A vacant lot in South Memphis.
From a vacant lot in South Memphis, Frederick Anderson can be seen standing on his porch on Saturday. A boarded house and the lot are across the street. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

Empty lots flank Tyrone London’s grandmother’s home on Dempster Street in South Memphis, and another sits across the street like an unwelcome mat. London stops by regularly to visit his grandmother, who is in hospice care, and can’t miss seeing the potential in the unused properties. 

He’d like to see them rebuilt. “A little park, a slide – give the kids something to do,” London said. “A merry-go-round or something. Something productive for the kids. A community center.”

Transforming vacant properties into community assets is a goal of United Housing, owner of one of the vacant lots. The lot is one of 12 purchased by the nonprofit affordable housing agency and transferred to the Blight Authority of Memphis’ new Land Deposit program, which is designed to make it easier for nonprofits to buy and develop unused land. 

BAM, a quasi-governmental agency, was formed by the City Council in 2015 under Tennessee’s Local Land Bank program. Its aim is to “eliminate blight and restore the tax base through serving as the City of Memphis’ local land bank,” according to its website. The goal is to spur the development of affordable housing and reinvestment in under-resourced communities like South Memphis and Frayser.

BAM’s Land Deposit program launched this month after its pilot ended in April. It’s the first major program run by the agency and is jumpstarting the organization after years of relatively little action.

After BAM’s current executive director, Leslie Smith, started in 2019, she spent most of her initial months listening to communities and determining what programs would be most useful. In 2020, BAM began piloting those programs, starting the Land Deposit in February of that year.

The agency will soon begin pilots of two other major programs, Deed-in-Escrow and Adopt-A-Lot, Smith said. BAM now holds 20 properties, including the 12 in the Land Deposit.

The Land Deposit allows nonprofits to purchase lots and transfer them to BAM, which then holds the land in its inventory, tax-free until the organizations are ready to develop them. The program simplifies the process for the agencies and reduces their financial burden. At the same time, they work on other aspects of development such as obtaining financing, identifying contractors and getting housing plans approved.

BAM only requires a small yearly fee to keep the property in the deposit, said Smith, though the nonprofits still maintain the properties.

“It’s really just allowing us to save some funds on the property taxes while we come up with a longer-term strategy,” said United Housing’s executive director, Amy Schaftlein. That long-term strategy might include rebuilding the lots into affordable housing or, along with community partners, turning them into gardens, basketball courts or even orchards.

As the Land Deposit grows, Schaftlein hopes that BAM will negotiate cost-sharing among nonprofits to upkeep the properties, which would help the organizations save money.

A systemic issue

The term “blight” specifically refers to “vacant or derelict structures and vacant lots that have been abandoned, neglected, or unmaintained and are causing harm to the surrounding properties and the owners and occupants of those properties,” according to BAM. That includes “structural damage, deterioration, and dilapidation, environmental hazards, abandoned personal property, uncollected litter, dumping, overgrown lawns, and excessive weed growth.” 

Blighted properties are not the fault of any individual or even the community at large, Smith said. 

“Years and years of systemic issues that can be traced way back from redlining, (racial restrictive) covenants, the foreclosure crisis, and just the process of having people come into your community and speculating on your community … all of that contributes to blight.” 

Two other organizations – Frayser Community Development Corporation and Southeast Regional Development Corporation – also have properties that will likely be transferred to the deposit, Smith said.

SRDC has 10 properties for which it’s submitted proposals, said president Senchel Matthews. Those lots in South Memphis, plus the massive 71-acre Firestone property in the New Chicago neighborhood in North Memphis, will eventually be turned into at least three micro-grocery co-ops, affordable residential housing and commercial and retail space, Matthews said.

Having the properties in the Land Deposit tax-free will allow SRDC to spend that money on other development costs, including the financial investment that’s required for cleaning up the old Firestone plant property, a brownfield site. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a brownfield is a property that may have hazardous substances or contaminants on it, which might complicate its development or use. Cleaning up the Firestone site could take up to two years, Matthews said. 

Meanwhile, the Frayser CDC has three properties they’re planning to transfer to the Land Deposit, all of which will be eventually developed into affordable housing, said Sam Marsh, acquisitions and construction manager for the nonprofit.

An unfair reputation

Frederick Anderson is interested in buying the home he lives in on West Davant Street, but across the street is a boarded-up house that he worries is deteriorating inside. 

He’s lived in South Memphis since he was a child and is fiercely proud of the community, which he believes has an unfair reputation. 

“How they’re saying South Memphis is rough and bad … they’re putting us down,” he said. “So I’m going to speak up for my people.”

The boarded house is owned by BAM and will be part of its Deed-in-Escrow program, a pilot which will help qualified owner-occupants or investors buy and renovate properties. BAM will also introduce an Adopt-A-Lot program that will allow communities to temporarily lease vacant lots for beautification projects, Smith said. This could include temporary art installations, gardens – whatever the community thinks is best for the space.

BAM’s current yearly budget is $630,000, funded primarily by the City of Memphis, though Smith expects the budget to increase as the organization proves its worth. Smith is the only full-time employee and hopes to hire three more part-time workers by the end of the year to help galvanize the organization.

On May 19, BAM’s board approved its strategic action plan, which compiled data to determine the neighborhoods in which BAM will pursue projects. The next step is to look at BAM’s current inventory to decide their next moves, Smith said. Over the next year, BAM will begin buying and selling more of its properties to developers with an eye on equity.

“If we are doing our job right, we’re putting properties back into the tax roll,” Smith said. “We’re ensuring that access to affordable housing is increasing (and) we are improving the stability of the neighborhood.”

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