Eric Anthony knows his Hayden Place duplex needs renovations.
For years, his landlord refused to fix major issues. Multiple times, he’s had feces back up into his sink or flow into his backyard.
But Anthony is even more frustrated by his new landlord, Cameron Ellis. A major renovation planned by Ellis, a local real estate investor, will soon result in Anthony’s displacement. And he has no idea where he’s going to go.
“I’m losing control of everything,” Anthony said.
Ellis bought Anthony’s duplex, along with 24 adjacent ones and a small apartment complex, in February. And in recent weeks, he’s started $2 million worth of improvements.
This work by the young, Black investor fills a need. Despite major maintenance issues, the properties have been largely neglected for decades, according to residents and building permit records. And local leaders have long decried the lack of investment in Memphis’ Black neighborhoods that eventually leaves properties falling into disrepair.
But Ellis’ investment plans don’t include renewing any leases, which has left the community reeling. Many of the residents of the Hayden Place and Waynoka Avenue duplexes predated Ellis’ purchase by at least 15 years. They knew their neighbors well, watched out for each other and enjoyed their streets’ low crime rate. Now, they’re being dispersed.
After enduring unhealthy conditions for years, they’ve now been forced to fend for themselves in an inhospitable housing market. Lost in the progress of Memphis’ core city neighborhoods attracting investment they haven’t seen in decades, these people’s loss is a reminder of the pain that much-needed work can bring.
To capture this pain, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism asked three residents to share their stories, which were edited for length and clarity.
Ellis declined to be interviewed but sent the following response:
“Not renewing a lease is not unethical or illegal. Tenants are not being forced out. Simply, the leases are expiring, and we are not renewing.”
Eric Anthony, 56
I’ve been over here in Binghampton for about 35 years and in my duplex on Hayden Place for six or seven.
Recently, someone walked around with papers. They said, “We just want to let y’all know we’re not going to renew your lease.”
It was just like saying, “Master said you got to get out of here by such and such time,” or “Find you somewhere to go, cockroaches.”
They ain’t giving us no type of options or somewhere else to live. White people who have good ass jobs will be in my duplex.
I have six grandkids living with me. Finding out we’d have to move felt like I was having another heart attack. I was thinking, “Oh my God, what could happen worse now?”
Where are my grandbabies going to go to school? Our school is in walking distance, and I don’t have a car.
Recently, my blood pressure went up so high I had to go to the hospital because I was worrying so much. They had to keep me overnight.
My doctor said, “You need to stop worrying.” I said, “I can’t. I might not have a place to lay my head anymore. I’m f——.”
You just can’t imagine how it feels for someone to come tell you, “Get gone.”
Who’s to say where we’re going to go? And who’s to say where we’re going to go will be safe? Everybody here is kind of on the same page. We look out for each other. That was just too good to be true.
(Editor’s note: The only homicide on either street in the last 10 years was a justifiable homicide, according to Memphis Police Department data. And there was just one violent crime — an aggravated assault — in the two years preceding Ellis’ purchase.)
Other people have it worse than me. They told some of my neighbors who didn’t have a lease they had to go immediately. I have until my lease ends in November.
But I’m not going to be able to find nothing by then because I can’t afford nothing. I’m already struggling to pay $575 a month, and it’s hard to find something for less than $650.
I’m on disability. I have custody over my grandbabies, so I need to be with them most of the time. I get an $800 check each month. I try to hustle to make ends meet and pay my light bill. But after I had a heart attack two years ago, I don’t have the energy to do much stuff. And I don’t have a car.
If God is for me, what can be against me? I’m not going to give up on faith. I know He’ll make a way somehow.
But I’m worried I may not be able to take care of my children anymore. I’m a single grandaddy, raising all these children. They’re probably going to have to live with their mom, who didn’t take care of them.
I wish, I wish, I wish I had money so I could take care of my children.
Mary Humphrey, 75
I’ve been here ever since 1983.
They gave me until October 31. But they said they’re not going to renew my lease.
How can you just walk up, give a person a piece of paper and tell them to get out?
They’re just throwing us out for nothing.
I am just so confused and I am so angry. I am so angry. I know it’s their property. But I’ve been here 40 years.
Before this happened, I just bought new light fixtures to go all the way through my house. And that’s just money wasted. I feel like just taking them down and throwing them in the garbage; I don’t want to leave it to them.
I’m very angry.
I know we Black. But we’re still human. Treat us right.
In spite of it all, I found somewhere to go. I worked for the University of Memphis for 35 years and have retirement. I found a one-bedroom on Harvard Avenue (less than a mile away). I had to find something.
When they handed me that paper, it was like they were evicting me then. I wasn’t going to wait until October.
But a lot of people don’t have nowhere to go. They can’t afford anywhere. I’m angry for them.
We just was family. If I left, I knew somebody was watching out for me. If we got sick, we’d watch out for each other. I knew most all of their children.
I’m going to miss sitting on this porch and just looking at everybody.
It’s rough. It’s rough. It’s rough.
Sometimes, I sit and cry.
We just got to go our separate ways now.
But, it’s going to be alright. God got us. And he gonna take care of us. Because I’m a firm believer in God. And without him, I would have not made it this far.
My mother, who’s dead and gone, always said, “If you put God first, no matter what happens, he can handle it and you’ll be able to handle it.”
If we live right, we might not be together here on earth, but when that great day comes, we’ll all get together again.
Eric Brown, 58
The letter said to be out by April 3. Then they said we had until May 1, but I’m praying to God they don’t come evict me.
I have been riding my bicycle around the neighborhood, trying to find somewhere for rent. I haven’t found anything for sure, but I think the Binghampton Development Corporation is going to have something for me in a couple of weeks.
We’ve been in this duplex 18 years, going on 19. I’ve been in Binghampton all my life. I’m 58. I grew up here. I went to Lester Elementary and East High.
My mom, who I live with, is worried. She has doctor appointments on Broad Avenue. If we move out somewhere, she can’t get to her appointments. She’s 79 years old. She walks to the community center and the store. But she’s too old to do too much walking.
I just found me a job at Lost Pizza right here on Poplar — a 10-minute walk.
We don’t want to move out of Binghampton because we know everyone in the neighborhood. If my mom needs to go to the doctor, neighbors help.
Most people on the street have been here for a while.
Binghampton is home.
Editor’s note: Since the initial interview was conducted, Eric Brown and his mother leased a house on Allison Street from the Binghampton Development Corporation. They love the look of their new place and are excited to move in.
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.