What might normally have been a routine item, briefly disposed of by the Shelby County Commission, has become a cause célèbre there. This is a resolution to grant property rights over 140 inner-city lots to veteran builder Harold
Buehler who would go on to construct houses on the lots under the Tennessee Homestead Act. Federal stimulus funds are also involved in the proposed transaction, which has become controversial on two grounds: Buehler owes something like $1 million in back property taxes on previously acquired properties; and he has critics who allege that he is a de facto slumlord.
This last charge was articulated at Monday's regular county commission meeting by Commissioner Henri Brooks in the latest of several stormy debates on the matter. Brooks and other critics, including representatives of some, but not all, locally functioning community-development organizations, accuse Buehler, who has built hundreds of houses on vacant inner-city lots over the years, of constructing substandard dwellings inconsistent with ideal long-term neighborhood patterns and of renting the houses out rather than putting them up for sale.
Brooks escalated the rhetoric on Monday by referring to Buehler-built houses as "death traps," which, she charged, don't meet relevant fire-safety codes, and she was able to stall action on the resolution by noting, correctly, that the properties had not been publicly advertised as available under terms of the Homestead Act that, up until now, had apparently not been noticed by county officials, much less enforced.
Buehler's supporters, who so far have constituted a majority on the commission, point out that the proliferation of vacant or foreclosed or dilapidated properties in Memphis — now numbering in the thousands — cries out for development, and they note that Buehler over the years has been almost unique among builders in doing significant "in-fill" development to reduce the scale of the blight.
Residents of the affected neighborhoods have testified before the commission in both directions. Some agree with Brooks, Commissioner Mike Ritz, and other critics that Buehler's rental properties run counter to neighborhood needs, both aesthetically and in regard to the goal of creating new homeowners. Others contend that they either prefer to rent or won't be able to qualify for home ownership for years to come and see renting with Buehler to be the best solution available.
To counter his critics, Buehler has pointed out that he has revamped his home models and done so in consultation with people in the neighborhoods, that he has embarked on a catch-up schedule to pay his delinquent taxes, and that residents of his rental properties have an opportunity to buy them after a period of 15 years.
We see logic on both sides of the dispute. But we, like a majority of the county commission, if previous votes in committee are a reliable guide, lean toward favoring the resolution. The bottom line is that Buehler has built — and massively — where others have not, that he has responded not only to a large environmental and human need but has been willing to accommodate legitimate criticism. And, if not him, who will see to the need for large-scale in-fill? So far, the answer has been nobody.