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VOL. 125 | NO. 160 | Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mayor Unleashes Lawyers in Fight Against Blight

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is rolling out the latest tool his administration will use to clean up neglected and overgrown Memphis neighborhoods – attorneys.

“We’re hiring lawyers,” Wharton said this month as he stood outside a vacant house on Vesey Avenue off Lamar Avenue that was overgrown with kudzu spilling into the street.

He issued a pointed warning to out-of-town owners of such properties.

“The bottom line is you can’t come in here and leave this scum and this mess and then run off to your vacation home in Florida and say, ‘Ha, ha, ha. They can’t get me,’” Wharton said. “That day is over.”

City attorneys are off to a good start, recently winning two judgments from absentee owners in California and Florida. One judgment was for $100,000.

The city is pushing for a change in state law that will allow the city to sue a piece of property when the city can’t find the owner.

“It really ticks me off – the people who own a lot of these neglected properties, we’ve had helicopters to fly over their places. …You ought to see the palatial homes they are living in,” Wharton said. “This is not the case of a little widow woman trying to live on a Social Security check and we’re out here picking on her. That’s not what we’re talking about. … We’re targeting people who by choice and sometimes for a profit motive allow conditions like this to exist.”

Wharton noted that the city of Birmingham, Ala., began an attack on such blight with more than 400 nuisance complaints in a day.

“We’re going to become much more aggressive. Right now it’s too comfortable. Nobody really bugs you if you let this exist,” Wharton said. “They won’t be able to get any comfort as long as they know they’ve got properties like this that are plaguing our neighborhoods.”

In the summer heat, city workers trimmed branches with deep green leaves the size of elephant ears from another vacant house on Vesey.

A few blocks away, city crews had cleaned up another house a week ago with so much kudzu that Wharton and others initially didn’t think there was a house left beneath it.

Wharton is coordinating city efforts to enlist volunteers as well as prison inmates to clean up the lots and vacant houses. The effort will also include Memphis police officers to serve the summonses to property owners that are part of an increased use of the state’s nuisance laws.

A question about how long it takes to force an owner to clean up a piece of property on his own drew a puzzled look from Wharton.

“They never did clean it up. We had to clean up,” he said of the California case.

Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter, who hears the nuisance petitions, also didn’t have a specific estimate, although he said his court mandates a quick cleanup.

“It depends upon if we have an owner in front of us or an out-of-town owner,” Potter said.

The subdivision was built in the early 20th century by the Pope Land Co. The home at 1737 Vesey Ave. was built in 1902, according to records on the Shelby County Assessor of Property’s website. It has been owned for the last six years by Charles and Patricia Alexander of Germantown, according to the same records.

They also own three properties on nearby Felix Street, including a vacant lot.

Wharton said the city’s effort to clean up the lots and properties is running behind with a backlog of about 2,000 as of last week. He attributed the backlog to citizen demand with more questions about such cleanups than crime at town hall meetings he has held.

Wharton also said he is still working to get the various city divisions involved to work in a more coordinated fashion.

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 87 87 14,804
MORTGAGES 80 80 19,410
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 22 22 3,817
BUILDING PERMITS 142 142 35,472
BANKRUPTCIES 62 62 14,096
BUSINESS LICENSES 62 62 5,053
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 99 99 21,532
MARRIAGE LICENSES 37 37 4,594

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