"Memphis is more than new money" is written in spray paint on the plywood of new housing under construction.
Graffiti on the bones of a new development on Madison Avenue in 2020 left pointed messages in protest of new luxury apartments in Midtown: “Memphis is more than new money.” Also included in the messages were “Welcome to Nashville” and “Real Ugly, but Real Talk.” Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: renting in Memphis ain’t easy. For starters, Memphis has been a target for Wall Street-backed rental property investors since the Great Recession. Some of these “profits first, people last” companies have acquired up to 5,000 single-family homes in the Memphis area alone. These “investors” artificially increase rental prices while simultaneously resisting attempts by local government to enact legislation that ensures that properties conform to safety standards.

Thanks to investigative reporting from local news outlets and the powerful “Evicted” exhibit featured at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library this past winter, Memphians know more about the speculative dealings of corporate landlords than ever before. Thus, it must be asked: what are you going to do about it?

What is the Greater Memphis Housing Justice Project?

That’s where we come into play. The authors of this op-ed (listed below) represent a group of concerned community organizations that seek to raise awareness of the human costs of living in Memphis: unsustainable rates of evictions; a lack of affordable, quality housing rentals; and the lowest Black homeownership rate in the country. In order to transform a housing system engineered to exploit working-class citizens, a transformative coalition is needed — one where Memphians (regardless of housing status) come together to envision and implement innovative housing policy solutions by Memphians, for Memphians. After all, those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.

Given our local government’s recent focus on housing stability, we’d like to briefly outline what a “housing justice ethos” could look like in Memphis and encourage you to join our movement. This ethos could become foundational for future housing stability interventions aimed at fundamentally changing the realities of renting in our city.

Process is Policy

In Shelby County, housing system interventions begin as discussions about laws, policies and programs. These forums are often convened by a small number of elected officials or well-connected “experts” who are always present in spaces where the levers of power are manipulated. Ironically, the focus of these conversations (i.e., working-class renters) is rarely given a voice.

“Nothing About Us Without Us” was the mantra of the disability justice movement during the lead-up to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act and has continued to serve as a rallying cry for many other social justice movements. Today, we invoke this expression as a first step in building a Memphis housing justice ethos. As some Shelby County elected officials save us a seat at the table and others dismiss our suggestions and experience, we are building our own housing justice table with a seat for any local government official (elected or otherwise) who wants to join the fight.   

Those Closest to the Problems are Closest to the Solution

A Black woman holding a microphone reads from her phone in front of a group of onlookers. They are all standing in front of a government building.
A coalition of organizations and community members gathered in 2021 to outline the Moral Budget Coalition outside the Shelby County government building. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Today, we don’t have to look far for examples of the people-powered transformation we aspire to emulate. In 2021, the Moral Budget Coalition was formed in response to the absence of community voices in establishing priorities in the Shelby County budget. After all, many of the problems and challenges the budget seeks to address are felt more deeply by everyday Memphians, so shouldn’t their voices be elevated?

In Kansas City last year, a similar tenant-led housing justice movement successfully pushed for a “right to counsel” program, which guaranteed that any tenant facing eviction would have the right to an attorney to represent them in court. A recent eviction court watch conducted by the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Innovate Memphis and Rhodes College found that over 95% of tenants did not have an attorney representing them, while over 80% of landlords did. As of late last year, 15 cities and three states have enacted laws that establish a right to counsel. If tenants in other cities can come together and get a right-to-counsel law passed, why not Memphis?

Join the Movement

As we speak, the Shelby County Commission is preparing to vote on the adoption of a project, the Housing Stability Pilot, based on our work. However, the current design and proposed implementation intentionally exclude community voices, despite our best efforts to support their inclusion. Whether it’s “right to counsel,” creating a special Housing Court or stronger regulation around rental property conditions, these policies will change when enough Memphians stand up and say, “Enough is enough.” It’s time to choose people over profits and that choice starts with you. 

Will you join us in the fight for housing justice? 

Please sign the petition and send letters to Mayor Lee Harris and the Shelby County Commission