Neighborhood Preservation working to remedy blight in Memphis
By Madeline Faber
Memphis has a crippling issue with blight, and one nonprofit is front and center with changing the culture that led to the city’s inundation of abandoned properties and lots.
Neighborhood Preservation Inc. was founded in 2012 as a court-appointed receiver of properties taken away from neglectful owners. Over the years, it has evolved to become a robust advocate for stronger legislation and development tools to deal with problem properties.
“As we looked at trying to do what we were created to do, we ran into obstacles to what the legislative process would allow and what the state would allow,” said Archie Willis, president of Community Capital and recent partner and early board member of NPI. “We came to the conclusion that being a receiver is something that is needed, but there’s a whole lot more that has to be done.”
NPI deals with intractable problem properties: buildings that have lingered for a long time, bear a complex tax structure or possess other long-term challenges. This kind of work comes naturally to NPI leader Steve Barlow, one of the city’s top blight fighters. As a part-time attorney for the city of Memphis, he goes after property neglect and code enforcement cases in Environmental Court.
One of those problem properties under scrutiny is Foote Homes, Memphis’ last large public-housing development. Attention to demolishing the property goes back to Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s administration, and more recently in securing a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Memphis currently is in a pool of nine cities competing for one of five federal grants to be announced in September.
The grant could be the catalyst for improving Foote Homes and the greater South City – previously dubbed Triangle Noir and Heritage Trail – neighborhood. If the Memphis Housing Authority secures the funding, Community Capital will be a local partner, alongside national developer McCormack Baron Salazar, in redeveloping the area. Plans include 470 units to replace Foote Homes, a grocery store and an early-childhood learning center. Another 300 multifamily units would be developed within the South City boundaries.
NPI will have a significant role in the project and remedying blight throughout the area, Willis said.
“NPI will be critical in gaining control and gaining interest and making those properties available to an organization that might be able to be make it productive,” he said.
The piece-by-piece development work is still relatively exploratory for NPI, which has worked to mend the legislative foundation so that problem properties stop slipping through the cracks.
“I think the core work of NPI is to strengthen the field in terms of strategies, policies and approaches to addressing problem properties,” Barlow said. “The main goal isn’t to be a player in every problem property transaction but to support the other efforts in the community and work towards a cohesion and a collaborative sort of mindset between public sector, private sector and nonprofit communities.”
NPI is working to establish a land reutilization corporation for Memphis. The proposed corporation would pursue titles in high-blight areas. It would pull together land from many sources with the aim of redevelopment through a public/private partnership with groups like Community Capital.
“There’s no entity currently that can take property from anybody who’s willing to sign it over to the entity and hold it tax free while working on a long-term development strategy for the property,” Barlow said.
Barlow also is working to close the three-year gap on the redemption period after tax sale. In the upcoming state legislative session, NPI is supporting a bill that would allow an alternative process for tax foreclosure.
“By having a land reutilization corporation locally that’s Memphis-owned and Memphis-controlled and by mending the tax foreclosure law to allow for a faster track, you kind of cover both sides,” he said. “You make it possible for property owners to give it up and make it possible for someone to take it.”
Barlow applauds the city for its recent efforts in blight remediation – the Greater Memphis Chamber’s “Clean by 2018” moon mission regularly collaborates with NPI, and Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration has spearheaded several efforts this year – but he says that the full extent of the problem hasn’t yet been diagnosed.
Therefore, he’s working with the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team to gather complete data on Memphis’ blight problem. The best figure is 10,000 abandoned single-family homes and 3,000 multifamily units based on long-term vacancy filings with Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division. This figure is several years old and doesn’t encompass the commercial or industrial side.
He’s also working closely in a transformation of the Memphis Code Enforcement System. With leadership from consulting group LeanFirm, a streamlined code enforcement system will increase its capacity by 25 percent and recover $2.5 million in annual service costs.
“We’re trying to raise the level of the dialogue,” Barlow said. “Where the private sector won’t and the government can’t, that’s where NPI is trying to come in and say, ‘But somebody has to do something about it.’”
This article originally appeared in the Tuesday, August 18, 2015 edition of the Memphis Daily News.