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Blight Fighters

Memphis leaders and residents are finding new ways to deal with more than 8,000 vacant, deteriorated properties across the city.

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When Andrew McGill and his partner moved from the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, they settled on a quiet, tree-lined street in a historic Memphis neighborhood. It didn't take long for them to notice several properties with overgrown yards, missing windows, large piles of debris and appliances, and houses literally caving in, many of them owned by the same person.

"Annesdale Park includes about 150 total properties," McGill said of the community near Bellevue Junior High. "[This landlord] owned 6 or 7 percent of the entire neighborhood, and he was allowing all his properties to fall into horrible disrepair."

With the help of attorney Steve Barlow, McGill is one of several Memphians — including, most recently, Memphis mayor A C Wharton — who have filed suit against the owners of blighted property through the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act.

"We were very much involved in our community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast," McGill said. "After witnessing what was lost in a natural disaster, we weren't going to stand for someone disrespecting our new neighborhood."

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.

But Memphians are fighting blight any way they can.

From Binghamton to Eastview Street, residents have sued the owners of problem property in an attempt to get them to clean it up.

In Frayser, one of the worst communities for foreclosures, Steve Lockwood and the Frayser Community Development Corporation (CDC) are working to fix the problem, one home at a time.

Brad Watkins, organizing coordinator of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, spotlights area blight by posting videos to YouTube.

And with a grant from MemFEAST, artist Tommy Wilson plans to bomb blight with a mixture of paint, compost, and seeds to grow wildflowers in vacant lots. (For a Q&A with Wilson, see page 21.)

Last week, with Barlow's help, Mayor Wharton filed 138 lawsuits against the owners of blighted property across the city.

Holding a picture of a boarded-up house surrounded by trash, Wharton said, "You don't have to be a genius to figure out that things like this should not exist in America's 18th largest city."

Code enforcement identified the targeted properties as ones that had long been in violation of city code.

"It's not a question of whether we're going to sue you, but when we're going to sue you," Wharton said. "Hopefully, we won't have to keep filing the lawsuits. Hopefully, they'll get the message."

Memphis is a city that relies heavily on property taxes, and Wharton called blight a "cancer on our source of survival." The city is targeting owners of multiple neglected properties and absentee owners who live as far away as California and as close as Mississippi.

"If it's not good enough for the cities where they live, it's not good enough for the city of Memphis," Wharton said. He added, "I wish I had a way of taking some of these properties, putting them on a flatbed, and rolling them right into [the owners'] neighborhoods and saying, 'We brought your house to you.' I wonder how long their neighbors would let them stay."

In 2007, the state amended the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act to allow civil causes of action to be brought against the owners of blighted property. Under the statute, blighted property meets one of eight criteria, including falling short of local codes or being a fire hazard, a dumping ground for trash or debris, or vermin-infested. Owners of nearby property can sue for the value lost to their homes. Organizations and businesses, as well as residents, can sue to force the owners to rehab the property.

Barlow, former head of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation, began filing test cases several years ago.

"The properties we target are true problems for the whole community," Barlow said. "They came to be in the condition they're in through a long period of neglect and abandonment."

Barlow began filing the initial suits in Chancery Court and General Sessions before deciding that Environmental Court was the best arena. Barlow, with the help of other attorneys, such as Bill Whitman, did the work pro bono, while neighbors covered the up-front expenses, such as court costs and home-appraisal fees.

The first lawsuit was for a battered fourplex in an otherwise nice part of Binghamton. "As soon as we filed the lawsuit, within a month, the property changed hands. The buyer fixed it up," Barlow said. "We thought the lawsuit probably had something to do with the seller letting go of it."

According to the popular "broken windows" theory, blight leads to increases in neighborhood crime, including vandalism and more serious offenses.

Jan Rowe calls her friendly neighborhood near East High School a "little patch of Mayberry."

"But what surrounds us is not great," she said. "I don't consider it very safe, and I just live one street over."

In March, a 17-year-old girl left East High School with several male students. She later accused them of raping her in a nearby vacant home on Eastview.

Several years ago, the city announced an Eastview redevelopment plan, but it never went anywhere. So Rowe and her neighbors went down the street, taking pictures and identifying the worst properties, and then sued the owners.

"There's part of me that hates having to go that route," Rowe said, "but since no one seems to be doing anything, it's at least something."

In one case, Rowe won a small financial settlement, which she has put into a fund to do more lawsuits for other vacant property in the neighborhood.

"These owners must think some investor is going to come for their property, but it's not going to happen," Rowe said. "Occupy them or tear them down or sell them. Why keep property that kids are going into and destroying?"

She considers the results of the lawsuits mixed. At least one owner has failed to make the changes he said he would. However, last month, Rowe filed four more lawsuits.

"We're in it for the long haul," she said. "The neighborhood didn't go bad overnight. As long as we keep pressure on these people, I don't think any bad can come of it."

In Annesdale Park, several blighted properties have been remediated in the past year. The historic neighborhood has wide streets and newly paved sidewalks, but mortgage fraud and absentee owners had taken their toll. Another problem was a longtime resident who owned a number of dilapidated properties.

In one particular case, the piles of debris were large enough to hide a car. In another, the home had been vacant for four years and was missing windows, allowing water in when it rained. The back of the house was falling down.

After asking the property owner to clean up — with no response — Barlow helped several neighborhood residents file a suit.

"We weren't after his money. We told him up-front," McGill said. "We also told him we weren't ruling out going after his money if he didn't do something."

After hearing of Barlow's successes, some in the corporate sector asked what they could do to take it to the next level.

"It was clear it was working: 'Let's try targeting an effort against larger-scale problems,'" Barlow said. "We decided to do a series of five lawsuits in the medical center district."

Of the five, two of the multi-family rental properties were demolished within months of the lawsuit. Another was completely rehabbed, and the other two are currently undergoing renovation.

"We're not looking to demolish any buildings," said Beth Flanagan, director of the Memphis Medical Center, a group that includes the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the Regional Medical Center. "My stakeholders see a need for affordable housing. We want a nice environment, but we also need a place for our folks to live."

"But if there's no hope for it," Barlow added, "let's get it over with."

The most recent, and most high-profile, of the legal actions was the start of the mayor's campaign to end blight.

"We're trying to scale up the effort to meet the size of the problem," Barlow said. "This ties in directly with foreclosure. A large part of the problem citywide is bank-foreclosed property that remains vacant and uncared for."

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."

In Tennessee, a property can be foreclosed on in 28 days because the law does not require a court hearing. The overwhelming number of foreclosures has created a glut in the housing market. Homes worth $40,000 or more have been sold to the Frayser CDC for $1. "The banks don't want them in their inventory," Lockwood said.

But that's the best-case scenario for a community. Many properties hang in limbo, as the owners have been advised to move out, but the foreclosure process has stalled.

"We've got folks who were advised by their attorneys to move out, and eight months later they found out they still owned the house. We've had clients who moved back in," Lockwood said.

Brad Watkins, of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, has noticed a similar trend when it comes to paying taxes on those properties.

Recently, Watkins began filming "BlightWatch," a series of Internet videos spotlighting local vacant property.

"We wanted to show people the extent of what is out there," Watkins said. "If you live in certain parts of the city, you don't see how pronounced the problem is."

The Peace & Justice Center initially began looking at housing issues because of area homeless, but they soon noticed the myriad ways foreclosures and blighted property were affecting the city and its residents. From August 2004 to December 2009, for instance, there were 900 fires on vacant property. The center estimates each fire costs the city about $17,000.

The financial hit also comes in the form of unpaid taxes.

In filming "BlightWatch," Watkins realized that in many cases, ownership was unclear. The lending agent on a home might have started the foreclosure process and never completed it, or the owners might have declared bankruptcy, but the bank never transferred the property to its name.

During a recent Wells Fargo event to grant $48,000 to local charities, members of the Peace & Justice Center confronted bank staff with the more than $60,000 in back taxes owed to the city and county on what was identified as Wells Fargo-owned property.

This led to a mid-October meeting with Watkins, Wells Fargo officials, the city treasurer, and the county trustee. Wells Fargo claimed ownership of four properties — and said they would pay the back taxes — but as for the rest of the properties, they claimed they were simply the trustee, not the owner.

"You've got to create an environment where certain things won't be tolerated," Watkins said.

His next goal is to get a recent state law activated locally.

Under the act, passed by the Tennessee legislature last spring, communities and neighborhood groups are allowed to clean blighted property and then place a lien on that property equal to the value of their costs.

Though the law doesn't stipulate a specific process, Watkins suggests that neighborhood clean-up efforts would have to be approved by the Memphis City Council or the Shelby County Commission. After the property is brought up to code, it would be verified by the Office of Planning and Development.

Before proceeding, Watkins is waiting on an opinion from the county attorney as to whether the statute needs to be approved by both the City Council and the County Commission.

"We think this is a great way for the community to take the issue by the horns," Watkins said. "Not only can they clean up in the neighborhood, but by placing liens on the property, they can hit irresponsible lending institutions and absentee property owners in the pocketbook."

Under the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act, defendants cannot be owner-occupants of the property, meaning the average citizen can't sue a neighbor just for having an overgrown yard. Still, those involved in fighting blight stress the lawsuits are aimed at owners who can afford to make changes.

"The last thing we want to see in this effort is some senior citizen who doesn't have the financial means to fix up the house they've lived in for 40 to 50 years," Watkins said. "We've got to go after the big fish."

Going after those fish can make a difference.

Annesdale Park's Andrew McGill did a lot of the legwork for his lawsuit: taking pictures, making sure everyone was following the terms of the settlement agreement. Every time the case went to court, he was there.

"I wanted to be looking at the judge, and I wanted the judge to know how important this was to us," McGill said.

It took about a year, but he says it was worth it. The five properties in the worst condition are looking much better, and it's spawned something of a neighborhood renaissance.

Kevin Brewer, former Annesdale Park president, is currently repainting and remodeling his house. He's not the only one.

"All of our neighbors are sort of doing the same thing," Brewer said. "The more everyone could see other homeowners doing stuff ... "

Residents also have protected their investment. McGill will soon be relocating to Nashville because of a new job.

"Now that I have my house on the market, I get paid back for that effort," McGill said. "If I hadn't done all that — in this real estate market — I would have really suffered."

Q&A with Tommy Wilson,

Bomb the Blight mastermind

The city's fight against blight might involve legal battles, but one self-professed "Arkansas farm boy" has another solution: Bomb the blight with wildflowers. Local photographer Tommy Wilson won $1,500 to fund his "Bomb the Blight" project at the Crosstown Arts MemFEAST dinner in early October. He used the money to purchase seeds and build a cannon for shooting seed bombs into blighted areas. Each "bomb" is a latex balloon filled with wildflower seeds, fertilizer, organic matter, and pigment. Wilson's guerrilla gardening project kicks off in the Washington Bottoms neighborhood on Saturday, November 6th, at noon. — Bianca Phillips

Flyer: What sparked your interest in blighted areas?

Wilson: I take pictures all over the city, and I've noticed that Memphis is one of those weird cities that goes from really, really nice to really, really neglected. There are areas nobody pays attention to, and I want to call attention to them.

You've built a cannon for distributing your seed bombs. Why not just throw seeds? I wanted the project to have an artistic bent. Using the cannon and paint will make a big abstract work. That gives me the artistic side plus the whole beautification thing.

How many wildflowers are you planting?

Depending on the plant, there should be between 200 and 5,000 seeds per bomb. I intend to use around 100 bombs per location.

How does that work if the seeds are inside a balloon?

Pure latex balloons biodegrade at the same rate as plant matter because they are made of sap. According to the balloon manufacturer, they should biodegrade within three to six months. They will break into small fragments within one to two months.

Why are you starting at Washington Bottoms in Midtown?

It's within a mile of my house. Also, since [Crosstown Arts in Midtown] is the organization backing this, I thought it would be appropriate to do that area first.

What other areas will you target?

We're going to do five areas. They're having an event on Broad Avenue in November called "Old Face for New Broad" and I'll be doing one over there as part of the event. I want to do some of the Sam Cooper corridor that they tore out for the interstate in the '70s. I've been contacted by some people in South Memphis and in Orange Mound to come look at a site. We're going to try and spread this around the city.

When will you be bombing?

The first one will be done this fall, but [after that] is contingent on funding. If money comes along and I can extend it further, then we'll just keep rolling with it until February.

Is there concern about the city mowing down the wildflowers in the spring, since some of these areas may be city property?

I'm using native plants, and if they mow them down, that will just spread them. If they spread, that's great.

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