In the universe of Memphis blight fighting, all roads lead to Steve Barlow
By Kyle Veazey
Steve Barlow turns left off Winchester Road onto Cazassa Road one recent sun-scorched morning, and the apocalypse is on both sides.
On the left, there’s the moonscape that is the remains of the 200-unit Winchester Gardens apartment complex, a few trees dotting what was once a parking lot and the concrete foundations where apartments stood and a generation once lived. On the right is the scraped earth that was the 300-unit Spanish Oaks complex.
But it beats the abandoned buildings that used to be there, the ones that invited all sorts of unsavory activity. “This whole stretch was Godforsaken,” Barlow said.
Then came Barlow, the 45-year-old lawyer whose life work these days involves fighting the multi-front war on blight in a city teeming with it. Though he’s involved in a variety of ways, much of it is through Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. — the three-year-old nonprofit that is front and center as blight gets more and more attention in recent months and years.
Blight is arguably a first-tier issue in the mayor’s race. One of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle’s “moon missions” is heavily invested in cleaning up blight. And just last week, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton announced another program that could turn around blighted properties.
But those are news releases and news conferences, initiatives and talk. On the ground, the blight fight looks like what Barlow pointed out that morning in Whitehaven, narrating a complex set of transactions, financial hurdles and legal maneuvers that led to the day last summer when bulldozers started tearing down the complexes.
The kind of fight that often involves Steve Barlow.
Answering a call
The scope of Memphis’ blight problem is not fully known. A group is working on a searchable database of blighted properties in Memphis modeled off a similar one in Cleveland, but its results won’t be known for at least a few more weeks.
The best guess is framed around a piece of data that Barlow cites: 10,000 single-family residential utility cutoffs of a year or more, according to Memphis Light, Gas & Water, and 3,000 multifamily residential cutoffs. Until the database lands, commercial and industrial blight is anyone’s guess.
Barlow eagerly awaits the results.
The married father of two wears a rack full of hats. He’s paid just shy of $50,000 annually as a part-time attorney for the city of Memphis, pursuing city-initiated neglect and code cases in Environmental Court. His firm, Brewer & Barlow, acts as a consultant and counsel to all sorts of businesses and government agencies that need its help.
And while NPI was started with the idea that it would act as a receiver in properties taken away from owners, it has morphed into an all-encompassing, one-stop shop for blight remediation tactics.
Barlow grew up in Jackson, Tennessee, and the start of his path came when he attended Moody Bible College in Chicago. As part of a service component at the school, he spent much time volunteering at the old Cabrini-Green public housing project, seeing up close the challenges of urban life.
He landed in Memphis in 1994 and earned a graduate degree in urban anthropology at the University of Memphis. For about five years, he worked for a community development corporation in the LeMoyne-Owen College neighborhood. But time spent working as an analyst for the city’s housing and community development department convinced him that a law degree would be quite useful as he pursued his calling, so he enrolled at the University of Memphis law school and graduated in 2004.
Barlow started at a big firm, but hung his own shingle in 2006 to focus on these types of property cases. A year later, the state of Tennessee enacted the first iteration of the Neighborhood Preservation Act, a law that allowed civil actions to be taken on derelict property owners. Barlow got a wild hair.
He approached some neighbors of a building near East High that was falling apart, and filed a lawsuit. The out-of-town owners quickly agreed to make changes, he said.
Since then, he’s been involved in about 1,000 cases.
“I call Steve an old soul: He has the extra element of seeing the things that really matter, and then coming up with good practical and legal approaches to solve,” said George Cates, chairman of NPI’s board, and former CEO of Mid-America Apartment Communities. “Over, and over, and over again, he does this.”
“I tease him: Have you run into your phone booth and put on your cape lately?”
‘The quiet work’
Dragan Kocic is no slumlord.
Here the operations director of New Horizon Apartments sits on a recent morning in his office, carpet and tile samples behind him, two computer monitors on the desk, and the sound of children scampering next door to a Shelby County Schools summer lunch program.
When Winchester Gardens and Spanish Oaks were in their blighted state, hollowed-out buildings that invited crime, the homeless and even the occasional rubbish fire, they were New Horizon’s nasty neighbors. Residents drove or walked past them on their way to the main street.
Kocic’s complex isn’t tiny, either. He estimates that some 2,500 residents occupy more than 600 units in 72 buildings, meaning the blighted former neighbors had no small human impact.
“It was not deterioration — it was total abandonment,” Kocic said of his former neighbors. “Complete disregard.”
The work of Barlow and NPI to clear the two apartment complexes took years. A court order eventually spelled doom for Winchester Gardens, which was demolished at a cost of $600,000 to the city.
The property is now owned by an Israeli company, and its sales record shows a hodgepodge of entities and a rapidly falling value.
NPI received Spanish Oaks as a donation from the county, then came up with the money to facilitate a $300,000 demolition. The owner of New Horizon then bought the property last fall for $20,000.
As recently as 2007, it sold for $2 million.
New Horizon hopes to expand there.
“This is the status of our success to date,” Barlow said, surveying the fenced-off wasteland. “It doesn’t look like much when you look at it right now, but …”
Yet it’s a much better neighbor than it used to be. So grateful was Kocic of Barlow and NPI that he turned an interview with a reporter into something of an all-staff meeting, so other employees could come and sing Barlow’s praises. And they did.
“This is the quiet work that nobody sees,” Kocic said.
An hour after showing off his weedy success in Whitehaven, Barlow winds through a residential neighborhood in Frayser, in search of more blight.
“This is the one,” he says, nodding to his left. “So here you’ve got this beautiful Frayser Elementary, you’ve got MLK Prep, and then you’ve got this,” pointing to a heap of concrete and brick being overtaken by weeds and trees. “This is Victory Tabernacle, 1577 Dellwood.” (Barlow rattles off exact street addresses to blighted properties with no problem.)
Glass crumples under Barlow’s dress shoes as he walks the property. A photographer looks at the back of a door, where a warning is issued: This is where the Gangster Disciples meet.
Barlow and NPI would love to get involved here. They’re just sizing it up now; a couple of groups have already tried to fight it.
“They community deserves better than this,” Barlow says, as he drives away down a tree-lined street of ranch homes.
But how to fix it, when property laws are built around the fundamental theory that property has value? What if that property doesn’t have value?
In addition to the Neighborhood Preservation Act, plenty of work has been done to tweak state laws to better allow for the fight against blight. Just this spring, the state legislature approved shrinking the time delinquent taxpayers have to redeem their properties once they go into a tax sale. The bill passed the Senate 31-0; the House 91-0.
Local elected officials have long pushed for changes in state law, but it’s a primary focus of those at the Chamber’s Chairman’s Circle, who have identified blight remediation as a key part of the “Clean by 2019” moon mission.
“Blight is the one consensus issue it seems where everybody is on board and wants to make some progress on it,” said Kelly Rayne, a senior vice president of the Greater Memphis Chamber.
Progress that will, undoubtedly, continue to involve Barlow and NPI.
NPI — and the blight issue as a whole — continues to explore what its version 2.0 will look like. Perhaps the awareness box has been checked. Perhaps the business community is on board. Perhaps the politicians are, too.
So what’s next? Barlow wants a fast-track foreclosure law, allowing foreclosed and abandoned property to quickly be placed at tax sale. NPI is exploring a land reutilization corporation, modeled after one in Cleveland, that’s sort of a land bank on steroids.
Ultimately, though, there’s a basic, vexing issue: Where’s the market for rehabbed properties?
Even when there are success stories with removing a blighted property, they aren’t always met with attractive next steps. If a torn-down house turns to a weedy lot, has there really been much progress?
“That’s the thing: Nobody’s coming up with answers to some of these properties,” Barlow said, as he meandered through some of the streets north of Poplar, near Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, where NPI efforts have led to some of those lots. “People are just saying ‘There’s nothing we can do’ and accept that.
“And I guess NPI is trying to say, ‘We’re not accepting that answer.’ We’re going to say if we have to change a law, change a law. Change a policy? Change a policy. Don’t just accept that there’s no answer and we have to live with this.”
This article appeared in the August 7, 2015 edition of the Commercial Appeal.