A car drives between apartment housing.
The roads that cut through Peppertree Apartments in the fall of last year. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

When is reporting crime a public nuisance in Memphis?

When you’re an African American with federally subsidized rent living in the Peppertree Apartments, a couple of miles from the gates of Graceland.

When the Shelby County District Attorney and the City of Memphis target private apartment managers for not controlling crime in subsidized housing developments. 

And when government agencies failed for decades to control crime in public housing.

Last November, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich and the City of Memphis filed the public nuisance lawsuit in Shelby County Environmental Court. It targets the 50-year-old apartment complex in Whitehaven and the company managing it,  TESCO Properties Inc.

The most dire outcome of the lawsuit would be if the court orders the complex to close its door to renters. They would have to compete for other housing – subsidized or not – as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, as home prices and rents rise, and during an epidemic of homicides and gun violence. 

The Peppertree complex contains 306 units, many of them subsidized “Section 8” apartments. They are home to more than 1,000 people, largely families of women and children earning less than $10,000 a year, according to documents TESCO filed in court.

Concentrated disadvantage

The main evidence against Peppertree is that it generates a large number of crime-related calls to police. 

This ignores the fact that low-income people are more likely to be victims of crime, and should be expected to call police more often.

 A 2018 edition of a college textbook about race, ethnicity and criminal justice, “The Color of Justice,”  by Samuel Walker, Cassia Spohn and Miriam DeLone, puts it this way:

“The concentration of low-income people in particular neighborhoods has a direct impact on crime by concentrating high-rate offenders in one area. This is a major part of what is called concentrated disadvantage. 

“As a result, law-abiding residents of those areas suffer high rates of robbery, burglary, and other predatory crimes. The National Crime Victimization Survey found that in 2014 the household burglary rate was almost three and a half times higher for the poorest households (less than $7,500 annual income) than the highest income group ($75,000 a year or more).”

The 2020 National Crime Victimization Survey still shows that the lowest-income households continue to self-report being victims of crime far more often than higher-income households. 

It also points out an important national trend: Generally, the rate of victimizations decreased for both income groups when comparing 2020 with 2014. The district attorney, city and Memphis police offered no analysis of crime trends at Peppertree with the public nuisance action. Exactly why has crime there become a public nuisance now?

The public nuisance case cites 1,649 police calls involving the apartment complex in about 20 months that began in March 2020. Two homicides, 53 aggravated assaults, four drug felonies and 120 shots fired are among the statistics highlighted. 

However, the plaintiffs offer no analysis of who calls police most frequently or why they call. Only one frequent caller is highlighted – a Memphis police officer living next door to the apartments.

That officer filed a memo with the department reporting that while off duty, he alone called police “well over” 100 times in six years to report shots fired and shootings. He also wrote “multiple parking citations” for his neighbors “and the same cars violate day after day.”

Signs inside a government building indicate the direction of Shelby County Environmental Court.
Shelby County Environmental Court is located just outside the county district attorney’s office at the Shelby County Justice Center. Photo by Kevin McKenzie for MLK50

Fourteen years ago, a University of Memphis criminologist warned that low-income residents moving from public housing and “clustering” in subsidized, Section 8 apartments could recreate the crime-challenged conditions of public housing.

“The research nationally shows that there is a tendency (to cluster) because the voucher is only worth X amount of money,” W. Richard Janikowski told the Memphis Flyer in 2008. “Folks are moving into transitional neighborhoods because that is where the cheaper housing is.”

“If you allow clustering without taking affirmative steps to distribute housing, then what you’re doing is simply recreating public housing in other neighborhoods with all the potential associated problems that existed with public housing,” Janikowski predicted.

Janikowski also told The Atlantic in 2008 that Memphis was not prepared to handle “deep structural issues” that had taken root in public housing and re-formed in other neighborhoods. Those issues included gangs, men released from prisons and jails returning to families, and working-class residents moving out.

The longest-running obstacle to distributing low-income housing in Memphis requires what Republican politicians are desperate to avoid – applying some critical race theory.

Another book, “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, puts it this way:

“Real estate steering, redlining, and denial of loans and mortgages, especially after the end of World War II, prevented Blacks from owning homes, particularly in desirable neighborhoods. These practices also excluded Blacks from sharing in the appreciation in real estate property values that some eras have witnessed. 

“Confinement to certain neighborhoods, in turn, limits where Black and Latino parents may send their children to school and so perpetuates the cycle of exclusion from opportunities for upward mobility that have enabled many poor whites to rise.”

It’s no accident that housing for low-income residents clusters in predominantly Black neighborhoods like Whitehaven. It’s by design.

Janikowski’s interview with the Memphis Flyer was in response to a debate that erupted with a 2008 article titled “American Murder Mystery” by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic magazine. 

The national magazine’s article featured Janikowski, who later retired from the U of M and died in North Carolina last year, and Phyllis Betts, his wife and a retired U of M sociologist and housing expert.

The article explored whether demolishing and redeveloping public housing with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI program was linked to rising crime in neighborhoods where former public housing residents moved using Section 8 subsidies.

A July 2008 article in The American Prospect magazine by Greg Anrig pushed back on The Atlantic article’s theory.

“Rosin places far too much responsibility on housing policy for the increase in crime,” Anrig wrote. “Other factors related to the local economy were almost certainly more significant.

“Even within the realm of housing policy, the problem is not Section 8, but an outgrowth of conservative indifference to supporting low-income renters rather than a liberal desire to give poor families a better chance.” 

A court battle

TESCO, the company managing the Peppertree Apartments, is fighting the public nuisance case in federal court. 

The family-run company was founded by Thomas E. ‘Pete’ Sisson, a lawyer and former Shelby County commissioner who died in 2009. TESCO is based in Germantown, a wealthier Memphis suburb that is 90% white and 2% Black, according to Census figures.

The company argued in court filings that the district attorney and city don’t have the power to regulate its Section 8 apartments, and that condemning Peppertree would discriminate against its African American residents.

TESCO also claimed that only the Department of Housing and Urban Development can regulate its federally subsidized housing contract and agreements. However, in court documents, HUD officials disagreed, saying that HUD’s interests are protected and the federal agency doesn’t stand in the way of local code enforcement.

TESCO’s legal strategy may have backfired.

In January, HUD notified Pepper Tree – Memphis Ltd., a partnership that owns the Peppertree apartments with Larry Sisson as general partner, that the company was in violation of its Section 8 agreement. 

A HUD report in January found damaged bathroom fixtures, exposed wires, litter, damaged walls and doors, a leaking central water supply, inoperable heating and air-conditioning systems and rotten subfloors.

“If the owner fails to take the corrective action required herein, HUD may declare default of the regulatory agreement,” said an email to Larry Sisson from the federal agency. “Such a default may result in the liquidation of HUD’s mortgage interest through foreclosure or other means.”

Still, court documents show that in February, HUD renewed the company’s Section 8 contract, first started in 2002, for another 10 years, through January 2032. HUD will continue to subsidize Peppertree’s rent and utilities, ranging from $662 a month for some one-bedroom apartments to $1,141 for three bedrooms.

HUD’s mortgage interests and Section 8 agreements for the apartment complex run with the land, agency officials report. Section 8 subsidies are tied to the project, not to vouchers.  Even if closed as a public nuisance or transferred to new owners, the apartments would remain Section 8 housing until 2032, HUD reported in court documents.

A state government housing agency working with HUD, the Tennessee Housing Development Agency, also inspects the Peppertree apartments, TESCO points out in court documents. THDA inspected the apartments in October 2021, about two months before the public nuisance lawsuit. The state agency gave the apartments a satisfactory rating, including for security and safety measures, TESCO reported.

The city’s Memphis Housing Authority is not one of the government agencies regulating Peppertree. However, a 2014 audit by HUD’s Office of Inspector General found that MHA was often failing to enforce quality standards for Section 8 voucher housing, a HUD program known as the Housing Choice Voucher Program.

“The Authority’s inspections were not adequate for enforcing HUD’s housing quality standards.  Of 90 program units statistically selected for inspection, 77 failed to comply with HUD’s minimum housing quality standards, and 58 were in material noncompliance with the standards,” an audit report said.

MHA’s role in maintaining Section 8 housing becomes an even more important question as the agency moves to convert its remaining public housing to privately managed Section 8 voucher housing.

Who are the monitors?

TESCO, represented by Memphis attorney Alexander C. Wharton, also is challenging the role of SafeWays, a dues-collecting organization that includes Weirich on its board.

Officially formed as a nonprofit in 2015, SafeWays Inc. “collaborates with law enforcement, property managers, and social service providers to promote improved community safety and quality of life in Memphis apartment communities,” reports the organization’s 2019 “Form 990” filed with the IRS.

The organization traces its roots to the mid-1990s and research showing a “reclustering” of poverty and crime incidents in Memphis apartment communities, according to the SafeWays website. Janikowski and Betts were the researchers.

The SafeWays website quotes Janikowski: “We conceptualized a linkage of law enforcement and community building/social services to stabilize and enhance apartment communities through the reduction of crime and introduction of broader crime prevention and quality of life intervention.”

  • Scanned copy of SafeWays inspection of public housing at Peppertree Apartments.
  • Scanned copy of SafeWays inspection of public housing at Peppertree Apartments.
  • Scanned copy of SafeWays inspection of public housing at Peppertree Apartments.

The public nuisance case by the city and district attorney cites Peppertree for quitting a SafeWays program, “apparently due to failure to pay dues.” Annual dues are $20 per apartment unit.

TESCO argues that SafeWays – backed by the district attorney, Memphis Police Department and the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission – shouldn’t be allowed to assess Peppertree to help judge whether or not the apartment complex is a public nuisance. Weirich is a member of both the SafeWays and Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission boards.

“SafeWays Certification Program is a collaboration between property owners, Safeways and SafeWays’ partner organizations, including but not limited to the City of Memphis, the Shelby County District Attorney General and the Memphis Police Department,” TESCO contends in a federal court document.

“Therefore, it is not designed to be neutral or objective party and should not be in a position of judging whether an owner’s actions are sufficient to avoid legal action by Safeways’ own supporters,” TESCO contends.

As backup for SafeWays in court arguments, an assessment of the organization in 2020 by the University of Memphis Public Safety Institute was submitted in federal court. 

The executive director of the Public Safety Institute is Bill Gibbons, who served as Shelby County district attorney from 1996 to 2011, with Weirich succeeding him.

Expanding SafeWays to more apartment complexes is “Action Step 15” in the “Safe Community Action Plan” produced by the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission. Gibbons is president of the crime commission.

For decades, Weirich and Gibbons have been key leaders in addressing crime at  apartments and elsewhere in Memphis and Shelby County. Declaring a cluster of very low-income renters a public nuisance is evidence of failure to address issues known for decades.

Weirich, a Republican running for re-election in August to an eight-year term, and Asst. Dist. Atty. Paul Hagerman signed the public nuisance petition against TESCO for the district attorney’s office. For the city attorney’s office, Asst. City Atty. William L. Gibbons Jr. signed.

SafeWays in February did conduct a “quarterly monitoring inspection” of the Peppertree Apartments. TESCO filed a copy of the inspection report in federal court.

The hour-and-a-half inspection sweated the small stuff. Two light bulbs needed changing. Graffiti needed to be removed in nine places.  Two or three bullet holes needed patching in exterior walls. Four grills on porches needed to disappear. A total of 10 “drug use Q-tips” or “drug use cut straws” were photographed on the ground. 

When crime is a public nuisance, the small stuff is all that counts. 

Kevin McKenzie is a former reporter for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at reporter495@gmail.com.

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