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Investigators: Affordable housing woes in Memphis

Published: Aug. 5, 2021 at 9:07 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Finding an affordable place to live in Memphis or anywhere right now is becoming more and more difficult.

A person working minimum wage can’t afford a two-bedroom rental anywhere in America, according to a national report.

Making matters worse, often what is affordable is unlivable.

An Action News 5 investigation reveals the City of Memphis is trying to solve the problem, but one of its solutions may not be working as well as renters hope.

Jerald Todd is recovering at home after having part of his leg amputated.

“I just got out of rehab and then come home to all this,” Jerald Todd said.

The air conditioning in the two-bedroom, two-bath apartment he shares with his wife hasn’t worked in a month. One of the toilets is broken, and the walls and cupboards are covered in, what looks like, mold.

“The whole apartment just crashing down on us day by day,” said Gwendolyn Todd.

Gwendolyn Todd has complained to office management and to Memphis code enforcement, but nothing’s been fixed. The couple can’t move because their rent, which is less than $600 a month is all they can afford.

“If it’s necessary, we’ll try to hang in there,” said Jerald Todd.

The Todds aren’t alone.

Marquette Pogue lives in the same apartment complex.

“Please, someone come around here and help us,” Pogue said.

Like the Todds, Pogue has few housing options in his budget. He pays about $500 a month for this one-bedroom apartment he shares with his four children.

“This is hazardous for my children,” Pogue said.

Pogue called the Action News 5 investigators when his air conditioner, refrigerator, and kitchen faucet stopped working

“I try to do the best I can by wrapping it up and putting a rubber band on it,” Pogue explained.

Pogue showed us complaints he’s entered in the complex’s online system, some of which are more than a month old, but maintenance still hasn’t addressed them.

“I always get broken promises. I always get broken promises,” he said.

Pogue and the Todds live at New Horizon Apartments in Whitehaven. The apartments are part of a city program that works with developers who offer affordable housing. The program is governed by the Health, Education, and Housing Facility (HEHF) Board of Memphis.

In exchange for big tax breaks, developers pass on savings to low-income renters through services such as additional property improvements, rental payment reduction, or additional tenant amenities.

According to the board, the New Horizon owners aren’t following through on their end of the deal. The complex is currently one of four properties on the board’s watch list and in danger of losing its tax break.

“I think it’s criminal that these landlords are taking tax dollars and not providing the services that they’re supposed to, said Alex Uhlman with the Memphis Tenants Union.

Housing advocates, like Uhlman, say many properties overseen by the board have bad track records, either racking up code violations or eviction filings.

“How much responsibility do you think the board has to keep those apartments safe and livable? I think they have a huge responsibility. It kind of negates the whole idea of the program if they’re not kept safe and affordable and livable,” he said.

Data we obtained in partnership with housing consultant Austin Harrison shows 489 reported code violations at properties in the program between 2016 and July 2021.

We wanted to sit down with the HEHF Board’s executive director but were turned down. So, we went to a public board meeting where New Horizon’s efforts to come back into compliance were being discussed.

Afterward, we asked about the complexes like New Horizon that are overseen by the board.

“There is some oversight, but as far as code violations and things like that, that is not the responsibility of the board,” said Charles Carpenter, attorney for the HEHF Board.

Carpenter went on to say that without the program, there would be even less affordable housing in Memphis and living conditions would be worse.

Landlord Adam Rudman agrees.

“You want to give people a place where they can be proud,” Rudman said.

Rudman has three apartment complexes in the program that are all currently in compliance

“A lot of landlords buying properties just to squeeze every dollar they can out of it just to flip it afterward,” said Rudman.

Another major challenge for tenants is those who complain about their apartments could face eviction, according to Cindy Ettinghoff with Memphis Area Legal Services, a non-profit that offers free legal help to tenants.

“What we’ve seen in way too many instances is if you’re going to challenge the landlord about habitability, you probably want an eye on another place you can go,” she said.

Over a five-year period, our data show properties in the program totaled the highest number of evictions in the county with nearly 16,000 filed.

“Even though it’s substandard housing, beats having nothing,” Ettingoff said.

That’s how the Todds and Pogue feel.

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