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VOL. 127 | NO. 59 | Monday, March 26, 2012

Blight Fight

NAR funds to be used to raze vacant homes

By Sarah Baker

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Memphis is one of five cities to receive a $25,000 grant from the National Association of Realtors to demolish about 20 vacant, blighted homes.

Thanks to a $25,000 grant from the National Association of Realtors, Memphis will be able to demolish 20 vacant, blighted homes.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

More than 30 cities applied for a NAR “Game Changer” grant, a new program with somewhat open-ended criteria centered on bettering the real estate industry and America’s homeowners.

“There’s really not a set definition of what they are looking for,” said Aubrie Kobernus, director of governmental affairs for the Memphis Area Association of Realtors. “The idea is that it’s something out of the box that can hopefully be replicated in other cities that changes the game in some way of your community.”

The idea came about from a new committee that MAAR this year has called the Community Partners Committee, led by chairwoman Lee Davidson Holt. The committee was looking for what it could do outside of MAAR and decided on the idea to raze blighted homes in a community.

“I immediately thought it was a great idea, but it almost sounded too big and too large of an issue to try to work on,” Kobernus said. “I was like, ‘Well, let’s talk more about it. Let’s reach out to the city and see if they would be interested – and if so, we might be able to get some money from NAR for this.’”

Kobernus then met with Onzie Horne, deputy director of the city’s Division of Community Enhancement, and decided on a strategy to partner with the Memphis Area Home Builders Association to demolish structures that are at least 50 percent deteriorated and beyond rehabilitation.

The collaboration was fully backed by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who submitted a letter of support to NAR along with MAAR’s application.

“We submitted the grant not knowing if we would get anything at all,” Kobernus said. “I was kind of wondering, ‘Are they going to look at this and laugh?’ I figured it was going to be one of two responses – they were going to think it was absolutely ludicrous or they were going to love it. And thankfully, they loved it.”

A typical demolition is $4,000 to $5,000 for a small, deteriorating, inhabitable house, but with the partners and resources at the table, the goal range is $1,000 to $1,500 for each demolition, Horne said.

“With the multiplier of the labor and resources of the homebuilders and with the support and the assistance of the city, and the services that we can bring to the table and the assistance that we can provide in dumping, we expect to do at least 20 houses and have some dollars left over for further matches for replacement strategies on the vacant lots,” Horne said.

While the area of town has not been finalized, the demolition will concentrate on an area of 25 blocks or fewer, as opposed to a large community, Horne said. The city will study the density of several neighborhoods – from Frayser to South Memphis to Orange Mound – as well as a variety of replacement strategies for the houses that are torn down.

“If you have a vacant, deteriorated structure, the removal of that structure is step one and it has an immediate impact, but it doesn’t eliminate blight,” Horne said. “You simply leave a hole in the community if all you are left with is a run-down, vacant lot. So we’re looking at a menu of strategies, and Memphis City Beautiful has joined with the (city’s Division of) Housing and Community Development to research best practices from all over the United States.”

Possible alternatives are community and vegetable gardens, serenity gardens, children’s parks, pocket parks for seniors, small art structures and even skate parks. It’s an undertaking that not only will have an immediate effect on the surrounding community, but for Memphis as a whole, Kobernus said.

“We’re most excited about is this collaboration with the city and with the homebuilders – being able to create a strategic partnership to deal proactively on an issue that is so important for our city,” Kobernus said. “Blight affects everybody. It affects the community that people live in; it affects property values; it adds increased strain on the city because they’ve got to provide additional police services, fire services, grass-cutting services, everything. We ultimately all see that reflected in our property tax rate.”

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