BLDG Memphis marks 20 years as a collective voice for equitable development

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." —Helen Keller
In December 1999, a small group of neighborhood-based developers came together over a mutual problem. Each was experiencing roadblocks to revitalization in their communities, from counterproductive policies and resource scarcity to a lack of awareness of their work and value.

By coordinating their advocacy and outreach and pooling their talents and resources, they knew they had a better shot at making progress on Memphis' most pervasive problems in housing, transportation, food access, public assets, infrastructure, and economics.

They formed the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis and began building relationships with community development corporations, support organizations, financial institutions, government entities, and other advocates vested in equitable development.

Today, that coalition includes over 40 member organizations, included 28 CDCs. Together they represent thousands of Mid-Southerners. 

In 2017, the council and its Livable Memphis program were rebranded as BLDG Memphis. John Paul Shaffer took over as executive director the same year.

“There’s a lot of Memphis that still needs that kind of reconciliation, revitalization and reinvestment,” said Shaffer. “We have to make sure neighborhood residents have a voice in how those projects and decisions are made. We want to see it come from within the neighborhood.”

“We wanted an advocate for better housing programs. BLDG Memphis gives us a collective voice [to] bring that to a better table," said Charia Jackson, deputy director of coalition member Frayser CDC.

BLDG Memphis' coalition members attend the BLDG Memphis Capital Projects Tour on November 9. (Jarvis Hues)

Many orGs

BLDG Memphis leverages several programs to support the work of their member CDCs, including one-on-one technical assistance, peer networking, information sharing, and training programs. There are also special scholarships to attend conferences and training workshops.

"We rely on our members to guide a lot of what we do," said Shaffer.

The rise of CDCs was a direct response to disinvestment in urban neighborhoods, particularly in communities of color which had been intentionally devalued for decades by race-based development policies like redlining and urban renewal. 

“A lot of the neighborhoods have lost amenities like grocery stores and educational opportunities," said Shaffer. "Economic opportunities have left the neighborhood, and people have to spend more and more of their income on traveling to and from work."

Shaffer said the needs of different communities vary and positive momentum is unique to each. They could see definitive progress in six months or it could take a decade or more.

CDCs offer programs and services to support real estate development, education, economic development, and community organizing. Shaffer said that regardless of whether a neighborhood is doing well or struggling with the most basic needs, a CDC is always valuable.

“Any neighborhood needs some sort of entity that is looking out for the best interest of the neighborhood,” he said.

Many Needs

Many communities need commercial reinvestment. BLDG Memphis can offer resources to bring capital investment to those areas.

BLDG Memphis also launched the Memphis Housing Counseling Network. MHCN has its own coalition of 40-plus housing, credit, and financial counselors who meet for trainings, resources sharing, get training, stay up to date on policy, and more. BLDG Memphis hopes to help 50 to 60 counselors receive and maintain certifications in 2020.

Jackson said a need for quality, affordable housing and a lack of sufficient housing programs are two of Frayser's biggest concerns.

BLDG Memphis hosts monthly coalition meetings where Frayser CDC can swap best practices with other local nonprofit developers, discuss policy and strategy, and learn from guest experts.

“As housing developers we don’t need to be depending upon the federal funding,” said Jackson. “We said, ‘Let’s work together to see if the [city] can come together to fund its own money to support housing.’”

BLDG Memphis also helps raise visibility for its members and their critical work.

“A lot of people are not aware of the community development work. BLDG Memphis tells stories of the agencies. What they’re doing is a great representation of us," she said.

In December, their "BLDG 20 for 20" anniversary blog series celebrated several of their members, including The Works, Inc., Binghampton Development Corporation, Heights CDC, ioby, Community LIFT, and the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development.

“We were publishing 20 blog posts over 20 days [as] our way of giving thanks to the folks and organizations making our work possible and impactful,” said Shaffer.

BLDG Memphis' coalition members attend the BLDG Memphis Capital Projects Tour on November 9. Here they visit the Heights CDC. (Jarvis Hues)

Turning Twenty with a Trust

Shaffer said that 2019 was a good year for BLDG Memphis, but the highlight was the creation of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and a commitment from the City of Memphis for $1 million in annual funding.

The fund provides grants and loans for new construction of affordable housing and the rehab of multifamily homes, as well as home repair and rehab of single family homes for qualifying, low to moderate-income homeowners.

Local community developers pushed for a housing trust fund for 10 years without much success, but in 2016, Paul Young was named executive director of the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development under Mayor Jim Strickland.

Young expressed support for the trust, and BLDG Memphis seized the opportunity.

They brought together a group of more than 60 organizations and individuals to meet with Young and other officials and share their struggles in equitable housing development.

“Those are the ways that we need [BLDG Memphis]. As an individual agency, we couldn’t have done anything like that or made a case for a need for a housing fund,” said Jackson.

The Strickland administration announced the fund in spring 2019 and the city council approved it. In December, as BLDG Memphis celebrated its 20th anniversary, the first grant awards were issued to eight organizations. The cohort includes BLDG Memphis coalition members.

“It’s a source of funding for our members and other nonprofits around the city to do quality housing development work. It’s a huge accomplishment,” said Shaffer.

One million dollars is far from enough money to solve the most pervasive issues in Memphis' housing sector, but Jackson said the fund is a great start.

Coming Soon

Looking towards the next 20 years, BLDG Memphis is now working to help its members and other Memphis-based community organizations create strategic growth plans and attract new investment from banks and federal grants.

“We’re working to have CDCs ready to enter that pipeline and do that work on a larger scale,” said Shaffer.

By using a capacity assessment tool, its partners can evaluate their work and future plans within key areas of economic development, housing development and management, organizational development, business and financial structure, and community outreach. Based on the results of the assessment, the organizers can then create strategic plans to build their capacity.

“CAT is really specific to the work of the community developers,” said Shaffer. “The tool is used a lot to engage organizational strength. Going through that assessment allows an organization to see where growth opportunities are to strengthen their own operations.”

BLDG Memphis is also renewing their focus on policy and advocacy work. It members create policy priorities in five areas of critical need: affordable housing, community economic development, neighborhoods and local government, reuse and revitalization of vacant property and land, and transportation and mobility. 

Their policy committee and working groups specific to each of the five priority areas then engage with public officials, nonprofits, and private sector organizations to see those priorities advance.

Prior to the November 2019 local elections, BLDG Memphis issued a survey to all candidates running for mayor and city council. It asked candidates to outline their plan for and commitment to equitable development, transportation, and pedestrian safety. 

In 2020, they'll focus on securing a rental registry for property owners and a 'renters bill of rights.'

Their 2020 policy platform includes advocating for regulatory changes to fund development of affordable housing, investments linking transit to job centers, and expanding and enhancing community engagement in public decision-making. 
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Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit (Photo by April Stilwell)