The Investigators: Thousands of blighted homes impacting Memphis neighborhoods

City reveals a new tactic to tackle dilapidated, unsafe properties
Updated: Nov. 4, 2019 at 9:47 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - That vacant or dilapidated house at the end of your street, or maybe even next door, is no doubt an eyesore.

Blighted properties bring down home values and attract crime, trash and rodents. So why does it take so long to get anything done about them?

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators worked to get answers to that question and discovered that, while the problem may be obvious, the solutions are not. And now it’s time for a new approach.

Our investigation uncovered a lot of good work in fighting blight in Memphis, but the problem is so overwhelming with so many properties slipping through the cracks that the city is about to take drastic measures to clean up.

When 70-year-old Carlotta Hill pulls onto her street in South Memphis, she passes more than 20 properties boarded up, crumbling and covered in graffiti.

“This house is vacant, it has been abandoned for maybe 10 years plus,” said Hill. “That was Ms. Jones’ house, that was the Browns’ house, that was the Douglas house.”

Empty lots with tires, trash and overgrown grass.

“I love my home and I shouldn’t have to come home every day and see two feet of Johnson grass in front of my house,” said Hill. “It’s embarrassing for one. I don’t want my friends to come over and see that. When I go visit their homes, everything is pristine and grass cut. That’s ugly.”

But her friends understand. They’re part of Hill’s neighborhood watch group, though there’s hardly a neighborhood to watch out for anymore.

“I’m crying one word: Help,” said Noble Boyd.

“Whoever takes over don’t seem to care and the city don’t either,” said Callie Terrell.

Robert Knecht is the director of the City of Memphis Public Works Division. He’s in charge of sewers, fixing roads and keeping tabs on code violations, including blight.

I asked him where fighting blight fits on his list of priorities.

“It is the highest priority right now,” said Knecht.

We asked the City how it defines blight and for a master list of blighted properties in Memphis.

No such list exits, and there is no standard by which the city measures blight.

“Properties would be coming and going all the time,” said Knecht.

Instead, his office provided this list of nearly 4,200 addresses with open code violations due to their poor condition. But in a separate email, a city spokesperson told us there are approximately 10,000 properties in Memphis that could be classified as blight because of their various states of neglect and disrepair.

“We look at blight in many ways, from citizen complaints of what they see is unsightliness,” said Knecht.

Public Works is made aware of a blighted property when a resident calls or emails 311, the city’s portal for citizen complaints and service requests. Complaints about neglected properties are assigned to Code Enforcement inspectors. There are currently 27 on staff.

An inspector checks a property to determine if there’s a violation. If so, the property owner is sent a Notice to Correct through the mail. If the owner doesn’t fix the violation, a legal process begins in Shelby County Environmental Court, which can lead to a demolition, a court-ordered repair plan, but sometimes it goes nowhere.

Our investigation uncovered multiple addresses that have been on the city’s radar for more than 10 years.

I asked why it takes so long for some of these properties to be fixed.

“We have not always managed every property correctly,” said Knecht. “There’s probably great opportunities for us to improve our processes. I would say that’s more of a stand off issue, not a regular methodology for our we manage properties. It may be that the inspector failed to do their job and didn’t keep up with the property. It may have changed ownership.”

Danny Shaffzin and Steve Barlow, co-directors of the University of Memphis Law School Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, answer questions about blight in Memphis

Knecht says tracking down owners of blighted homes can take weeks, months, even years.

For example, there is a house at 1863 Farrington, just two doors down from Hill’s home. Complaints there date back nine years. It was first reported to Code Enforcement in June 2010.

Since then, Memphis police have responded to the abandoned structure 10 times for calls of domestic disturbance, drug overdose and vandalism.

According to the Shelby County Assessor’s website, the owner of the home is Bernice Moore who lives on Queen Elizabeth Parkway in Whitehaven. But the person at that address said they bought the home last year -- something we verified through sales records.

We then found another address for Moore on a civil warrant issued in 2016 when the city sued her for neglect of the Farrington property. You can see where a Code Enforcement inspector checked the boxes for “repeat/problem” property owner and “out-of-town” owner.

Apparently, Moore had another address on file in Mississippi. When we knocked on the door there, a woman inside told us her mom no longer owned the home on Farrington, but the WMC Investigators have not found any record of that sale.

Memphis city records show complaints dating back nine years for the home at 1863 Farrington.
Memphis city records show complaints dating back nine years for the home at 1863 Farrington.(WMC)

With that 2016 lawsuit still pending, Moore was supposed to be in court back in October. She didn’t show up.

“One of (our) biggest challenges is out-of-state property owners,” said Knecht. “We have great difficulty in notifying them of the issue of a property that’s non-compliant.”

But a new amendment to the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act passed just last year now allows cities like Memphis to sue the properties themselves when all efforts to contact the property owner have been unsuccessful.

“We don’t have to go looking for anyone anymore,” said Steve Barlow, a part-time city attorney.

Barlow co-directs the University of Memphis Law School Neighborhood Preservation Clinic with Professor Danny Schaffzin. Students at the clinic file lawsuits on behalf of the city to bring problem properties back to life.

“The kind of cases that the city files, that the clinic assists the city in filing, are purely about bringing the property out of a nuisance condition,” said Schaffzin. “So it can be a productive part of a neighborhood again.”

Next on the clinic’s list is 1863 Farrington -- welcome news for friends who won’t be forced out of their neighborhood by the conditions that surround them. Just ask 100-year-old Callie Terrell.

“I don’t plan on leaving until I’m unable to think,” said Terrell.

I asked Knecht what he would say to a citizen who lives next to a blighted home.

“I am totally compassionate to a citizen who is living next to that and is having their property negatively impacted, who has rodents and issues from blighted property and having to look at it day to day. We don’t want that. Our goal is to address it.”

Knecht is in the process of hiring 29 additional residential Code Enforcement inspectors, bringing the total to 40. But he says going forward, more people may not be the answer to fixing the blight.

“I don’t like to dilute our work force and just adding lots of people,” said Knecht. “That doesn’t always mean you get the efficiencies that you do. Sometimes it can be less efficient.”

Instead, in what’s a first for Public Works, Knecht has asked city leaders to reduce his operating budget by $2 million and make up the difference by fining non-compliant code violators. He’s still working on a system to do that but says the first notices will go out in January.

“I felt that, having had this position a while and looking at what’s going on, felt there was an opportunity to hold the property owners more accountable for their actions and take the burden off the city taxpayers for negligent property ownership," said Knecht.

Hill just wants someone to take responsibility or even take notice of her neighborhood.

“Every community wants to be part of the growth of Memphis,” said Hill. “We feel we are being neglected, that we do not exist. But we do. We just want the city and the county to know that we are here and that we too are part of Memphis and we want the same things they have in their communities."

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