January 25, 2016; Next City

“Pockets of urban decay fester like bad teeth in some otherwise healthy—some say even dynamic—areas. Some pockets are big, of course, sometimes covering streets or blocks. Some are smaller, narrowed to one lot.”

This is the way that Toby Sells of NextCity.org describes the blight in Memphis. Within the Memphis city limits, there are more than 53,000 vacant properties, and since vacancies are the leading cause of blight, the city is plagued by the problem. Approximately nine percent of the county’s parcels of land have not had taxes paid on them for three to four years.

This, and the sudden availability of $7 million in federal funds (unfortunately dubbed “free money” by one city councilman) through the Tennessee Housing and Development Authority, has led to the establishment of a new nonprofit land bank called the Blight Authority of Memphis, or BAM. The organization was established with a resolution from the Memphis city council, and the first meeting of its nine-member board was held last Thursday.

There is, as we mentioned above, no doubt that the money is needed to address the scale and realm of the problem. (In fact, far more money is needed than would be available even if Memphis were to get the entire pool.) This particular money appears to provide for more flexibility than existing land banks in the area, but the effort would require a collective lift between nonprofits and the city and county. Our experience is that when entities collaborate only in response to the presence of money—and precious little money at that—that the effort can easily be run off track. But if it is one more tool in the collective box of already tight or potentially tight collaborators, there may be significant value added.

“This is an area where there is not a clear leader to take title to properties that nobody wants, to assemble land that’s not just taken in tax sale, to help build on what the county land bank can do, to bring it to a new level of community development,” Steve Barlow, a board member of BAM and the director of Neighborhood Preservation, said.

The city and county do have a big stake in eliminating blight. Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir says that delinquent taxes cost taxpayers around $35 million each year.

“Clearly there are other social and community issues related to blight, but purely from an economic perspective, there’s no doubt it is a drain on our resources,” Lenoir said. “We pay higher taxes across the county because of the blight in our community. The property value impact that it has on surrounding properties has a direct impact on our county revenues.”

And so do nonprofits. Brandon Gaitor of Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., says that the problem of blight in Shelby County is “truly huge.”

“People haven’t yet solidified how big it really is,” Gaitor said. “They think we’re treating minor scratches, when we’re really treating fatal wounds.”—Ruth McCambridge