University District

Seeking justice: A nonprofit’s fight for housing, buses, criminal justice reform and more

In December 2018, Shelby County Sheriff deputies issues more than 30 eviction notices and summons to appear in court to residents of the Serenity at Highland, a senior living high-rise located at 400 South Highland Street in the University District.

“It scared us. We’re [in] our 60s, 70s and 80s, you know,” said one resident who has lived in the complex for more than a decade but asked not to be identified further. “It shook us up, I know it shook me up somebody pounding on my door.”

Management company Millennia Housing Management said the resident owed over $1,000 in back payments and attorney’s fees. Other residents were served with debts ranging from a few hundred dollars to $2,000.

The resident said she always paid her rent on time but couldn’t find her receipts because repeated bed bug treatments left her apartment in disarray. She, like her neighbors, is elderly, low-income and had no idea how to navigate impending court proceedings. She needed help.

“I thought of Superman. So I called Brad Watkins,” she said.

Watkins is the executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, also located in the University District at 3573 Southern Avenue. He said MSPJ received a flood of calls in December — and again in January when Millennia sent 50 additional eviction notices  — from panicked residents.

“These people are very vulnerable,” said Watkins, noting many residents of the complex have no family. “This is where a lot of these folks are going to spend the rest of their lives. This is their last stop.”

MSPJ set to work. They began educating tenants on their rights and legal processes, organizing a tenants association and partnered with law firm Burch, Porter & Johnson for pro bono legal aid.

By March 7, all of the cases had been dismissed.

MSPJ is now lobbying the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Inspector General for what they hope is a full HUD audit and criminal investigation of Serenity at Highland. The majority of rents at Serenity at Highland are subsidized by HUD’s site-based and voucher programs.

MSPJ doesn’t receive dedicated funding for renters rights work and said private individual donations are critical. 

“We’re only funded for about 25 percent of the projects we run,” he said. “But the fact is there’s no one else who’s doing this.”

Brad Watkins dressed as Superman passes out candy and community organizing literature at a community Halloween event. A resident of Serenity at Highland said when she things of Superman, she thinks of Watkins. (Submitted)

The Mid-south peace and justice center

MSPJ is a social and economic justice organization founded in 1982. It addresses issues including tenants’ rights and justice system reform and acts as a support organization for other grassroots efforts in areas including homelessness and public transportation.

“We see ourselves as a resource, an incubator for new groups and new movements,” said Watkins.

Faith Pollan is MSPJ’s operations coordinator and said their many different wheelhouses do have common threads. Issues in housing, the justice system and transportation affect people of color, people with disabilities and low-income Memphians at disproportionate rates.

“It seems like there are so many issues of people who are at an economic disadvantage being taken advantage of over and over or being forgotten,” said Pollan.

MSPJ has six staff members and organizes around three core principles — people who live an experience are the experts, no work will be successful unless those experts lead it and MSPJ should support other efforts where they exist and fill in where they don’t.

“A lot of these issues rarely have clear and easy solutions to them and unless you’re experiencing those problems you can’t fully know or understand,” said Pollan.

“There’s no shortage of people in our community who are doing good work,” added Watkins. “There’s no shortage of people who want this city to be a better place. But far too often training or support is so inaccessible.”

H.O.P.E., Justice and the Memphis Bus Riders Union

MSPJ provides staff, training, coaching and other supports for two organizations it hopes will become independent nonprofits within the next two years — the Memphis Bus Riders Union or BRU and Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality or H.O.P.E.

The BRU was founded in 2012, and its members are people who rely on public transportation to navigate the city. One of its biggest successes has been leading efforts to lobby Shelby County officials to help fund Memphis Area Transit Authority. County Mayor Lee Harris announced in February it would begin contributing funds in the 2021 fiscal year.

H.O.P.E. is led by people who were formerly or are currently experiencing homelessness. MSPJ says it is the only organization of its kind in the region.

In May 2012 H.O.P.E. petitioned and won a $450,000 budget allocation from the Shelby County Commission as part of the Mayors’ Committee to End HomelessnessIt was the county's first funding for direct services addressing homelessness. H.O.P.E. is still advocating for funding from the City of Memphis.

Memphis United is an internal MSPJ initiative formed in 2012 and focused on police accountability and racial inequities in Memphis’ government and criminal justice system.

Efforts include helping to reestablish the Civil Law Enforcement Review Board — which hears citizen complaints against law enforcement — and advocating for alternatives to incarceration like Drug Court and Jericho.

The Juvenile Justice Project, a school intervention program under MSPJ’s Memphis United, offers a Know Your Rights workshops and printed guide books to help young people when interacting with law and immigration enforcement. More than 3,000 youth have attended the workshops and 20,000 guides have been distributed in English and Spanish.

MSPJ is currently helping Shelby County Juvenile Court ensure young people with court-ordered community service hours can work in their own communities on work that matters to them while eliminating transportation barriers and improving compliance. In Hickory Hill, MSPJ has recruited 26 new civic groups, churches and more where youth can serve.

“The idea with JJP is how can we build youth organizing capacity with young people who have community service hours where they’re doing service hours and they’re learning skills that will help them and their community,” said Watkins.

The Memphis Bus Riders Union, an organization supported by the MSPJ, marches in the 2019 Martin Luther King Day parade in Downtown Memphis. (Submitted)

Far from Serene

Since 2014, MSPJ has worked to educate tenants on their rights and help residents organize to improve living conditions, with a special focus on HUD-subsidized apartment complexes.

Much of their effort has centered on properties owned or formerly owned by Global Ministries Foundation, which received hundreds of code violations across several properties prior to losing HUD funding and shuttering its Tulane and Warren complexes in 2016.

MSPJ was the driving force behind those repeated code inspections. They also helped Warren residents organize a tenants association and offered legal counsel and Know Your Rights workshops across the complexes.

By fall of 2018, GMF had sold most of its HUD-subsidized properties to Millennia including Madison Towers, Goodwill Village, Tulane and Warren. GFM tried to sell Serenity, but it’s been unable to pass the necessary inspections. In the meantime, Millennia manages the property.

An Oct 2018 HUD inspection yielded 22 violations including four life-threatening concerns. Watkins said Millennia has made improvements to control bed bugs.

MSPJ has worked with Serenity’s tenants since 2015 under both Millennia and GFM management. Since then the property has been plagued by repeated bed bug infestations, sewage and plumbing leaks, mold, structural issues, broken elevators and lack of adequate heating, air conditioning and hot water.

Watkins said the conditions are unsafe for anyone, let alone the elderly, many of whom are also disabled. But tenants have very few resources or supports to demand necessary changes. Watkins and the resident who asked not to be identified said that when tenants do lodge complaints or speak to the media, they're often dismissed, talked down to or face retaliation. 

“They’re not treated like people with rights and agency,” he said. “They’re treated as prisoners. As problems … What kind of society are we when this is where people spend their golden years?”

A spokesperson for Millennia told The Commercial Appeal in January that after they assumed management of Serenity, they conducted an internal audit that showed discrepancies and outstanding debts, triggering eviction proceedings. But Watkins said most residents only pay between $50 and $220 a month, making it seriously suspect that they could accrue thousands of dollars in back rent without alerting GMF.

MSPJ is calling for a full HUD audit of GMF and Millennia’s records and has met with the regional HUD inspector.

But Watkins said one of the biggest barriers to accountability for privately-owned, HUD subsidized complexes is that there are only 41 code enforcement officers for the entire city of Memphis and one HUD inspector for the state of Tennessee and half of Kentucky.

There’s little accountability, making it easy to circumvent the system with only minimal and temporary improvements.

MSPJ met recently with City of Memphis Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowen and Public Works Director Robert Knecht about reinvigorating an existing ordinance that would allow the director to deputize citizens as reserve code officers. Watkins said that in neighborhoods, residents policing each other’s homes might be dangerous or detrimental to neighborly relationships, but in apartment complexes with serious violations, it could be a powerful tool.

“Well now you’re the hero. You can come in and fight the landlord and get it fixed,” Watkins said. “This could be a great benefit for the tenants of these properties and for code itself because now code will be getting real time information from people on the ground, which will really help with those manpower issues and the ability to more effectively hold these slumlords accountable.”

MSPJ's hope — whether through Know Your Rights workshops, tenants associations or deputizing reserve code officers — is for residents to feel empowered with the tools they need to take action how they see fit.

“I think the work we do is important because we’re working so directly with those affected by issues that are often overlooked in our city,” said Pollan. “I feel like a lot of organizations are doing a lot of great work but maybe don’t spend enough time with those who are actually feeling the effects of the issues they’re working on.” 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.