In the fight against blight, the Soulsville, USA neighborhood is a shining example of how Memphis communities can work to reverse the trend.
Blight is an epidemic that cripples neighborhoods.
But Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir and his staff are leading the charge against blight, and the front lines are in the city’s neighborhoods. The heart of what makes that fight successful is community engagement, and Soulsville, USA stands out as one of the shining examples.
“Part of the revitalization effort is having a neighborhood association or group of people committed to seeing their neighborhood do better,” said Donnell Cobbins, Property Reclamation Specialist in the Trustee’s office. “Soulsville is organizing itself to redevelop their community. The more Soulsville does the more resources that come to the neighborhood and it will raise property values by everyone involved. It’s been a real joy to see.”
Cobbins cited a planning session held at Metropolitan Baptist Church a few months ago that drew about 100 people. It’s a turnout he doesn’t see in other Memphis neighborhoods, showing there is an obvious interest in removing blighted and vacant properties.
Cobbins joined the staff a year and a half ago to serve as a liaison between the Trustee’s office and community development corporations, neighborhood associations, community groups and other governmental entities. He attends 25 to 30 community meetings a month that revolve around citizen complaints related to blighted and vacant or abandoned properties. And that includes monthly meetings in Soulsville, USA where a blight committee is working to formulate a long-term plan.
“The Trustee is concerned about blight because vacant and abandoned properties are a drain on our resources from a tax collection standpoint,” Cobbins said. “His goal is to address blight in order that we can increase tax revenue without increasing the tax rate.”
In Cleveland, Ohio, the Cuyahoga County government was among the first in the U.S. to address blight. It conducted a study and came up with the idea of cost of vacancy. It addressed blighted properties and how much of a drain they are on the community.
In Shelby County, a similar study was commissioned as it relates to a data-driven approach where it helps determine where resources should be targeted. The study showed the office that it should put its resources first in neighborhoods that are nestled between stronger communities, at least from a property value standpoint.
Neighborhoods like Beltline, which is sandwiched between Central Gardens and the Mid-South Fairgrounds are areas where there is potential to increase the property values in part because of the strong neighboring communities. Cobbins said the idea is that if property values in those neighborhoods can be improved it will have a greater impact on the adjoining communities.
The Soulsville, USA neighborhood is on the Trustee’s radar for a few reasons. There is a lot of interest in the community and there is a real effort with revitalization, Cobbins said.
“And with the purchase of the Soulsville Town Center there will be work in that part of town,” he said, referring to the late summer purchase of the mixed-use commercial development that sits across from the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. “So the Trustee is thinking there will be an opportunity for revitalization there pretty soon.”
The push against blighted neighborhoods starts in neighborhoods where Cobbins said residents can report which properties are vacant and abandoned and should be addressed from a code enforcement standpoint.
“The community groups and residents of those communities are the foot soldiers combatting blight,” he said. “They’re on the front lines.”
Properties that are tax sale eligible ultimately revert to an owner who will begin paying taxes, and are more likely to take care of boarded-up windows or roofing issues.
And in Soulsville, USA, residents have multiple opportunities to wage the battle against blight, including reporting concerns to various organizations such as the LeMoyne-Owen College Community Partnership. It is an initiative developed in collaboration with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department with the purpose of reducing crime, addressing dilapidated housing and creating stronger community bonds.
“If you put all that together with what Soulsville is doing in regards to revitalizing the community it can be only good things to come out of everybody working together,” Cobbins said. “I’m excited about the future.”