Memphis pulls together public, private partners to tackle blight through the courts

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by KATE COIL

TML Communications Specialist

To deal with the ongoing issues of blight in the community, the city of Memphis has partnered with Shelby County, the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, and several nonprofits and community-based organizations for a multi-faceted approach to blight removal through the court system.

Both the city of Memphis and Shelby County support an environmental court made possible through the Tennessee General Assembly in 1991 and able to prosecute properties found to be in violation of the state’s Neighborhood Preservation of 2007.

Video courtesy of WREG-TV, channel 3 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Those working with the Memphis and Shelby County Environmental Court and as part of the greater blight removal initiative in the city addressed the Tennessee Municipal League during a panel presentation at the annual conference in Memphis.

Steve Barlow is a partner in the Memphis-based firm Brewer & Barlow PLC and a staff attorney for the city of Memphis who previously served as the president and director of the nonprofit Memphis’ Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. Barlow splits his time between handling public nuisance litigation in the Memphis-Shelby County Environmental Court and the nonprofit to deal with the community’s blight issues.

“Neighborhood Preservation was born to be a policy organization and to create policy informed by action,” Barlow said. “The organization does some neighborhood revitalization programs and a lot of policy work at the local and state level. We have worked a lot with the city of Memphis, the county, and the state legislature to face the challenges in our community. The policy issues we focus on include tax foreclosure, code enforcement, property maintenance, and also what we call land banking. The state law now authorizes the formation of land banks across the state. When you form these land banks you get a little bit of a special ability to bring together and address them in a sort-of quasi-governmental way.”

Barlow said much of the blight issues the city faces began with the foreclosure crisis created by the subprime mortgage crisis around the time the Great Recession began.

“Here in Memphis, we have a lot of bank-owned properties,” he said. “One of the challenges we face is that, as a result of the foreclosure crisis, we have a lot of properties that were once homeowner-occupied that have since become rental properties. The banks that foreclosed on these homes sold them – often in bulk – to an investor who is often out-of-town and even out-of-country landlord.”

The city and surrounding areas soon realized that legal actions were often their only recourse with these landlords.

“We’ve had a very intentional, focused, coordinated effort to deal with the large scale of vacant and abandoned property in our community,” he said. “We are encouraged that we have had some success, though we are certainly not there. We do believe that with taking a legal, coordinated approach that includes city and county officials – regardless of administration or who gets alleged. We think that coordinated effort is the secret to this challenge.”

Most of those legal challenges wind up in the court of Shelby County Environmental Court Judge Patrick Dandridge. Before being elected as judge, Dandridge served as director of the city of Memphis’ code operations and as a city attorney who handled condemnation cases and advised the code department before coming to the bench. He filed the first 135 lawsuits under the city’s Neighborhood Preservation Act.

Dandridge said that one of his first responsibilities was finding a way to ensure that blight issues were being handled in a timely manner by the city.

“You can’t fix the system if there is no system,” he said. “One of the things we looked at was how codes enforcement was operating in Memphis and in Shelby County. We found there was really no system. Things were different all over the place. It was difficult to get a grasp of what was really going on. There was no one keeping track of response time or even if there had been a response. What we have now is a service request system.”

Dandridge said the process of prosecuting blight issues begins when a local citizen calls into 311 to report an issue ranging from junk in yards to dilapidated structures to cars parked on the grass.

“The call is then given a service request number that you can track,” he said. “The service request goes to whichever department is responsible for enforcing that violation. The service request is put into a queue for the individual inspector who then writes it up.”

The case is helped along by students in a legal clinic at the University of Memphis Cecil H. Humphrey’s School of Law. Brittany Williams, code enforcement prosecutor for the city of Memphis, advised code enforcement and public works and supervised in the University of Memphis’ Neighborhood Preservation Law Clinic. Williams also serves as a member of the city’s Blight Eliminating Steering Committee.

Williams said one of the first complicated legal issues that usually arises with a blighted property is tracking down the owner.

“There are title issues, issues with receivership, and even heir property that can take you into family law and contract law,” she said. “One of the major tools that we use for blight remediation is the Neighborhood Preservation Act. This is a state statute that only applies to certain communities or you can set a land bank. The jurisdiction is under chancery court, circuit court, and environmental courts.”

Williams said the cases only appear before the court if there is no attempt made to remedy reported issues.

“Our cases come only when there has been non-compliance with code enforcement efforts,” she said. “Once we step in and receive a referral from the area inspector, a lawsuit is filed. After that, we send out our own inspectors who handle only Neighborhood Preservation Act cases.”

Williams said lawsuits are filed against the property itself rather than the owner or occupant. A plan is then drawn up to help get the property into compliance and inspectors present regular status reports on whether or not this plan is being filed. All of this is reported through the court system.

Danny Schaffzin, director of experimental learning and assistant professor of law at the University of Memphis, said taking an “address by address” approach to the problem with the legal clinic has shown success.

“There isn’t a single one of these properties that can be solved by one institution or one agency doing all the work,” Schaffzin said. “There needs to be collaboration because of the legal nature of the problem. It’s not as easy as getting someone to fix a property or tear it down. When you scratch the surface, you often find that the property is owned by someone who died 50 years ago or a company that is nowhere near Memphis or Tennessee or the United States or that doesn’t even exist anymore.”

As a result, Schaffzin said it can be a challenge to hold the owner of the property responsible for its condition.

“Often times, it involves creative solutions and legal problem solvers,” Schaffzin said. “These properties often acquire individualized attention and have to be dealt with on a micro level in terms of these issues but also on a macro level in terms of bringing together various teams from different groups to create new strategies and evolving them, to see what is working or not working.”

Dandridge said the fact that he has worked with both the city and county helps him to employ knowledge of the laws and issues for both when ruling on blight cases.
“There are some zoning issues that are part of the city and the county code,” he said. “I have been the neutralizing person bringing everyone together. Sometimes, I introduce city and county officials in court because their issues overlap so much. I also know the difference between city and county codes and boundaries. We also have in this court injunctive relief and contempt powers.”

The unique powers of the court are one of the ways Dandridge said the joint environmental court is able to put more teeth into blight regulations and enforcement.
“This is a special and unique court,” he said. “When you are in violation and you don’t come in for proceedings, I can have contempt violations ordered. That can include jail time in addition to fines.”

Schaffzin said having one court to handle all of the blight issues has made a real difference.

“We have noticed the importance of having a devoted court, one court, where all these issues come,” he said. “There is one court that is the source of all the jurisprudence in this area. By having one court instead of the cases going to different places, it has been a game changer.”

Williams said the law clinic, municipal officials, and nonprofits like Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., also frequently work with small or locally-based developers on how to get properties into shape as well as try to get the local neighborhood and community involved in the process.

“You can get a total rehabilitation of the property,” she said. “Sometimes there is demolition, which we often have the city do with costs paid for by the owner. Then there is receivership where a third party comes in and abates the property. This only happens when the owner is unable to abate the nuisance of the property. The receiver can rehab the property and then ask the court to auction the property to earn back their fees.”

Dandridge said the city has a system where they budget $25 million a year to demolish dangerous properties. The city sets the price for the demolition and rotates through a list of available contractors until they find one willing to demolish the structure for the city’s set price.

Overall, Barlow said that blighted properties do not have a one-size-fits-all solution.

“I think it is important to think about what kind of a challenge property blight is,” he said. “There is a school of thought about how you approach different kinds of challenges. A technical challenge is the type of challenge where you can call up an expert, they can fix it, you write them a check, and it’s done. A lot of us wish there was a technical answer to blight, but there is no such thing. Blight is an adaptive challenge, which means we have to bring people together in ways we’ve never done before and talk about the problem in ways we’ve never done before.”

Schaffzin said the unique partnership formed in Memphis is solving blight issues by bringing together various groups that have the same interest in improving the community.
“Here you have a problem that everyone agrees is a problem,” he said. “These are problems in not just how they look but in terms of the damage they cause to our neighborhoods, our citizens, and our bottom lines when it comes to property taxes and extended resources. We found that involving partners who we don’t always partner together really works. We found that supporting code enforcement at a local level, a property-to-property level was really working.”

While bringing various stakeholders together has helped tackle blight issues in the greater Memphis area, Schaffzin said there are still some challenges the city faces when it comes to blight enforcement.

“However, money and resources was always a challenge,” he said. “Our partnership with the city is just that: a partnership. In general, my clinic does not represent municipalities, but here this is a way that works to benefit the community. Our newspapers write positive stories about the blight issues and the challenges we have overcome. It has been a win all around for our city and our law school.”

To learn more about how Memphis has tackled its blight problem, visit the Memphis Blight Steering Committee’s website at memphisfightsblight.com.