Behind the Headlines – July 14, 2017

Behind the Headlines – July 14, 2017


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by
the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund,
and by viewers like you. Thank you. – The cause and solutions
to neighborhood blight, tonight on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, Publisher
of The Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight
by Brittany Williams, she’s neighborhood
preservation fellow with the city of Memphis and
the University of Memphis. Thanks for being here. – Thank you. – (Eric)
Christopher Blank is News Director with WKNO FM. Thank you for being here. – Thanks. – (Eric)
Janet Boscarino is Executive Director
with Clean Memphis. Thanks for being here. – Thank you. – And Bill Dries is
Senior Reporter with The Memphis Daily News. So, I’m gonna start with
you again, Brittany. You’ve got a kind of
complicated but really interesting role, in terms
of being at the U of M Law School, technically, and
working with Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. an
independent non-profit that was set up some years ago, also funded by the city
of Memphis, I think. What are some of the
priorities for you and the people you work with,
in terms of tackling blight? – So, with my position at
the University of Memphis as the Neighborhood
Preservation fellow, one of our key concerns
is the litigation part of tackling blight. So, we represent the
city in a lot of their blight related cases. – And there have been over
1,000 cases, is that correct? – That’s correct. – (Eric)
As of 2015, I think I saw, that you broke 1,000. – Yeah, in 2015 we broke 1,000. – And give an example of what
these kind of cases might be, on the big scale and
on the small scale. – So, on the big scale,
we mostly deal with vacant and abandoned houses. – (Eric)
And trying to track down who the owners are. – Who the owners are and
then bring them to court to hold them accountable
for their properties and to remediate the house. So, to fix it all the
way up or demolish it. – Yeah, and we’ll come
back to more of that. But Christopher, you
did a series last year, award winning series, five
part series on WKNO FM, that talked about
blight in Memphis. Talk a bit about that
series and what you learned, and then we’ll get
back to these folks and how blight is being tackled. – Well, I pretty much
learned everything there is to know about blight. But I would say the series
originated from two angles. First angle was that, as a
former arts reporter for a newspaper, I like
aesthetic issues. And blight is interesting
because it’s an aesthetic issue, really, something for
the eyes that has an enormous impact on society. And, you know, when we
talk about how a city looks and the cost of
cleaning up stuff, we often don’t think
of that as a priority. Having a beautiful city,
we don’t think of it as a priority until you
start to look at how blight effects everything from health,
to the economy, to poverty. And then the second
thing I found interesting and why I got into
this story was a woman named Janine Heiner
Buchanan and from Safeways, I was talking to her
and she said one day, “Listen, I can tell you
where crime is gonna happen “in this city, and I can
tell you where there’s gonna be a spike
in local crime.” And I said, “How
can you tell that?” Do you have some sort
of… are you a savant? And she said, “No, I
just have eyeballs.” And I can look around
places in the city and I can tell you
where crime is happening by the amount of blight that
is being created in an area. I can show you gang graffiti,
and that graffiti is an indicator that crime will
be going up in that area. Wherever you see
neglect in the city, those are places where bad
things start to happen. – Yeah, and Janet,
I saw you nodding as Christopher’s talking. And your group has worked
to clean up neighborhoods, and rally volunteers, work
at the business community, schools, talk a little
bit about what you do and how that relates
to some of the things that Christopher said, because
it is an aesthetic issue. No one likes to look
at an ugly property, but there are
economic ramifications, there are public safety
ramifications, and on and on. – All of those, so in our
work with neighborhoods, what we try to do is work
with them to identify and address the particular
blight issue in their community. Whether that be litter
in some neighborhoods, but a lot of that is really
related to blight properties, whether they’re vacant
or they are properties that are just not being
maintained to a certain level. So, you’re absolutely
right, if it’s a vacant and abandoned property
with gang graffiti, more often than not,
the neighborhood knows. There’s traffic going in
and out of that house, a lot of that times they’re
storing stolen goods in that house, so you
have the crime issue, and then you have all
the surrounding homes that are depreciating
in value because this particular property
is pulling the value down. So, what we do is to identify, we do a lot of
work actually with Neighborhood Preservation,
Inc. and identifying those properties, reporting
those to code enforcement. In some cases you can identify
who those property owners are and bring them into
environmental court. In other cases,
then it has to be referred to NPA for a lawsuit. So, really it’s working
with the neighborhoods to identify their blight and
to, then, sort of triage the approach to it,
what has to be a case, what has to be code enforcement, and then how can the
neighborhood come together to address some of
those issues themselves. – Bill. – So, Janet, in this work
of identifying blight and identifying what might be
the problems going into this, are we winning, or losing,
or is this kind of static at this point, after
all of the effort that we’ve devoted to it? – So, I think we’re winning
in terms of understanding what we’re dealing with
and having actual data to drive what we’re doing,
it’s just that it’s a marathon, for sure. It’s not an easy fix,
it’s not an overnight fix. So, we’ve had many, many
factors that have contributed to the blight situation
we have in Memphis, with the housing market,
with predatory lending, with disinvestment urban core, all of these things
combining to create a pretty overwhelming situation. But I do think we are
winning, in terms of having, now the policy map, which
Brittany could probably speak to a little bit more than I can,
but housing all of this data to help us drive decisions
that we’re making. So, in that sense, we also
have more engagement now than I feel like we’ve had. I started Clean Memphis,
will be 10 years next year, and we can’t keep up with
the amount of neighborhood people that wanna be involved, that are calling to be engaged, they’re wanting to
address these issues, the number of businesses,
the number of schools. So, there’s definitely more
interest and engagement to be involved and become
part of the strategy and solution for these issues. – So, once you go
into an area and you do an initial cleanup,
what happens after that? Do you identify the properties
that you might wade into before that happens or
once you’ve got kind of a better sorted out canvas? – Sure, so the first thing that
most neighborhoods wanna do is do a cleanup project
because it’s the easiest entry point for them. That is something they can do, it’s something very
tangible for them to do. So, we work with them to
organize quarterly cleanup projects, especially in
target areas that they know are problematic. And they work to adopt
areas where they have more routine, monthly, sort
of cleanup projects. But alongside that is
where we work on pulling and addressing, identifying
the specific blight issues. So, then it maybe
some education, maybe you have people that
are living in the neighborhood that are letting, you
know, they have their cars parked in the grass. They have all of these
different code issues, they’re not necessarily
negligent property owners, they may just not understand
what the code violations are. So, we’ll work with
the neighborhood to do educational outreach with
them, helping them understand what the top 10 code
enforcements are, try to bring them into the fold, help them understand how this
improves all the property values and safety
in the neighborhood, if we all comply
with these rules. And then, for the other
ones, we try to offer them an opportunity to be onboard
with the neighborhood, and if that doesn’t come,
if they don’t come around, then we wanna bring the hammer
down in code enforcement. So, we have an
ongoing property list, and I can also mention here
there are organizations called Police Joint
Agencies, PJA’s. There are 11 of those
around the city and they pretty much
cover the whole city, and those are neighborhood
led and neighborhood driven, and essentially they
may, once a month, they have a running list
of blight and crime issues. And at the table you find
MPD, the sheriff’s department, city code, county code,
the health department, and everybody’s working
together on a strategy to address these,
whether it’s citing them and getting them into
environmental court, or if it’s an elderly person,
a lot of times we receive referrals from Judge Potter
that our elderly people or veterans who just
simply are not financially or physically able to bring
properties in compliance. So, we’ll work with
volunteers to sort of bring those together. – Brittany, give me an
idea of the legal thicket that you and the
other fellows deal with once this hits the legal arena? – So, we get our referrals
from Code Enforcement. And by the time we
get the referrals, it’s because they have
not been able to get compliance on their part, through Code
Enforcement actions. The, I guess, major issues
or challenges that we come into contact with is
property owners who have left their property and
moved out of state, with the housing market crisis. Then we have a lot of
properties owned by corporations or defunct LLC’s, and then
we have a lot of airship issues with properties, you
know, properties owned by people who are now
deceased and no one’s ever gone into change title
or do anything like that. So, a lot of times we’re
contacting people and they don’t realize
that they actually own their grandmother’s property. – And what can happen
there, if I’m not mistaken, because we’ve written about
it, and Christopher’s story, and so on, the house is
worth a whole lot less because it’s been
abandoned or abused, than what might be owed in
taxes or other things, right? – (Brittany)
That’s correct. – So, legally, if this
has happened, I mean, what do you do then? You say too bad,
you owe those taxes, you need to take care of this? Is that part of dropping
the hammer, as Janet said. – Well, a lot of it
is educating people, one, that okay, this is
now your responsibility. We are citing this
property to court and someone has to take
responsibility for it. We do have measures that
we go through in court, where later on down the line, there could be a
receiver appointed, or someone to come in
and rehab the property, and the cost of that
rehab will be placed as a lien on the property. So, they are longterm
end goal solutions, but in the beginning we
try to work with people. A lot of times, people want
to save their grandmother’s property, they just did not know it was their responsibility. – Do you see things in
the system that maybe can be done better or that
over time you could work to kind of change? To make this a fair process
because we are talking about someone’s property,
but also to try to get things done at the same time. – Right, I do there
are solutions for that, and I think we’re doing it now. A lot of things,
from the partnerships that we have created, working with the county,
working with other city departments, working
with Clean Memphis, and other organizations, they have the contact
in the community, so they help us educate people. There also needs to be
some change in legislation, and I think a lot of people
are working on that as well. – What would some
of those changes be? Because you work
with Steve Barlow, who’s been on the show
a number of times, and that has fought this
fight for a long time. And other folks who have
been engaged in this. Some changes have been
made at the state level, some, you are still
gonna be working on. What are some of
your priorities for the next legislative session? – Well, I know a couple
of our concerns is with out of town LLC’s, and trying
to hold them accountable to the properties that
they own in Memphis. So, we’re trying, I
believe people are working on a type of legislation
for that, as well. – In the past, your
group, Steve Barlow, we’ve had him on and the
County Trustee, for instance. The redemption, not to
get too in the weeds here, but it is Behind the Headlines, the redemption period,
when taxes would go unpaid at the city and county level, and then the county seizes
it and puts it up for sale, well, the prior owner,
and somebody buys it out of the tax sale, it used
to be there’s a whole year, if not more, I think
it was a full year, that the property owner
could come out of nowhere and say, “No, I want
that property back.” Now that redemption
period, as they call it, is much shorter. – It’s a sliding scale. – It’s a sliding scale,
if the house has been, taxes haven’t been paid
for five or plus years, it’s easier to turn
that house around. – Right, it’s like
a 90 day or so. – And again, these are
like the small things. But I’ll turn back to,
let’s go to Christopher. I mean, these are the
small things that people have fought for
and talked about, we need these tools,
these legal tools, to try and fix this problem, and it does come down
to house by house, property by property,
owner by owner. – Right, and I actually
talked to the Mayor about this a little while ago, and
they said that they do have a comprehensive
legislation that they wanna run through Nashville. They didn’t wanna put it
through piecemeal last session, so they were gonna save
it until next session so they could really make
a good case up there. But the United States
is about property, about property ownership,
and so property owners are well protected
by the government. And so, creating state
laws, or even city laws or ordinances, that take
property from people, even negligent people,
that’s one of those fights that you have to fight. But on the other
hand, we have kind of, it’s just not a property
and a blight problem, but it’s also a humanitarian
crisis in Memphis. And if you think about
that we have 9,500 vacant or abandoned homes, but
about 4,500 duplexes or apartment complexes
that are also abandoned. If you go pay a visit to some
of these apartment complexes, they are very large places, and they look like
something you would see in the Mayan jungle, as
far as being overgrown. Some of those apartment
complexes that are slipping down the tubes, people
live in those places. And we’re talking about
people living in housing that have holes in the roof,
or potholes in the roads, the fire department can’t
get into their areas. These are people that are
gonna be without housing if something happens to
that apartment complex. So, it’s a crisis of
enormous proportions, moving people around and
dealing with all kinds of other issues. You know, one issue, when we
talked about the environmental issue earlier, is a lot of
these abandoned apartment complexes become dumping
grounds for tires, for example. Tires breed mosquitoes, West
Nile Virus comes to Memphis, that’s a perfect spot
for a West Nile outbreak. So, you have to think of
all these different levels of things, which is why the
Blight Elimination Charter was created, to bring so
many different entities together to deal with the
situation through and through. – Yeah, and Christopher,
to you, Janet, Christopher brings up
the apartment complexes. When you’re talking, you know,
I’ve heard you talk before about going through
neighborhoods and you’ve got people who live in a
single family home, and they’re either volunteering
or they see the volunteers go through and clean these
up, and they’ll come out and say, you know, I’m gonna
be part of this because this is my little home and
this is my neighborhood. Not to stereotype, but
at best to generalize, with apartment communities,
and the stereotype is that those people aren’t as
connected to their neighborhood. – (Janet)
Correct. – So, is the approach for
you, in terms of working with apartment complexes,
working to clean those up, to do education, do
outreach, is it different? I mean, are apartments
more transitory? Are the ownership of them
might be very far removed from the reality, as
Christopher described, of the state of those
apartment complexes? – Sure, so, I think what
you have is with tenants in the apartment complex,
and we’ve done some work with CPTED, with
Janine Heiner, as well, Janine Heiner Buchanan. Because they are more
transient, and they also look at the grounds as
something maintained by the apartment complex. They’re disconnected from any
kind of real responsibility. So, we have done some
programming to engage residents, and did environmental education, and that’s worked to some
degree but apartments are a very, very different animal, it’s where you see a majority
of crime in neighborhoods. And all of those
things work together. So, it’s a complicated issue,
especially apartment complexes where you have very low, your
occupancy levels are very low, and they’re all over. I’m thinking some off
of Winchester that we’ve been kind of
working on the E team, looking at those apartments
and what to do with them. Half of them are boarded,
you have probably less than 50% occupancy, it
would be best if everyone moves somewhere else and
you have another strategy for that area, so
it’s very complicated. – Yeah, we had some of
the housing people on, what, two weeks ago now, Bill. And it was fascinating,
and them, you know, Paul Young from the Housing
Community Development and MHA, and it intersects with some
of what you’re talking about. And I am curious,
you said 10 years you’ve done Clean Memphis. Recently there was the
blight summit that, Neighborhood
Preservation put on I assume you were at the
blight, I couldn’t be there. Was that heartening to
see more and more groups coming together, more people
engaging on the issue? I mean, does it go back to
what you were saying earlier about there’s progress
but it’s a marathon, not a bunch of quick wins. – It absolutely is to me
because when we first started Clean Memphis, you know,
there were people involved in this work but not to the
level that there is now. And sort of to
Christopher’s point, too, there are psychological
implications to this work, or to this issue, and also,
when you’re looking at people in housing, in
different housing situations, they are effect, I mean,
we really created a culture of where slumlords
can sort of exist. And people don’t
have a place to go. So, the very people we’re trying
to hammer code enforcement on to bring their
properties up to standard, if they just decide not
to do that and abandon that property, these
homeowners have, or these renters have
nowhere else to go. They either have credit
issues or other things, so there’s a really
fine line looking at all of these different
issues, but definitely, seeing the Blight
Elimination Steering team, we have much more
expertise at the table to address some of these issues. – Yeah, all right Bill,
about eight minutes left. – What’s the state of the
database that we’ve heard so much about, Brittany, at NPI? Where are you with that, because that’s an
enormous undertaking? – So, the database is
the Memphis Property Hub and right now we
got GIS mapping, so we’re able to do that
and we’re still trying to collect data from
different agencies, make it to us on
a regular basis. We have data from
Code Enforcement, the Registrar’s Office,
Trustee’s Office, and things like that. So, right now it’s
pretty interactive, you can log on, map a
couple of properties, you can create an outline,
you can analyze different data when using the Property Hub. So, I think we’re
in a good place, but we definitely
have a ways to go. – Do people use the large
physical area that we have as a way to kind of hide
or forget about properties that they have here? – (Eric)
Just the size of Memphis. – Yeah, just the square
miles that we have here, and our lack of density,
is that something that makes this problem worse? – I think so, I mean,
certainly since we have a lot of population loss
in the core of our city, those houses where people moved
from, they’re still there, the physical structures
are still there. And I think that’s what we’re
dealing with a lot of today. – Do you all work
with Memphis 3.0? We’ve done shows on that, which
is this effort by the city to bring people together
and sort of say, look, how do we target areas
for better transportation, different land use, and so on? It comes into half empty homes, I mean, half empty
apartment complexes, empty neighborhoods and so on. – So, with the Blight
Elimination Steering Team, we serve as the blight
piece of the Memphis 3.0, so advising in that capacity, and then I’m co-chairing
the Conservation Sustainability piece
for Memphis 3.0. So, there’s a lot of
interaction and the same people involved and having
those conversations. – (Christopher)
Can I add something? – (Eric)
Yeah, please. – One of the reasons
we’re talking about blight in such a big way today is
because when the housing bubble crashed in 2007,
it was no longer just houses in urban areas
that were blighted, suddenly there was blight
and abandonment all over the place in the suburbs. And as soon as the blight and
the crime started to go up in suburban areas, areas
where the houses were very nicely maintained until people
could no longer afford them, that’s really kind of
what brought so many different elements
together because suddenly it wasn’t just an urban problem, it was a suburban
problem as well. – Right, and you also saw on
that, and I remember the city of Bartlett, I think it
was the city of Bartlett, for a time, and they
may still do this, they would look at, okay,
homes going into foreclosure and say we need to watch
that, and we need, as a city, it’s worth us sending our
crew out to mow the lawns and keep the house up
because they knew once, if that house goes
into foreclosure, it becomes abandoned, it becomes blighted, it’s
gonna bring down the property values of the homes around it. Bartlett could maybe do
that, as a smaller suburban community, how much
of that can reasonably happen in the city? I mean, you know,
I’m sure Jim Strickland and the city council would
love to take care of that, but they have a long
list of priorities. – So, yeah, with the
number of vacant properties that are out there, I
think the county has over 7,500 that they try to attempt
to mow several times a year. So, it’s very difficult. – That’s a two million
dollar blight undertaking just for the property
that the county takes back and the tax, for taxes.
– Exactly. We’ve looked
at a zone strategy that we’ve looked at
for Clean Memphis and what Memphis Clean by
2019 is looking at, so we divided the
city into 28 zones so that you can sort of
take this big elephant and break it down
into bite size pieces. Now, let’s look at
this particular zone, who’s in the zone doing work, how can we engage them
at a higher level, what are our blight issues,
what are our vacant lot issues, what kind of strategies
can we employ to address these issues? Because it’s very hard
to do on this large scale of the entire city. – I’ve heard you talk
before about working with schools and programs. Talk about that, I
mean, engaging kids and some of the things
you do with them, which I guess, I assume, again
I’ve heard you talk about it, is probably just to educate
them on things they can do and choices they can
make, and hope to longterm change people’s attitude
about litter and so on. – Well, from a litter
standpoint, the research shows that the primary litter
age is between 14 and 26. So, our goal, really, is to
raise a generation of kids who better understand how to
interact with their environment and our ground and in
civic responsibility. So, we have an education
team and they work in schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, and they look at broader
and dominant issues. So, not only litter
abatement, water shed health, where we get our drinking
water from, recycling, energy conservation,
pretty broad environmental stem based in
environmental education, all tied to their standards. So, our goal is to touch
those kids throughout their entire time in school. So, every grade we’re attempting
to be engaged with them. We set up a sustainability
certification for schools, and they work towards these
sustainability measures. So, for us, it’s important
because that’s how you change the trajectory,
more accountability. – And, Christopher,
again, back to your story, which is on, is it on
the WKNO FM website? – Yeah, yeah, mmm-hmm. – (Eric)
And the title of the series? – City of Grit. – City of Grit. – Yeah. – Again, some of the hopeful
things you saw in that? – Well, some of
the hopeful things, there’s an interesting
correlation between what happened in 1930 when
Boss Crump created The City Beautiful Commission,
to clean up the city. And the way he did this was
by getting so many different organizations to join forces and work on these neighborhoods. And it’s what the city needed. The city absolutely
needed to join forces, especially in the
collection of data. And they sort of, they
know the importance of it, but one of the great things
about the data collection that has happened in
the past couple years is it so, it draws from so
many different sources that you can now predict where blight
is going to be forming. They couldn’t do this before. They can now look at bank
information and housing prices, and things like that,
put them all together and figure out where
it’s gonna be happening. Prevention is the
best cure in Memphis, and it’s something
that they’ve realized in the past few years. And I think that’s one of
the things that the city is working much harder on doing, preventing it before
it even starts. – Yeah, and just with
a minute left here, I wanna come back
to you, Brittany. You are part, we tried to
describe the complicated, it’s not that complicated,
but complicated relationship, at U of M and the city, but you’re a law graduate from
the University of Memphis. – (Brittany)
Yes. – And part of the clinic
there, is that right? Talk about what the
students of U of M are doing on this issue because
Steve Barlow, for years, was sort of fighting this alone. I mean, we had him on
the show or I’d see him, and he and a handful of people, but he tapped into
law students and recent graduates of U
of M to kind of expand his ability to take people
to court on these issues. Talk a little bit
about the clinic. – All right, so, Steve
Barlow’s the co-director of the clinic, he co-directs
it with Danny Schaffzin, he’s a professor
at the law school. And each semester, the clinic
takes on about eight students, law students, they’re
usually in their second or third year, and they
help us litigate the cases. So they represent the city
of Memphis in these cases against owners of vacant
and abandoned houses. – And did you do that before
you graduated from law school? – (Brittany)
Yes. – Was that kind of how you got
connected to the whole thing? – (Brittany)
Yes. – Will you stay in this,
I’m kind of curious? – I hope to, I really
enjoy what I do, I really think it
affects the community and I think we’re going in
a good place, so I hope to. – Okay, and just
with 20 seconds left, if the city, or the county,
or the state legislature could do one thing,
two things, whatever, what would they do? – Wow, that’s a quick one. So, for immediate need
for neighborhoods, we’re looking at a nuisance
abatement ordinance, and that’s what we’re
working, it would allow people in their neighborhoods to
address blighted properties and not be considered
trespassing. They can go on and
mitigate the blight if they can’t track
people around. – (Eric)
Mow the lawn themselves. – Yes, absolutely. – (Eric)
Get rid of some of the trash themselves, and so on. – In the short term, that
would be very beneficial for neighborhoods. – All right, well thank you, and thank you all
for joining us. Thank you for joining
us, once again next week. Goodnight. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chord]

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