VOL. 125 | NO. 209 | Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Wharton Files Blight Suits
By Bill Dries
For months, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has been standing outside old homes and warning owners of the vacant decaying properties that the city is coming with attorneys and legal papers.
On Tuesday he launched the first wave of lawsuits under the state’s Neighborhood Preservation Act.
“It is a new day. You can run but you can’t hide,” Wharton said after he and city attorneys filed the 139 civil lawsuits in General Sessions Civil Court against owners both in town and out of town.
The properties were picked by city code enforcement officials as the worst of the worst they’ve seen in terms of substandard properties. They have all been declared a nuisance under state law.
Wharton referred to them as a “cancer.”
“You don’t have to be a genius … to see that things like this should not be allowed to exist in America’s 18th or 19th largest city,” he said holding a picture of one of the properties. “These are places that little children have to walk by twice a day every day. They have to walk through this and we expect them to arrive at school bright eyed and bushy tailed with a rosy outlook on life.”
The city is funding the legal effort with $100,000 already in the city attorney’s budget as well as private donations from the Hyde Family Foundations and Methodist Healthcare.
A second wave will target owners of multiple parcels.
The city has hired attorneys Steve Barlow and Webb Brewer who have already been pursuing more than a dozen lawsuits for the last two years in the Medical Center district.
In some of those lawsuits, the results have ranged from renovation of the properties to demolition to the sale of the properties under terms of a court order.
Barlow said Environment Court Judge Larry Potter could even appoint a receiver to run the property if an owner takes no action or the real owner can’t be found.
The city can also recover its expenses, legal and otherwise.
“The abatement of a nuisance means bringing a property back into fit and habitable standards, not just putting boards on the windows, not just cutting the grass,” Barlow said. “If the receiver is appointed, the receiver can operate the property as though they were the owner, collecting rent, borrowing money … until such time as the owner can step forward and pay the costs that have been incurred by the receiver.”
The act also allows a judge to bar the owner from transferring or selling the property to someone else to avoid court action.
The properties cover the gamut.
There are five houses on Forrest Avenue between East Parkway and North Hollywood Street owned by five different owners.
Eight houses on Bridgeway Drive, a collection of townhouses east of Memphis International Airport and a nearby duplex on Christine Road owned by an LLC in Riverside, Calif.
There is a 248-unit apartment complex at 3539 Cazassa in Whitehaven owned by MFC Funding LLC, a company out of Paramus, N.J.
A 196-unit apartment complex at 2861 Kimball St., near Cherokee Park, owned by a Miami Beach company, according to the lawsuit. Records with the Shelby County Assessor’s office show the set of townhouses built in the mid 1970s is owned by the Memphis Health Educational and Housing Facility Board. Barlow said the owner quit claimed the property to the board.
There is a 160-unit apartment complex at 1895 Winchester Road that is apparently locally owned.
A property at 149 Cedar, one of more than a dozen properties owned by Kenneth and Judy East of Eads, makes the list. Earlier this month, the city boarded up another East property on Alabama Avenue, behind St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, and moved to have it declared a nuisance under state law because of drug sales at the duplex.
There is a set of 1920s era “economy apartments” on four addresses on Beauregard Avenue near Jefferson Avenue and North Claybrook Street owned by TCH International LLC of Greeley, Colo.