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VOL. 123 | NO. 85 | Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Eastview Neighbor Tries to Sue Blight Away

By Andy Meek

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PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1: A property owner near the blighted Eastview neighborhood recently filed a lawsuit in Shelby County Chancery Court calling the trash-strewn lots, crumbling houses and abandoned properties there a public nuisance. -- Photos By Andy Meek

The Memphis neighborhood known as Eastview gives the appearance of lacking many things. Some of those things include lawnmowers, fix-it men and the occasional visit of a code enforcement officer.

Most of the homes in Eastview, which sits directly north of East High School and an upscale shopping center, are more than 60 years old. Trash is scattered here and there in the street and in many of the yards. Some of the yards are overgrown. Cars are parked in a few of them. One of the area's vacant houses is so dilapidated it looks like it's recently been used as a giant punching bag.

The influence of all that decline is being felt by middle-class homeowners on the neighborhood's outer edges, and that's why one of them is suing. Only a few streets separate Eastview's blighted collection of homes and duplexes, many of which are owned by landlords and out-of-town interests, from attractive homes that have carports, garages and well-manicured lawns.

Many of those nearby homeowners have gritted their teeth over the years, fuming at the perception of inaction from the city of Memphis. That's why one of those homeowners - whose property has slipped in value over two out of the three years since she bought it in 2004, in spite of making pricey renovations - went to court this month.

'Another tool'

Jan Rowe lives on the street immediately to the east of Eastview Drive. She filed a lawsuit earlier this month in Shelby County Chancery Court against several owners of rental property in the general Eastview area, according to The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

The basis of her suit is a Tennessee statute referred to as the Neighborhood Preservation Act. That law mandates that owners of rental or vacant property
must maintain their property according to the prevailing level of community standards. If they don't, and if a nearby property owner's value falls because of it, that second property owner can sue to recover the difference in value, Rowe's attorney said.

"I am suing on the grounds that Eastview property owners are decreasing my property value," Rowe said in an e-mail. "One of the houses listed in the suit was burned many months ago. It still stands and the property owners have yet to demolish the building. ... (This) will no doubt be a long process, but I am at my wits' end on what to do."

Rowe is suing North Chickasaw Parkway Ltd., Lomita LLC, Yoav Atzmon and Sonja Jones-Fields, all of which are owners of rental property on Eastview Drive. Atzmon, according to records in the Chancery Court suit, lives in California and owns property on Eastview that has been cited 15 times for environmental violations.

Both North Chickasaw Parkway Ltd. and Jones-Fields are described as locally based rental property owners whose Eastview property has fallen into neglect and disrepair.

"To our knowledge, this has never been tried before in Memphis," said Rowe's attorney Steve Barlow. "And in my opinion, the strength of all this is it doesn't require any government action. In other words, a lot of people, a lot of the community development industry, neighborhood groups ... are going to tell you they're frustrated because, many times, code enforcement has its hands tied - maybe because they're under-funded, but that for whatever reason, code enforcement isn't getting it all done.

"Other tools are needed. This is another tool. You can sort of circle the wagons on these people who intend to hold properties for no reason and let them sit there and ignore them and not pay the taxes."

No comment

At one time, the city had a redevelopment plan for Eastview, one that held out the possibility of using eminent domain to improve the area. The city's plan included pledges such as this one: "The deteriorating houses and duplexes located along Walnut Grove, Eastview, Waynoka and Hayden streets will be either removed or renovated."

Somewhere along the way, the city abandoned those plans. And city officials now say their hands are all but tied.

"It is not at all feasible for the city to acquire the properties due to the cost of them, compounded by the fact that, if acquired by the city, there would be an added cost to relocate every household," said Mairi Albertson, an administrator in the city's Division of Housing and Community Development.

"We have held meetings with developers who work within the city to talk generally about opportunities for development in the area, but it isn't practical to discuss detailed plans for the area because the properties are privately owned."

William Whitman, the other local attorney representing Rowe in her case, said the next step in the litigation won't be known for another month or so. The defendants have 30 days from the time they are served in the case to respond to the allegations.

All of them either did not return calls or could not be reached for comment.

"It probably won't be 'til the end of May when we know what's going to happen next," Whitman said.

PROPERTY SALES 128 234 13,285
MORTGAGES 80 152 8,323
BANKRUPTCIES 42 79 6,299