Blight charter takes fight to next level

The Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter brings together those in the community with a vested interest in fighting back against unsightly buildings and lots across the city.

Graffiti, litter, abandoned buildings, weed-covered lots and boarded-up structures are the visual reminders of blight.

The connected ripple effects of blight are crime, poverty, poor public health and declining property values. Blight affects more than the people immediately adjacent to a boarded-up property. It extends out for full city streets, an entire block and even large neighborhoods where blighted properties are like weeds snuffing out a garden.

Today, it’s estimated there are at least 13,000 structures or vacant lots in Memphis that are considered blighted, according to Neighborhood Preservation Inc. More than just inconvenient eyesores, blighted properties are working together silently to bring down neighborhoods.

There are many efforts by a range of government and community organizations to fight blight. As a way to take those efforts from silos to a collaborative and coordinated effort, the Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter was created.

Neighborhood Preservation Inc. is a Memphis nonprofit organization that is coordinating the charter effort. It’s led by a steering committee of more than 30 individuals involved in community development corporations, business organizations, nonprofits, governments and others with a vested interest in ridding the city of blight.

“It’s a long journey, not overnight work,” said Paul Young, Director of the Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development and a member of the committee. “It took years of decline for these neighborhoods to get in this state and it will take years of work to get back.”

Memphis is the first American city to adopt a comprehensive neighborhood blight elimination charter, serving as a game plan for current and future blight abatement actions.

The group met over the course of the fall and winter and finalized the charter document in February.

“It’s essentially the vision of what we all agree,” said Steve Barlow, an attorney with Brewer & Barlow PLC who has been a leader in the city’s blight fight for years. “It’s also goals of what we do to get us down the road to find results for the crisis.”

The next step is development of an action plan that will come from discussions during the planning process, Barlow said.

“It essentially will be what to do by when with blighted property,” he said. “The overarching ambitious goal of everyone is a blight-free Memphis. There are a lot of market forces working against us but we can measure and watch and see if our efforts are having an impact. To me, that’s the whole point of the charter is to get everybody on the same page. We want to raise awareness in the community and the coordination to the highest possible level so everybody’s efforts will be maximized.”

In the coming weeks members of the steering committee will work to clarify expectations with the hope there will be some 15 action items decided as priorities. The group met April 22 and will gather again on May 20. Over the next month there will be four or five subgroups meet to make recommendations for the action items.

The subgroups include data and information, code enforcement, revitalization and reinvestment, and community affairs and legislation. Within those broad categories will be actions that are determined to be the most important, Barlow said. And members of the committee work on subgroups that align with his or her strengths.

“In the past some of the folks who work on these issues have felt isolated, un-empowered,” Barlow said. “What we’re trying to do through the action plan process is elevate the conversation about blight in our community and elevate it as the serious issue that must be addressed.”

Beyond the next steps for the blight elimination charter, Young and the city administration are moving ahead with efforts to put residents in neighborhoods where they can work to decrease blight.

One effort the city is considering is a down payment assistance program that Mayor Jim Strickland recently announced as part of his budget proposal. The current program allows for individuals who make less than 80 percent of the area’s income. Young said that’s a challenge because in the administration’s estimation there are many Memphians who would take advantage of the program who make more than the threshold.

And more of those potential homeowners would consider living in neighborhoods where they could help reduce and eliminate blight, Young said. The terms of Strickland’s program are still in discussion, but the general idea is that homeowners could get up to $10,000 on properties that are $150,000 and less in targeted areas throughout the city that have experienced population loss over the years.

Those neighborhoods are likely to include Whitehaven, Raleigh, Binghampton, Hickory Hill, Frayser and the Medical District. A special attention will be given to public safety officers as well as teachers.

“We want to work with groups like the Medical District Collaborative,” Young said. “We’ve had meetings with the banking community to get them to take advantage of the program. We’re working our minutia but the minutia includes working out that these funds can be used for repairs on properties at the purchase. We’re in a sense addressing blight and repopulating the city. That’s our goal. While it’s a minimal amount of money, our goal is to grow.”

For now, the city-funded program could have a budget of $500,000 a year.

“To me this is mission work,” Young said. “This is work that is sorely needed to help address many of the issues we see in our community. Housing is only one part of the solution but an important part. I want to make sure as we work on this issue of housing that we’re doing it in alignment with all the other social services agencies operating in the city. What we know is to put a dent in 30 percent poverty rate you need housing, but you also need workforce training, health, public safety – all these interrelated issues you need to nip in the bud before you can see real change. … You can put people in the best housing money can buy but if you haven’t addressed the other issues you’re missing the mark.”

And while the collaborative efforts of the blight charter don’t address the other issues ailing Memphis that Young referred to, the coordination of many efforts and organizations in a centralized manner should make more inroads in the blight fight.

Steve Lockwood has been working in what many in the city consider to be ground zero for the fight against blight. As Executive Director of the Frayser Community Development Corp., Lockwood is part of the effort to provide improved housing and stimulate economic growth in the neighborhood.

He has faced challenges, including dealing with what he said are high asking prices for properties from the Shelby County Land Bank. Lockwood said he’s hopeful the new blight charter will have a positive impact on his efforts.

“I’m glad the conversation has gotten expanded,” he said. “I want to teach this city about the economics of blight. How, if you fix these houses the impact it will have on the neighborhood instead of just tearing it down. I’m an anti-demolition guy. Vacant lots don’t contribute to the community.”

And back to the idea that blight plays a major role in all the ills that affect the city’s neighborhoods, Lockwood is a firm believer in investing in one blighted house and watching it have an impact on the neighborhood, and thus the larger community.

“If I go into a blighted house and spend $6,500 and it’s worth $5,500, when finished we raise the value of the surrounding neighborhood,” he said. “Take out five blighted houses you then raise the collective property value by 15 percent. And you change the crime rates. This is not theoretical. I got a call from the Assessor’s office and they will reassess next year in Frayser. The last time assessments were way down. We’re trying to show in areas we’re working in assessments will bounce back up. That means higher taxes but these houses should be worth more. We think it will show if you invest in cleaning up houses the values will come up.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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