A person walks through the Peppertree Apartment property in Whitehaven
A resident walks through the Peppertee Apartment complex in Whitehaven on Thursday afternoon. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

Terry Brown was on a work assignment in Jackson, Tennessee when he got the call from his wife. Intruders had broken into their house, shooting.

He jumped into his Ford F-150 and sped back to Whitehaven, terrified. The men stole a laptop and a television but quickly left, apparently scared off by the family dog. 

Brown, 66, lives in a ranch-style home across the street from the 306-unit Peppertree Apartments. He credits the traumatic break-in, the two bullet holes in the front of his house and the constant flow of litter into his yard to the complex, where the Memphis Police Department has recorded 261 reported crimes — including one homicide — so far in 2021 and 12 homicides in the last five years. 

“Just about every night is a bad night … especially when they get to shooting those automatic weapons and you don’t know where the bullets are going,” Brown said. 

The City of Memphis is trying to be harder on the owners of properties such as Peppertree — that have frequent code violations and crime — in hopes it will help people such as Brown. Memphis Public Works director Robert Knecht presented housing code changes to a Memphis City Council committee on Tuesday that would help the city take these landlords to Environmental Court and help the court punish them.

“This is giving a new tool to the city and to the court to address properties that are more severely problematic to us,” Knecht said. 

The Shelby County Environmental Court addresses health, building and zoning code violations, including blighted properties. It has been able to penalize or close “strip clubs, apartment complexes, and other entities deemed to constitute a public nuisance” since 2001, but the process can take years. The changes Knecht presented would simplify it for rental properties that have repeat code violations and recurring criminal activity. 

In these cases, the city could ask the court to label a property as a “chronic nuisance” based on the following conditions:

  • A “materially greater than average” amount of criminal activity
  • A repeated failure by the landlord to provide a safe environment and essential services — such as gas, heat or electricity
  • A pattern of code violations or neglect of property conditions
  • Any other illegal activity that the court determines to be “a menace to public health, welfare or safety”

Knecht told the council’s Public Works, Solid Waste & General Services committee that the code was written without more specific standards to allow the city and court to be flexible. He also said that it would be used only when landlords have been unresponsive to city requests or are making excuses as to why they can’t make needed improvements, citing Peppertree as an example.

“We don’t have to declare it a chronic nuisance if the owner is trying to abate it,” Knecht said. “(This is for) when owners are non-responsive and continue to leave the property in a poor state.”

Memphis has seen a reduced number of major property crimes and an increased number of major violent crimes in 2021 compared to the last five years. Studies show crime is concentrated in small pieces of cities, with 55% of crimes occurring at 5% of addresses or households. 

If Environmental Court Judge Patrick Dandridge decides to label a property as a “chronic nuisance,” he would require a unit-by-unit inspection of the property followed by second and third hearings. He could then impose fines, require the barring of certain tenants with criminal records or even shut the complex down.  

Brown has argued for the closure of Peppertree for years. Having lived in his home for 21 years, he said the complex started to become a nuisance in the mid-2000s and has progressively declined since then. He would move, but he received no offers on his home the three times he listed it for sale in recent years. 

“We didn’t even get one (tour),” he said.

Tuesday was the first of three times the code change will appear before the council and it was moved through the process without objection. 

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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