VOL. 132 | NO. 141 | Tuesday, July 18, 2017
Blight More Than Out-of-State LLCs
By Bill Dries
The prominent role investors play in buying single-family homes in Memphis to rent them out is part of the city’s significant problem with blight.
But there are some property owners who live here who don’t even know that their loved one who died recently made them a property owner.
“The major issues or charges that we come into contact with are property owners who have left their property and moved out of state with the housing market crisis,” said attorney Brittany Williams of Neighborhood Preservation Inc. on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.” “Then we have a lot of properties owned by corporations or defunct LLCs. And then we have a lot of heirship issues with properties – properties owned by people who are now deceased and no one’s ever gone in to change title or do anything like that.”
So many times people are contacted and don’t realize that they actually own their grandmother’s property, she said.
NPI, working with the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, pursues the owners of property once a case of neglect and code violations reaches General Sessions Environmental Court.
“By the time we get the referral, it’s because they have not been able to get compliance on their part through code enforcement action,” Williams said.
As that court action is moving along, there are other agencies on the ground in Memphis neighborhoods where action to eliminate blight can begin with something as basic as a community clean up organized by Clean Memphis.
“And we can’t keep up with the amount of neighborhood people that want to be involved, that are calling to be engaged, that are wanting to address these issues – the number of businesses – the number of schools,” said Clean Memphis founder and director Janet Boscarino, whose organization will turn a decade old next year. “There’s definitely more interest and engagement to be involved and become part of the strategy and solution to the issues.”
“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
There are 11 neighborhood-led agencies that cover most of the city. They meet monthly to keep attention focused on ongoing blight efforts around specific pieces of property.
One of the biggest challenges is apartment complexes, which Boscarino describes as a “very, very different animal” from single-family homes. Clean Memphis is currently working in apartment complexes along Winchester Road in Hickory Hill.
The efforts on both housing fronts come with a delicate balance that sometimes requires patience in pursuing action.
“We’ve really created a culture where slumlords can sort of exist and people don’t have a place to go,” Boscarino said. “The very people we are trying to hammer code enforcement on, to bring their properties up to standard, if they decide not to do that and abandon that property, these renters have nowhere else to go. They either have credit issues or other things. So there’s a really fine line looking at all of these different issues.”
Those pressures came into play as more than 400 families were moving out of the Foote Homes public housing development in the last year. The move out of Foote Homes for the demolition and development of a new mixed-income housing community coincided with the closing of the Tulane and Warren apartment complexes then owned by Global Ministries Foundation.
The properties were closed when the federal government cut rent subsidies to residents living there because the apartments failed two consecutive federal safety and code inspections. The flood of those tenants into the city’s rental market made it more difficult for Foote Homes residents to find subsidized federal rental housing as well.
Boscarino and Williams are part of a more coordinated effort that erases the border between clean-ups of neighborhoods and efforts to do something more enduring about blighted property, whether it is a home on a street block or an open lot that creates a gap in what was once a solid block of houses.
“I think we are winning in terms of understanding what we are dealing with and having actual data to drive what we are doing,” Boscarino said. “It’s just that it’s a marathon. … It’s not an easy fix. It’s not an overnight fix. We’ve had many, many factors that have contributed to the blight situation that we have in Memphis with the housing market, with predatory lending, with disinvestment in the urban core – all of these things combining to create a pretty overwhelming situation.”
A “property hub” – information and data from numerous public record sources – is helping. The hub – which provides information from taxes being paid or going unpaid, to utility connections, to code enforcement complaints – is still a work in progress that is being used to coordinate data, Williams said.
“But we still have a ways to go,” she added, noting that she and attorneys working on cases are able to use GIS mapping of neighborhoods to aid in their efforts.