Susie Mitchell always kept coloring books, Barbie dolls and teddy bears in her and her mother’s apartment for when her siblings or cousins would drop off their children.
Wishing she had a child of her own, she adores babysitting. But the kids can’t come over now that she’s living in a rooming house in Frayser.
The Emergency Rental Assistance program saved her from eviction last summer, but she struggled to pay her rising rent. When she couldn’t pay all of August’s $735 rent, she offered her property manager the $670 she’d been paying until she could come up with the rest. The manager refused and filed an eviction against her and her 66-year-old mother, Shirley Mitchell, who’s now sleeping on her sister’s couch.
Since September, Mitchell has depleted her savings applying for apartments. Each time, she’s paid the application fee — usually $100 — after being assured she had a good chance of approval.
“I put (my evictions and) everything on the table before I even shelled out any money. (The apartment managers) tell me, ‘That’s okay. I got you,’” she said. “Then I go through the application and they say, ‘Well, Miss Mitchell… .’”
After six denials, she’s out of cash.
Pre-pandemic, it’s unlikely Mitchell would have been priced out of her outdated Whitehaven apartment complex or unable to find a new one in her price range.
Since 2019, the region’s proportion of vacant rentals has plummeted from above 10% to about 6%. With this lack of supply, landlords are drastically inflating rents — by almost 30% since March 2020 — without worrying about losing tenants. And, they are being pickier about whose applications they accept, making things extremely difficult for renters with recent evictions such as Mitchell.
This harsh rental landscape is forcing many Memphians into homelessness, according to local nonprofit leaders.
National experts say there’s a solution: elected officials must make it easier to build housing, especially apartments. But in Shelby County, apartment developers run up against some of the toughest zoning rules in the country — rules that are rooted in racism.
And when developers request exemptions from these rules, they face fierce opponents: the residents who live near wherever they try to build. The housing industry calls these people “NIMBYs,” or “not in my backyard.”
To combat skyrocketing rents, a fast-growing national movement has begun advocating for cities and towns to make housing construction easier. But not in Shelby County.
Here, public meetings about apartments usually just attract objectors who voice concerns over crime and traffic. And every time these residents win, it becomes harder for low-income Memphians to find homes.
Who it harms the most
Standing outside a worn-down Whitehaven hotel, Latasha Nisby watched her kids play on a gorgeous fall afternoon. She was still wearing the black hat from her morning security guard shift, though she’d have to leave soon for her evening job at UPS.
She was thankful her boys seemed to be their normal selves. But she certainly wasn’t.
Less than a week prior, a man had shot out the windows at her Alcy Ball apartment while her husband and sons were inside. Since then, she’s struggled to sleep, worried about crime at the hotel and finding a new place to live.
“I ain’t going to relax until I get in my own home,” said Nisby, a small, quiet woman. “Every time we leave and come back, either the police are up here or an ambulance is up here. I really don’t like being here.”
Nisby’s family moved into the hotel with the help of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association, which protects families with children from homelessness. After temporarily placing families in hotels or shelters, MIFA finds them apartments and pays the first couple of months of rent.
That temporary part, though, has been getting longer.
Back in 2019, finding apartments for these families used to take the nonprofit 10-15 days. Now, it normally takes 35-40, said Mary Hamlett, MIFA’s vice president of family programs.
“We don’t have enough shelters to get people off the street, much less housing to get them from shelters,” said Hamlett.
Hamlett called this reality a “storm” that urgently needs the city’s attention.
While it may not be obvious, Emily Hamilton, a senior research fellow at George Mason University, said Memphis’ scarcity of new homes and apartments for middle and upper-class residents caused this storm.
“New housing … benefits low-income households because it’s going to free up other housing,” said Hamilton, who studies land-use policy and housing affordability. “Those high-income and middle-income (purchasers) are moving out of other housing, (which) frees up lower-cost housing for lower-income households.”
The construction of 100 new high-cost houses, for instance, frees up about 70 homes in lower-income neighborhoods within 2-5 years, according to a recent study by Evan Mast, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Across the country, housing construction nose-dived during the Great Recession and has been slow to recover. But while that recovery is almost complete for the U.S. as a whole, Memphis-area builders started construction on about 48% fewer houses and apartments in 2021 than in 2006, according to building permit data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
When new housing isn’t built, landlords benefit, low-income renters suffer and more people enter homelessness.
A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that when a city’s median rent rises by $100, its homeless population increases by about 9%. Memphis’ median rent has risen by almost $300 since March 2020.
The number of Memphians experiencing homelessness is increasing, according to Hamlett and others who serve them. But it’s hard to say by how much. Local data collected by the Community Alliance for the Homeless shows a decrease compared to 2019, but the pandemic has made data collection more difficult.
Hamlett worries that homelessness will soon balloon, with Memphis and Shelby County not accepting applications for the federal Emergency Rental Assistance program from September until at least spring 2023 and the state ending its equivalent program on Jan. 6. From March 2021 through June, the local program spent about $72 million covering rent or utilities for tens of thousands of households, according to Treasury Department data.
“Without another safety net program like that, I don’t even want to attempt to say what we’re going to see,” Hamlett said.
The ‘right’ place to build
Last year, Carl Mabry tried to build senior housing in Collierville.
He teamed up with the not-for-profit Collierville Community Housing Development Organization to build 40 affordable apartments for seniors alongside 60 for middle-class residents. The stone-and-brick building would have risen three stories in a vacant field on Harris Street bordered by the back of a bowling alley and two rows of homes.
But Mabry underestimated the residents of the high-end Magnolia Square neighborhood that’s about a hundred yards north of the property.
These neighbors worked together to write letters of opposition and show up in force at the August 2021 Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting that would decide the project’s fate.
They didn’t dispute the need for senior housing in Collierville. They simply argued that its placement near their homes might bring traffic or even crime to their corner of town.
“I wasn’t opposed to the idea itself (but the location) only had two-lane streets around it,” Ronnie Kelly, who spoke during the 2021 meeting, later told MLK50. “It just wasn’t the right place for it.”
But for the region’s housing supply, the problem is that few people think of property near their house as “the right place” for apartments.
Urban Institute affordable housing expert Corianne Payton Scally called the Collierville residents’ opposition “harsh” — since neighbors are usually less opposed to senior apartments than those that aren’t age-restricted. But it still didn’t surprise her.
“It’s definitely disheartening,” said Payton Scally. “(Anti-apartment) attitudes are probably the biggest challenge that the affordable housing community faces.”
Though he knew neighbors would be there to oppose him, Mabry hoped he would win the approval of the town’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen. Since the town has no subsidized senior housing, he thought they would see his project as filling a clear need.
Instead, after only a few minutes of discussion, the board sided with Mabry’s opponents by a 5-1 vote. Mayor Stan Joyner said the neighbors seemed unified, but none of the other “no” votes explained their reasoning.
Later, in emails to MLK50, Joyner and Alderman John Worley defended the town’s housing policies.
Worley, a single-family homebuilder, said the area’s current housing shortage didn’t worry him. He believes construction in Collierville will pick back up when economic conditions improve.
Joyner questioned the feasibility of adding affordable housing given the high land prices in town. When asked specifically about adding apartment zoning, he said the suburb must make sure it doesn’t “overbuild” housing, shopping centers or any other type of building. Collierville’s current long-term land use plan, which stretches to 2040, calls for “no net gain” in apartments.
Vocal opponents of dense development have been especially successful at shutting down apartment projects in Collierville and Germantown in recent years. Though Collierville’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen did recently approve a development with 60 townhomes, it also just rejected one with 196 apartments. In Germantown, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen has denied a string of apartment developments in recent years, including a unanimous decision against a 242-apartment project in March.
In both suburbs, the zoning policies require developers to receive exemptions from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to build apartments anywhere in town. And some of these politicians campaigned on promises of either limiting or completely blocking apartment construction. If Joyner or other suburban officials were to attempt zoning reform, it would be politically risky, Payton Scally admitted.
Even when developers think they’ll be able to win over these officials, they face a long and expensive approval process that requires them to hire architects, engineers and traffic consultants before knowing whether their project will be approved. This system intimidates many development firms enough that they don’t even attempt construction in these towns — like an NBA shot-blocker who deters layups by his mere presence.
If not for such restrictive zoning, the suburbs would be the easiest part of Shelby County for developers to add apartments since that’s where the county’s richer residents prefer to live. Policy changes there could mean a huge increase in available housing.
“(The suburbs rezoning) more land for more development would allow more supply to be built, which would drive rental rates down,” said Scott Fleming, owner of Memphis-based Fleming Associates Architects.
Fleming, who helps decide Memphis’ zoning as part of its Land Use Control Board, said this also applies to East Memphis, where the overwhelming majority of land is zoned only to allow single-family homes.
While not as harsh as Germantown or Collierville, Memphis has some of the most restrictive zoning rules in the country, scoring worse than about 85% of cities on the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Land Use Regulation Index. In large swaths of the city currently filled with single-family homes, and even along many major roads, the city’s zoning laws prohibit apartments. And its onerous rules about quadplexes, duplexes and small homes lead to few being built.
The City of Memphis is working on this issue. In May, the director of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development, John Zeanah, presented to the Memphis City Council a new housing policy plan to encourage additional housing construction. For instance, it recommends the city allow and encourage people to build small homes on properties that either already include a home or are currently deemed too skinny for one. And it recommends zoning changes along major corridors to give developers the right to build apartments without needing an exception.
Many of these ideas are good ones, according to Hamilton. If the City Council adopts these recommendations, it would likely make housing more affordable. But, she said, the plan could have gone further.
Minneapolis has been the darling of pro-housing advocates in recent years. Along with making it legal to build duplexes and triplexes in all single-family neighborhoods, the city has eliminated apartment buildings’ parking requirements, allowing developers to use more of their land on the housing itself. While many cities ask developers to limit the number of apartments in a given project to assuage traffic concerns, Minneapolis has told developers to make certain projects larger.
These changes have catalyzed apartment construction, Hamilton said. While Memphis-area rents rose 30% between March 2020 and June 2022, rents in the Minneapolis area only rose 5% — the second smallest increase in the country — according to research from Apartment List.
Minneapolis’ approach to housing policy not only suppresses rent hikes; it also protects the planet. Almost 30% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, with personal vehicles making up the majority of that. And because dense development allows people to live closer to their jobs, researchers at the environmentalist think tank RMI estimated that zoning reforms could reduce the number of miles people drive by up to 20%.
Racist roots and repercussions
Mabry didn’t understand the main complaints against his Collierville proposal.
The occupants of the relatively small complex — all of whom would have been older than 55 or certified caregivers — wouldn’t have driven enough to cause major traffic issues. And crime concerns struck him as ridiculous.
“Seniors don’t commit crime,” said Mabry, who is one of Memphis’ few Black housing developers.
Plus, it’s a myth that new apartment complexes increase crime in the area, according to national and local studies. This is especially true if they include fewer than five buildings, like the one Smith and Mabry proposed.
What really bothered the neighbors, he thinks, was that Black folks might have moved in; 40% of the units were going to be reserved for low-income residents. Collierville is 68% white, and in Shelby County, 70% of low-income residents are Black.
While none of the nearby residents mentioned race in their letters of opposition or remarks to the all-white Board of Mayor and Aldermen, a handful brought up crime or “hometown culture.”
“Will the safety of the neighborhood be compromised?” one woman wrote to the aldermen. “Safety is paramount since my husband works nights and I am often alone with our child. I don’t want to fear walking to the mailbox or doing yard work.”
Another woman complained that she had moved to Collierville from Memphis to get away from “the big city with all its problems.”
When MLK50 asked Worley and Joyner via email whether racism played any role in Mabry’s project not receiving a rezoning, town spokesperson Jennifer Casey replied with the following statement:
“The Heritage Oaks project was denied because the Board believed the project was in the wrong place. We encouraged the developer to find another tract of land for the project. The Town has a history of giving serious consideration to surrounding neighborhoods. Protecting the integrity of neighborhoods against incompatible land uses has long been a top priority. The record will show the most vocal opposition to the development came from the immediate neighbors who are predominantly African Americans. Racism had no place in the decision.”
Many of the property’s immediate neighbors on Harris Street and Sycamore Road are Black. While only two Black neighbors opposed the project at the Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting, Casey said Joyner also received calls and emails. Mabry, though, said that white Magnolia Square residents presented far more opposition, with four speaking against the project that night and more opposing it throughout the development process. A recent study in Massachusetts found that the people who show up to such meetings are disproportionately old, white, male homeowners.
Kelly, who is white, said he and his neighbors’ opposition didn’t have “anything to do with (race).” All of his Magnolia Square neighbors reached by MLK50 declined to discuss their opposition.
While current racist motivations can be difficult to determine, experts said NIMBY-ism and restrictive zoning are rooted in racist pasts.
After the Supreme Court ruled against explicitly racist zoning in 1917, cities sought other ways of keeping Black families out of middle-class neighborhoods or suburbs. Realizing that limiting the housing supply could keep neighborhoods too expensive for Black families, many cities passed rules against building apartments or putting homes too close together, according to Economic Policy Institute distinguished fellow Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law.
And these policies continue to perpetuate segregation by increasing prices the most in whiter areas — where test scores are high, life expectancies are long and economic opportunity abounds.
“Those laws that are still on the books are still doing what they were designed to do when they were enacted,” National Fair Housing Alliance CEO Lisa Rice told attendees of the State of Memphis Housing Summit in November. “(And) in the U.S., place is so heavily linked to opportunity.”
While only 35% of Shelby County residents are white, all of its suburbs are majority white.
Leading up to Juneteenth last year, President Joe Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers made a racial equity case for zoning reform: making middle- and upper-class neighborhoods more accessible could diminish the racial wealth gap, they said. Biden included $5 billion in his American Jobs Plan to reward cities that allowed more housing to be built. But no such funds were included in the re-branded Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed in August 2022.
In Collierville, 60-year town resident Annette Key worries about the Black community disappearing. As her generation dies out and their homes go on the market, she doubts younger African Americans will be able to afford them. She was saddened to see the defeat of Mabry’s development.
“(Neighbors) are going to assume the lower price the (apartment) is, the lower class of the person,” said Key, the secretary of the town’s NAACP branch. “That’s the feeling: ‘We don’t want that type of riff-raff.’”
Any apartment would do
Susie Mitchell avoids her rooming house’s shared living space, especially when the owner has company. Cooking is difficult, given the burnt-out stove. And she’s tired of being so far north of her mother, friends and family.
Every day, she drives from Frayser Boulevard to her auntie’s Whitehaven apartment to give her mom her insulin injections and check in on her.
Along with diabetes, Shirley Mitchell has high blood pressure and a significant learning disability. Susie Mitchell, who has a less severe learning impairment, had lived with and cared for her mother for the last nine years.
At this point, she would accept any two-bedroom apartment under $750 per month. It wouldn’t have to be nearly as nice as Mabry’s Collierville project would have been.
She recently filed her seventh application. To afford the fee, she didn’t pay her car note. Since she hasn’t been late on it before, she’s hoping for compassion.
With too few apartments, she needs seven to be her lucky number.
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.