It Takes a Village: The Idea Behind Memphis' Anti-Blight Strategy

To tackle the problem of vacant properties, Memphis is acknowledging that it needs help.
by | May 17, 2016
About 16 percent of Memphis' housing stock is vacant -- well above the 10 percent vacancy rate of a growing urban area like Nashville. (Brandon Dill)

Earlier this year, the mayors of Memphis and Shelby County, Tenn., endorsed what may be a first-in-the-nation plan that officials say is a nationwide model for organizing regional strategies against blight.

Blight can not only attract crime but also lower nearby property values, reduce potential tax revenues and hurt a city's ability to lure new residents and businesses.

In the past, public officials in the Memphis area addressed vacant and abandoned properties in piecemeal fashion, either demolishing or sprucing up individual houses. But that doesn't address the underlying causes of blight, such as government policies that let people own properties for years without living there or paying taxes.

“Without some larger coordinating framework,” the mayors wrote in the plan, which is called the Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter, “we end up treating the symptoms without addressing the deeper sources of the illness.”

Like many cities, Memphis has a longstanding problem with vacant and abandoned properties -- and it’s been getting worse as the population has declined. According to the American Community Survey, about 16 percent of Memphis' housing stock is vacant -- well above the 10 percent vacancy rate of a growing urban area like Nashville. (Neighborhood Preservation Inc., a Memphis-area nonprofit that deals with abandoned properties, estimates that about 13,000 housing units, mostly single-family homes, are vacant and haven't been connected to a utility for at least a year.)

"We really see it as [an] economic development and a quality-of-life issue," said Paul Young, director of Housing and Community Development in Memphis. "When people come from out of town and they see the blight, it gives the impression that we don’t care."

But that's far from the truth, especially for Mayor Jim Strickland who got elected last year after making blight a major issue of his campaign. The city and its surrounding county had a variety of anti-blight programs, but Strickland argued that agencies didn’t talk to one another and failed to execute a coordinated strategy that might have a bigger collective impact.

The charter, which was created by a group of 30 people from nine government agencies as well as the nonprofit and private sectors, is an early effort to make those conversations happen.

“There’s a new level of coordination and cooperation and focus,” said Steve Barlow, an attorney who helped write the charter and works part-time for the city. “That to me is the most important result of this whole process.”

The charter isn’t a legally binding document, and it doesn’t come with new infusions of cash. But Barlow hopes it’s the beginning of a long-term initiative to build a coalition of public and private actors who can help each other reduce and prevent blight.

Some progress has already been made toward that goal.

Consider code enforcement: Broken windows, leaking pipes and rodent infestations -- all on the same vacant property -- require three different kinds of code enforcement officers to respond. But starting this summer, several kinds of code enforcement are moving into one department. The change should improve communication and use less resources to address the same problems.

Memphis has also gained new powers to assume responsibility for properties that owners have left behind. The state legislature, for example, shortened the time that delinquent taxpayers have to redeem their properties -- from one year to 30 days -- once they go into tax sale. And the Memphis City Council agreed to establish a land bank, so that a quasi-governmental nonprofit "blight authority" could raze abandoned structures, clean up the land and eventually own the property debt-free.

Memphis may be the only city with a charter dedicated to eliminating blight, according to Joe Schilling, a land-use expert at the Urban Institute who helped write the city's charter.

“It’s part of an emerging trend of cities trying to chart a more strategic path in its approach to address blight,” he said, noting that Flint, Mich., made blight remediation part of its comprehensive land-use plan, and Cleveland has a Vacant and Abandoned Property Action Council.

What sets Memphis apart, said Schilling, is the diverse set of organizations that played a role in writing it. But for all the private and nonprofit interest in the charter, Schilling said that “the policy levers for fighting against blight still rest with local government.”