Memphis has an estimated 8,000 vacant and abandoned properties within the city limits. Most of these are homes (or apartment buildings) that are unsecured, crumbling, have overgrown lots, and naturally, are magnets for crime. These things keep neighborhoods oppressed (what businesses or people are going to move next door to something like the above, in Midtown Memphis?), property values down, and crime high. Blight is a major factor in inhibiting Memphis's growth, including by keeping crime at ridiculous levels.
New Memphis mayor AC Wharton has a plan. For the last year he has been working with Memphis's top attorneys to bring Memphis back as a true city of destination. Memphis loses, on average, 5 people with college degrees every day. One of the first things he did was appoint a Bike Czar, and pledged to build 60 miles of bike lanes all over the city in the next 2 years, many of which have already started appearing around the University of Memphis neighborhoods. He has lobbied for and received millions in federal grant money to boost public transit availability in the inner city, which now pretty much stands at third-world levels. As opposed to focusing on "regionalism" and the erroneous belief that investing in the region makes the inner city grow (when in fact it is just the opposite: investing in the inner city makes the region grow. You can't have healthy suburbs without a healthy city), he is wholly focused on Memphis, and Midtown in particular.
Last week he announced a very ambitious plan to combat blight, by a first-wave rollout of hundreds of lawsuits to property owners who have let their buildings and lots deteriorate. The Memphis Flyer has an excellent article this week on his efforts. Many of those are lobbied against Wells Fargo, which owns hundreds of properties around the city due to foreclosures and has left them completely neglected, as well as not paid thousands and thousands of back taxes on any of them, depriving the city of much-needed (and deserved) tax revenue.
Though it didn't see the kind of price spikes that occurred in cities in the so-called sand states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida, Memphis has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. The city has filed suit against Wells Fargo, claiming that the lending giant engaged in predatory practices against African Americans and damaged the city's property-tax income.
The foreclosure crisis, combined with the economic downturn and negligent owners, has led to blighted properties all over the city. In the last 10 years, more than 80,000 foreclosure notices have been served in Memphis, with maybe half of those resulting in actual foreclosures. There are 8,000 vacant properties in the city, as well as 13,000 vacant lots.
In the mostly African-American neighborhood of Frayser, in North Memphis, the foreclosure crisis has hit very hard. Entire city blocks up there have been abandoned and left to rot, and consequently crime has skyrocketed in that part of town. My own landlord is Executive Director of Frayser CDC, which buys foreclosed properties and flips them (my own current rental home is a foreclosed property, though it's in Cooper-Young) is quoted in the article:
Steve Lockwood, executive director of the Frayser CDC, buys foreclosed properties with the hope that he can get to them before they fall into total disrepair.
"We do foreclosure counseling to try to keep people in their houses. We're absolutely adamant about that," Lockwood said. "But once they come up empty, they've got to be dealt with."
And more empty homes means more blight. As the number of foreclosed homes has increased, the Frayser CDC has had to keep pace. According to Lockwood, they've redeveloped as many houses in the past year as they have in the last seven years.
In his quest to move dispossessed families back into homes, Lockwood often struggles to identify the legal owners of property.
"We've just done one really nice house, and there's a comparable house right next to it that is empty and in foreclosure," he said. "But we can't find anybody who claims to be the owner. In the meantime, we've got an abandoned place that is unsecured, and the yard is waist high. We've got a nice little house next door that we've put a lease-purchase person in. It's a problem."
Over the next year, Mayor Wharton plans to serve hundreds more lawsuits to individual owners (many of which live out of state) and to Wells Fargo. Thank god. Having only been in Memphis a short time, so far it has impressed upon me as being a city with a lot of problems, and is often very scary and intimidating. But it's also a city I've already grown to become very fond of, and it seems to have a lot of potential. Midtown Memphis, where I live, is composed almost entirely of historic neighborhoods, with so much beautiful old brick architecture, and homes, and wide, tree-lined boulevards. The people are so nice and accomodating, and if this city could only retain and attract more young people willing to invest in its long-term livability, I really think Memphis could become a world-class city again. I truly believe that. There is enough diversity, culture and history here to make it attractive to all kinds of people. And as of now, at least, the cost of living is astonishingly low (especially after living in Austin and Portland).
I will write more soon on some of the other grass-roots efforts around the city to make it simply a nicer and more progressive place to live and be. I also want to start a little photo-blog to showcase some of Memphis's more beautiful architecture and design, so much of which is mid-century art deco, and old, early century southern architecture. (For more on this, my friend Dmitry, who just moved here from San Francisco, has some interesting posts, also from the perspective of a non-Southerner who'd never even been to the South before. Check out his blog: true grit.)