Volunteers mow the grass of an empty lot in the Klondike neighborhood during a 2017 community clean-up that was aimed at clearing overgrown and blighted lots. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

The city is losing ground in its battle with overgrown lots, many of them in low-income neighborhoods, as two programs that were implemented to address the issue face major impediments, Memphis City Council members were told Tuesday.

The city receives thousands of complaints each year regarding properties with high weeds, city officials said during a meeting of the public works, solid waste, and general services committee.

One of the programs discussed was the mow-to-own program that received significant media coverage when it passed in 2015. It’s meant to help neighbors acquire surplus, publicly-owned property — much of which was acquired after previous owners didn’t pay taxes — through sweat equity. But only four people have completed the program because of its complicated regulations, city real estate manager Carlton Osborne said. 

A much larger effort by the city is its work cutting vacant, privately-owned land when the owners have neglected to do so. It spends $2.4 million on this annually and receives about 25% of that back from the liens it places on property it mows. The discussion of this program Tuesday included both an invitation for Public Works director Robert Knecht to request more money for it and a harsh rebuke of what it has accomplished so far.

Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen lit into Knecht about the overgrown grass in her community — near the intersection of Lamar Avenue and South Parkway East — as well as the tendency of those who mow the medians on South Parkway to cut through litter instead of picking it up.

“After they complete cutting the yards, we have trash everywhere,” Swearengen said. “I’ve been riding through my district the last three or four weeks, and I’m really embarrassed. … Everything is trashy. I’ve never seen Memphis look like this before.”

Mow-to-own

The lack of participation in mow-to-own isn’t from a lack of interest but because of the program’s design, according to Antonio Adams, director of general services for the city.

Approval for the program is no small task. To start, the interested neighbor must live next to or directly across the street from the property in question, and the property has to be owned by the City of Memphis or Shelby County. And, if the county owns the property, it must transfer it to the city, which takes approval by both the City Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

From there, the neighbor must pay a $175 application fee to cover some of the city’s efforts. The city will then check to make sure the applicant has no outstanding tax liens, overdue Memphis Light Gas & Water Division bills, or history of code violations. And then, the administration will ask for City Council approval to place the property in the program.

“It’s cheaper to outright buy it.”

Antonio Adams, director of general services for the City of Memphis, on the effort to acquire property through the mow-to-own program.

Once in the program, the neighbor must document via photo every time they cut the grass or rake the leaves at the property — depending on the season — in order to earn $25 per effort. 

At that rate, it takes about 100 trips to pay the $2,500-$3,000 price that the city usually charges in the program. 

With all this hassle, Adams said, purchasing the property often makes far more sense. 

“It’s cheaper to outright buy it,” he said. 

As opposed to improving the mow-to-own program, Adams said he’d love to get more Memphians to purchase land they live near that’s currently owned by the city or county. 

Trouble finding contractors

While mow-to-own has never gotten off the ground, the city has a $2.4 million annual budget for mowing vacant private property that’s overgrown — primarily in low-income neighborhoods. 

This effort, though, is facing its own challenges.

While city-paid contractors — all of which are small businesses — cut 9,700 parcels of property in 2020, they’ve only cut 2,800 in 2021, Knecht said. Prior to the pandemic, it took contractors 19 days to get to an assigned property; they now take about 30.

Knecht told the council he’s had trouble finding contractors this year who have, in turn, had trouble finding employees. To make up for this, he said he plans to turn to larger commercial contractors, though he might need more cash to do so.

 “How are we going to get individuals to come and move into Memphis … or have developments in Memphis if it looks like Ghana?”

Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen

The problem needs to be addressed for the city’s success, Swearengen said. “How are we going to get individuals to come and move into Memphis … or have developments in Memphis if it looks like Ghana?”

Swearengen added that she’s called the administration six times about a property across the street from hers where the grass is “as tall as I am,” and nothing has yet been done. 

“I don’t even like to go sit on my porch anymore because that’s what I have to look at,” Swearengen said.

Knecht told Swearengen he knows he needs to do a better job finding contractors and knows his contractors need to do a better job. He also pushed back on a point she made about the council caring more about the issue than the administration.

“No one cares more about this than my staff,” Knecht said. “I take this issue very seriously … (and) I take full responsibility for this mission.”

No action was taken at the committee meeting, but Councilman JB Smiley Jr. encouraged Knecht to request more money for the effort if he needs it, as he thinks his colleagues would gladly get behind it. Knecht said he’d ask for more money if he can’t find it in other parts of his division’s budget. 

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com


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