Portrait of Kim Hill wearing a white suit with a black floral shirt.
Kim Hill stands for a portrait in downtown Memphis. She recently received approval from the city of Memphis to build a townhome development in Westwood. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50.

Kim Hill grew up in Whitehaven. She then raised two daughters there. And, her parents still live just off of Neely Road.

So when Hill was looking for property to place her first development, she only looked at locations in or near The Haven. 

“There was not a shadow of doubt (of where to build),” Hill said. “That’s where I’m from.”

Hill recently received Memphis City Council approval to construct 75 rental townhomes on the east side of Horn Lake Road, just north of the Weaver Fields Apartments — which is technically just west of Whitehaven, according to the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corp. The 1,400-square-foot homes will rent for between $900 and $1,300 per month, Hill said, and the development will cost $12.4 million to construct.

Hill’s hope is this major investment in a long-disinvested part of Memphis will build momentum for future ones by her and others. Neighborhood residents did have mixed reactions, though, when hearing about her plans.

Even more out-of-the-ordinary than the project’s location is that Hill — as a Black woman — is leading it. Commercial real estate in Memphis has long been dominated by white men, a fact Hill would like to help change.  

From buyer to builder

Hill, 49, and her then-husband bought a home when she was just 19. 

During the process, she became fascinated by the real estate agent selling the house and asked her to explain how the industry worked. She quickly became an agent herself but only lasted a couple years in that side of the industry before being drawn to the creativity of home flipping. The Whitehaven native has spent most of her career purchasing and renovating rental homes — working for herself since the early 2000s.

“I liked looking at a house and just revisioning it and bringing it up to modern standards,” Hill said. “I became fascinated with renovations.”

For Hill, developing was the natural progression from renovating. Instead of applying creativity to an existing home, this next step would allow her to work with blank canvases.

“I could start with a clean slate and take my whole vision and bring it to life in a community and for the community,” she said.

When Hill decided to pivot to development and found the Horn Lake Road property, her initial plan was to construct for-sale, single-family homes. She decided to pivot to rentals, she said, when she realized nearby residents likely wouldn’t be able to purchase the homes — lacking either the capital or credit scores. 

Hill said her development will balance necessary affordability with a high-quality standard. The rental rates were determined based on what existing residents can pay, but she also hopes the development’s quality will attract people who work or attend school Downtown.

What the neighbors think

A view of an open field lined with trees.
A view of the proposed site of Hill’s 75-unit townhome community along Horn Lake Road.  Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50. 

There hasn’t been much new housing built in recent years near where Hill has proposed her rentals. 

Between 2000 and 2019, just 1,024 housing units were added in ZIP 38109, which covers Westwood, other parts of southwest Memphis and part of Whitehaven, according to Census Bureau data. 

Hill hopes to change this trend. Along with the townhome project, her company is in the midst of purchasing another 8 acres nearby, where she plans to build about 25 single-family homes she’ll either rent or sell. 

Hill’s firm currently has five employees and is hiring five more. She is primarily trying to hire others from Whitehaven to give them a leg up and to help her scale her business in the area. 

Dr. Lynnette Williams, a local ophthalmologist who works with the Southwest Memphis Community Development Corp. and lives in 38109, said she’s all for more housing being built but opposes Hill’s rental development. 

To Williams, the county’s low homeownership rate for Black households — 42%, according to Census data — is one of its largest issues. She thinks empty land in 38109 should be used for single-family homes. The census tract Hill is building in is one of Memphis’ Blackest and has a median household income of roughly $24,000.

“I think that’s ridiculous. Because you can own a home for that amount (Hill plans to charge).”

Dr. Lynnette Williams, an ophthalmologist who works with Southwest Memphis Community Development Corp

And, if Hill were to develop rentals, Williams doesn’t understand why she wouldn’t build more-affordable ones. While almost all of the housing built in 38109  in the last decade was built as part of the low-income housing tax credit program, Hill’s development would be priced to largely cater to middle-income Memphians. 

“I think that’s ridiculous,” Williams said. “Because you can own a home for that amount (Hill plans to charge).”

Hill said she would like to build for-sale neighborhoods soon. In the meantime, though, she thinks her rentals will be much better for the community than more low-income housing, which she said often ends up deteriorating. 

Melvin Watkins, Uplift Westwood Community Development Corporation co-founder and Mount Vernon Baptist Church pastor, said he’s all for new high-quality housing in Westwood, at any price point.

“Anything that will help revitalize our community, improve the quality of life for citizens and help people gain access to better-quality housing is a good thing.”

Melvin Watkins, Uplift Westwood Community Development Corporation co-founder and Mount Vernon Baptist Church pastor

“Anything that will help revitalize our community, improve the quality of life for citizens and help people gain access to better-quality housing is a good thing,” Watkins said. “We’re very optimistic this will be a win-win (for Hill and Westwood).”

Watkins referred to Memphis’ lack of quality housing as “almost a housing crisis.” In September, experts told MLK50: Justice through Journalism that the lack of new housing is a major cause of the city’s fast-rising rental rates. 

Charles Ghent, a forklift operator who lives about a third of a mile from Hill’s development site, lands between Williams and Watkins. He doesn’t understand why people would pay high prices to move to a low-income area like Westwood, but he said he’s all for Hill’s development if it helps bring more restaurants and retail to the area without infringing on the peace and quiet. 

Developing while Black

Running a home-flipping firm as a Black woman was hard enough. 

Even after decades in the industry, Hill said she’s rarely seen as a leader in it or respected by the subcontractors she hires.

“When they see you’re a woman, they just don’t take you seriously,” she said. “They either want to take you on a date or be late to the worksite.”

For most of the last 20 years, Hill’s firm was named The Kim Hill Group. She decided to rename it  Hill-Johnson & Weinstein a couple years ago, in part to pay respect to her grandfather — whose last name was Weinstein — and in part to gain respect.

“I wanted to give the appearance of a full-fledged company instead of just a one-girl show,” she said.

Hill said she’s realizing that developing as a Black woman is even harder than renovating homes. While the actual work of development isn’t that different, she said, it’s even more dominated by white men. 

“The difference is not being able to have that camaraderie with other Black women,” she said. 

As she’s hiring her firm’s new employees, she said she’s trying to change that.

If women she hires can learn from her while she’s developing her initial $12.4 million project, she’s hopeful they’ll be able to follow in her footsteps. 

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

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

Got a story idea, a tip or feedback? Send an email to info@mlk50.com.