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VOL. 130 | NO. 77 | Tuesday, April 21, 2015

City Blight Efforts Evolve Beyond Demolition

By Bill Dries

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The Frayser Community Development Corp. knew the house it wanted on University Street. There were plenty to choose from with multiple abandoned houses on the block. But it wanted the worst one, at 3200 University St.

And with General Sessions Environmental Court’s permission, the CDC is bringing in a contractor to undertake renovations on the modest circa-1958 house and put it on the market.

Before starting though, Steve Lockwood, the executive director of the Frayser group, held an open house. Neighbors from surrounding properties helped amass a five-foot high mound of rubble from inside the house. They also helped clean up the yard.

“There are people now working on that street, getting houses I thought I was going to have to do because of work we’ve done,” Lockwood said on the WKNO TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “What we’re trying to do with these statements is sort of kick-start the market. What we really need to do is expand these tools so it’s not just available to nonprofits. We are painfully aware of our limitations.”

The effort is part of an evolution in the fight against blight. For the last five years, the city of Memphis has focused that fight initially on demolition and then on the difficult prospect of getting someone to rebuild on a vacant lot.

“We take the worst house on the block and fix it up. And our data shows we change the value of the neighborhood $185,000,” Lockwood said. “That’s defending our tax base. People think it’s kind of crazy to put $60,000 into a very dilapidated house. But if they understand the economics, they will support this kind of reinvestment. It makes better sense than sprawl.”

It’s an effort the Greater Memphis Chamber is also putting the weight of the business community behind.

HERBISON

“We have to bring corporate executives, consultants into town all the time to consider Memphis as a place to put an operation and to create new jobs,” said Mark Herbison, the chamber’s senior vice president of economic development. “With the trash and the blight situation, it has really caused some consultants to not want to consider Memphis. We think it is a real serious economic development issue.”

“Behind the Headlines,” hosted by The Daily News publisher Eric Barnes, can be seen at The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Memphis city government’s effort to deal with blighted properties stepped up in 2010 with the filing of 100 lawsuits in Environment Court against property owners across the city.

BARLOW

Steven Barlow, the attorney who filed those lawsuits on behalf of the city, said five years later the lawsuit count is about to hit 900.

“Our challenge right now is just one of scale,” he said. “We have many thousands of single-family homes that are sitting vacant. And we have a limited ability to respond to that. We have to be very creative about our approaches.”

City Deputy Public Works Director Patrice Thomas estimates the city gets 28,000 calls a year from citizens complaining about property code violations that range from houses like the one on University to someone parking in the front yard.

“Right now we address annually about 9,500 individual residential parcels that we have to maintain,” she said.

And the city wants to enlist AmeriCorps volunteers each summer to do a continuing survey of parcels across the city, determining positions over time. The city uses a GIS app for the survey and to take complaints about properties.

“It’s a very good start,” Lockwood said. “We have a long way to go in figuring out how to stabilize them and maintain them and keep them there.”

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 56 437 16,061
MORTGAGES 76 508 18,556
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 8 56 2,461
BUILDING PERMITS 241 876 33,390
BANKRUPTCIES 64 301 10,314
BUSINESS LICENSES 15 125 5,303
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 17 125 6,273
MARRIAGE LICENSES 19 98 3,511