Neighborhood Building in Memphis: A Strategy of Hope

Neighborhood Building in Memphis: A Strategy of Hope

By Jarrett Spence, J.D. Candidate, University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, Neighborhood Preservation Clinic  //

The Executive Inn

For years, one of the very first sights to greet people entering Memphis from our airport was the Executive Inn. This time last year, the hotel – which was owned by an anonymous corporation in another state – was one of the most pernicious blighted properties in town. The exterior walls had literally fallen off, revealing a three-story derelict dollhouse covered in graffiti and garbage.

This was hardly the first impression we wanted to give visitors to our city. Moreover, residents and businesses in the area were fighting a hopeless battle against this abandoned nuisance.

Today, the Executive Inn site is a blank canvass, ready for development, and no longer a hazard its neighbors. It fell to a wrecking ball following a lawsuit by the City of Memphis. As a law student in the University of Memphis’ School of Law’s Neighborhood Preservation Clinic, I was there to watch it happen – and I look forward making sure more abandoned, blighted properties have the same fate.

The Neighborhood Preservation Act

The sharpest tool in our legal toolbox is the Neighborhood Preservation Act (NPA), a Tennessee statute that allows citizens to bring lawsuits against the owners of blighted properties. The NPA compels property owners to appear in court, where a judge can order them to demolish or repair their property – or risk losing it to receivership. Derelict property owners are not released from court supervision until the problem is completely solved.

In Memphis, the law has been used aggressively by Mayor A C Wharton, Jr., who personally filed 138 NPA lawsuits against vacant, abandoned, and nuisance property owners in October 2010. The Downtown Memphis Commission, several area hospitals, and a myriad of neighborhood associations have also filed suits under the NPA, to tremendous effect. Abandoned houses are being renovated and restored to productive use. Dangerous, unsalvageable properties are being razed to protect people and property values.

We believe there are at least 10,000 abandoned single-family houses, 3,000 abandoned multifamily units, and 1,000 abandoned commercial structures in the City of Memphis. The next front in the battle to reclaim our neighborhoods is giving tomorrow’s lawyers the training they need today. That’s why the School of Law launched the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic this January. We’re being given hands-on experience in all facets of NPA cases – ranging from investigating property ownership and conditions of blighted properties all over Memphis, to working with code-enforcement officers, preparing civil lawsuits, and ultimately prosecuting negligent property owners.

The Neighborhood Preservation Clinic

I am one of eight law students prosecuting blight on behalf of the City of Memphis in the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic – the only one of its kind in the country. The long-term possibilities of this Clinic are truly inspiring. The scale of the problem in Memphis is immense, but every successful legal challenge only unlocks more and more enthusiasm for what we can do using the powerful legal tools at our disposal.

Blight is a cancer to our communities. Left untreated, it can infect the entire body. Recognized and addressed swiftly, a full recovery is usually possible.

As with any treatment, the patient needs support, patience, and positivity to surround them. When we use the law to hold nuisance property owners accountable, we not only remove a blighted structure from a neighborhood, we replace it with hope –the most powerful community development tool of all.

Photo credit: University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law

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