn a $50 monthly rebate if they fulfill the requirements of the program: participation in rental education and community meetings; timely payment of rent; good maintenance and upkeep of the rental unit; and investment in the physical and community health of Tillman Crossing. After a two-year period, residents can receive a maximum of $1,200 in rent rebates. Every year thereafter, residents who stay at Tillman Crossing can receive an annual $600 rebate. Participation in the program guarantees a resident’s lease renewal. The ABP is voluntary; since its inception, BDC has had 76 percent participation.
BDC recently issued its first resident rebate check. “It’s great to see the residents counting down the days. They know that they’ve been buying in to the property for two years—not just for the cash incentive, but to have a say in their dignity and their lives. That’s not really an option if you’re renting from a slumlord,” commented Gray. The rebate can be used in any way the resident chooses. If residents are interested in homeownership, for example, BDC has HUD-certified housing counselors available and the rebate can be used for down-payment assistance.
BDC sees this pilot program as beneficial to both the residents and the corporation. Residents not only build wealth, but they assist in building a sense of community. Through the community meetings, residents are empowered to establish a standard of living and rules for the property. For example, Tillman Crossing is located on the Greenline, a 6.5-mile urban trail connecting midtown Memphis to Shelby Farms Park. When residents began to experience parking issues with Greenline users, they met with the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy and came up with a solution—residents would have parking permits and guest parking spaces (designated by green painted lines) would be reserved for Greenline visitors. The residents police the property to ensure they have the parking spots needed. Through this process of community building, BDC is weaving a fabric of relationships and developing tools to improve the quality of life in Binghampton.
The program benefits BDC by fulfilling the organization’s mission, reducing turnover and the associated costs (e.g., painting, changing locks) and making the community a better place to live. All of these efforts come full circle. By contributing to the health and management of the property, the residents make Tillman Crossing a more attractive place for people to live, thereby improving the quality of life. This in turn reduces turnover. Since the program started in 2013, there have only been 26 tenants in the 18 apartments.
According to Noah Gray, BDC will continue the ABP, but he would like to find match funding for residents to use toward a down payment on a home, purchase of a car or computer, or an education. The principles of the program are consistent with the community’s mission of making Binghampton a community of choice and establishing a better quality of life.