Momentum Builds as Money to Fight Northaven Blight Arrives

By Bill Dries

When Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell announced in Northaven a week ago a $600,000 effort to fight blight in three parts of unincorporated Shelby, he got a lot of questions about the exact terms for home improvements – half of the funding.

Shelby County government begins taking applications Monday for $300,000 of home improvement grants in Northaven, nearby Waverly Farms and southeast Shelby County.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

And he ran out of applications at the gathering of about 100 outside the Northaven Community Center. More forms were quickly made available.

The Shelby County Housing Department begins taking the grant applications for $5,000 to $8,000 each from homeowners Monday, Oct. 15, through Oct. 29. The first of those grants could be awarded in November.

The response is the clearest indication of the momentum within Northaven over the last year to tackle a blight problem in what is unincorporated Shelby County’s most urban area.

“We’re on the edge of a transformation and revitalization of Northaven,” said the Rev. Michael Ellis, pastor of Impact Baptist Church. “We’re on the brink of creating a community that is real close to Downtown that people are going to have a desire, I believe, to want to live in.”

The small community between Shelby Forest and U.S. 51 on North Watkins Road consists mainly of a suburban subdivision where homes are much closer together than they are normally in a rural area. The streets reflect the layout of residential areas in the late 1960s and early 1970s suburbs of most major cities.

The $600,000 in county funding is part of a much larger amount from Wells Fargo bank in a settlement of the city and county governments’ lawsuit against Wells Fargo over the bank’s mortgage refinancing methods and their impact on the county’s foreclosure crisis. The installment of the $7.5 million settlement will be used by the county in Northaven and neighboring Waverly Farms, as well as a section of unincorporated southeast Shelby County.

“It’s still not enough money to do everything that needs to be done,” Luttrell said later.

That’s not the intent. And there are rules. Homeowners applying for the rehab money cannot be in foreclosure and must be current on taxes. However, some private agencies might be available to work with homeowners on meeting the requirements.

“We certainly want to be a shepherding agency in the sense of providing them ongoing assistance … and advising them on how to utilize those funds in the most appropriate way,” Luttrell said. “We can’t continue to do this as a government. We’ve got to catch the attention of the homeowners and hold them responsible and go through that process.”

The housing improvements grants are enough for improvements on 37 to 60 houses depending on the amounts of them individually.

Most of the other $300,000 will be used to fund county government cleanups of illegal dump sites in the communities as well as cutting overgrown lots and demolishing some structures.

Later Luttrell received some addresses of properties Northaven residents would like to see demolished. He and other county leaders were quick to remind the residents that the condemnation process requires patience because of the legal requirements for demolition and might not move as quickly as they would like it to.

The county will contract with firms to do the work, but they cannot complete tree and debris removal on private property.

Another $50,000 of the $600,000 for the three areas will be grants that community development corporations can apply for to help in areas like financial counseling that the county cannot.

“We’re going to try to set the standard, provide the guidance, continue to really emphasize the importance,” Luttrell said. “But understanding that it is ultimately the homeowners who are responsible for maintaining the properties.”

Ellis’s church will likely be applying for some of that grant money for what he calls “continual care.”

“Once you start continual care then the community will start to get involved with continual care of their own properties,” he said.

Impact is located in Frayser, the next community east of Northaven by just a few miles. Impact’s ministry operates programs in both areas and has plans to build a church in Northaven. The church operates the community center, housed in what was the Northaven Fire Station until earlier this year when the county completed and opened a new fire station nearby.