VOL. 131 | NO. 10 | Thursday, January 14, 2016
Crime-Ridden, Neglected Apartments Come Under Fire
By Bill Dries
Several Memphis apartment complexes with long records of neglect and crime issues are the targets of a renewed political and bureaucratic push to improve conditions.
The efforts are a new front in the recent city movement to tackle Memphis’ blight problem. And it’s a front that invites skepticism.
Memphis City Council member Janis Fullilove called Tuesday, Jan. 12, for the demolition of the Peppertree Apartments in Whitehaven and found some support for bulldozing the crime-ridden apartment complex.
Fullilove hosted a town hall meeting at Greater Faith Tabernacle Church, 905 E. Shelby Drive, that drew a crowd of 30 citizens – two whom said they lived in the apartments at 4243 Graceland Drive.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis sent a letter Wednesday to federal Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro requesting HUD investigate the complaints about Peppertree.
"If these reports are accurate, this is deeply disturbing," Cohen wrote. "Tenants deserve clean, safe and fully functional housing."
Some at the Tuesday meeting also said TESCO, the company that manages and owns Peppertree, has shown new signs of cooperating with suggested changes in security in and the layout of the 44-year-old complex.
While TESCO is the owner identified by local officials pursuing complaints, the owner of record is Pepper Tree-Memphis Limited with a tax notice address in Horsham, Pennsylvania.
“How long will it take?” Fullilove asked of the changes planned. “It’s unacceptable. … They should be razed.”
Residents in the area were skeptical there would be changes. And officials working with TESCO on the measures said if the company didn’t follow through, there would be consequences.
“We’re tired of it,” said assistant district attorney Paul Hagerman. “We need to see real improvement, real fast.”
TESCO is due in General Sessions Environmental Court Feb. 3.
That is the latest in a series of hearings on the large number of violations city code enforcement inspectors found last year and again earlier this month during two rounds of inspections of about a third of the 306 units.
The inspections came after city Public Works director Robert Knecht removed an inspector who had received free Peppertree space from the owners for his religious ministry.
The District Attorney General’s office went to Environmental Court a decade ago to have the complex declared a nuisance and, in lieu of closing the complex, worked out a plan with TESCO for better security. Hagerman is working with Safeways, a program that certifies apartment complexes after they take a prescribed set of steps to improve safety and upkeep.
The program has had success in other apartment communities with similar problems.
Janine Heiner Buchanan, managing director of Safeways Memphis, echoed Hagerman.
“It’s going to take a long time,” she said. “It’s going to cost a lot of money.”
She and Memphis police officers said the problem is partly structural. Peppertree’s layout has two visible access points in front and back that are easily controlled and monitored by gang members.
Gates controlling access beyond those two points are frequently disabled and managers stopped fixing them until recently. Lighting also is broken repeatedly.
“There are dozens of places to run, hide and ambush,” Buchanan said.
Police brass have described the complex as “a police officer’s nightmare” with limited visibility and lookouts who know police are approaching long before they are actually on the property.
A homeowner who lived directly across the street argued the only realistic solution is demolition.
“Nobody can do nothing,” said the man, who did not want to be identified. “I’ve got bullet holes in my house. What are we talking about saving this property for?”
Other homeowners taunted the officials, asking if they would be talking about additional security measures if they lived near the complex or if the complex was in Germantown.
“I am really tired of getting this runaround,” said the neighbor with bullet holes in his house. “It’s an apartment complex of black people. It’s a black problem. Live across the street from it and see how you like it.”
Before leaving the Memphis City Council this month, Harold Collins stepped up a six-year campaign to get some action against the Peppertree owners.
At Tuesday’s town hall – with Patrice Robinson, his council successor for the district that includes Whitehaven – Collins said he built and Robinson will continue to build a case file for action detailing code violations, crime reports and other conditions.
“We as a community are going to have to say no to these slumlords,” Collins said. “When 88 percent of your tenant base is 25 years old or under and it’s 100 percent subsidized, we have to say no to that. Not because we want people homeless, but because we need diversity and that makes our community better.”
The Tuesday evening meeting came the same day of reports that two apartment complexes owned by Global Ministries Foundation, Warren and Tulane apartments, failed a federal inspection for the second time in a year.
GMF is appealing the inspectors’ scores with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. GMF founder Richard Hamlet pledged last year to undertake repairs at the properties before the second round of inspections.
Another GMF property, which is also a federally subsidized apartment complex, Goodwill Village Apartments, passed its federal inspection.
The Shelby County Commission toured all three apartment complexes last fall as it considered a resolution urging federal officials to suspend the payment of rent subsidies to GMF. A vote on the resolution was delayed following an appearance by Hamlet this month before commissioners.