Lessons from Memphis’s collaborative campaign against blight
Older industrial cities continue to lose populations at alarming rates, leaving behind vacant properties that over time become decrepit and rundown. Without resources to rebuild or raze these buildings, urban blight quickly takes over. Many studies and articles document the toll that blight takes on communities, such as lost property values and taxes along with increases in crime, graffiti, illegal dumping, and so on. A 2015 property condition survey in Cleveland found 12,000 vacant and abandoned structures with 50 percent in need of demolition. Detroit’s 2014 Blight Removal Task Force plan identified over 80,000 derelict structures and vacant lots, with 40,000 in need of demolition. According to the Legacy City Design Project, each of these cities lost over 50 percent of their populations from their peak (usually around 1960 and 1970) to 2010.
But one city is taking an innovate step to try to address blight, and its work may help inform other cities’ efforts. The Greater Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter aims to enable stronger coordination across the nonprofit, public, and private sectors, with the ambitious vision that all neighborhoods have the right to be free from the harms that blight causes.
As a region with modest but steady population gains and economic growth, Memphis/Shelby County in Tennessee isn’t a place most people would associate with blight. Yet, the combination of sprawl and poverty seem to have created the right climate for encouraging blighted properties. From 1970 to 2010, Memphis’s population grew a modest 4 percent, while its total land area expanded 35 percent. In the recent 2016 Distressed Communities Index, which tracks several socioeconomic indicators (e.g., poverty, housing vacancy, and adult unemployment), Memphis ranked as the ninth-most distressed city in the United States. As a result of these conditions, the Memphis nonprofit Neighborhood Preservation Inc. (NPI) estimates the city has 13,000 vacant properties in need of substantial interventions, such as demolition or boarding.
Memphis’s new charter is an attempt to change that. Although the charter is not a legally binding document, it can be a game plan to align pivotal actors, various program and policy levers, and the necessary public and philanthropic resources to reclaim and reuse vacant properties.
The charter idea geminated with NPI, a local community development intermediary that realized the only way to expand Memphis’s blight-fighting efforts would be through collective action by all of the existing organizations and agencies. NPI leveraged its long-standing relationships with many of these blight-fighting groups and leaders within city and county government and the community in selecting members for the charter steering committee. As the facilitator for NPI and the five-month charter process, I witnessed the group’s transformation firsthand. Over the course of monthly meetings and though a series of small group exercises, members began to understand the complexities and dimensions of blight, the significance of data, and the limits of individual efforts. They also shared personal and organizational stories about how blight affected their work and their resolve for collective action. These stories, ideas, and insights were compiled into early drafts, refined by the group, and crafted into the final charter that everyone could support. The Memphis charter experience offers several important lessons for other cities interested in addressing blight:
- Find the right champion. Nonprofit intermediaries can play pivotal roles, often combining process knowledge with significant expertise in blight policy and programs. Based on his ability to engage people, NPI cofounder and blight litigator Steve Barlow engendered high levels of trust and support from public officials, civic organizations, and community leaders, and this empowered him to drive the Memphis blight agenda. The passion and energy of a catalytic leader ensured the success of NPI and to the charter process.
- Invest time and resources in the process. The Memphis experience reinforces the importance of meaningful engagement around critical revitalization policies that brings together the right mix of leaders and organizations. The process of creating a charter is often more important that the result, as it builds mutual understanding of blight’s problems and solutions among the key stakeholders.
- Tell the story with blight data. Gathering and synthesizing data about the number of vacant properties, their locations, their neighborhood impacts, and the citywide costs is a critical step in telling a community’s blight story. Many cities, such as Memphis, do not have all the information they need, but the charter process raised awareness about the need for better vacant property and blight data and for demystifying agency and nonprofit roles.
- Customize the charter’s content. The charter’s principles should reflect core values and local priorities. These principles can also promote essential strategies such as data-driven decisionmaking, strategic code enforcement, land banking, and urban greening. More importantly, however, a charter can speak to the social impacts of blight, its racial legacy, and the disparate impacts that blight imposes on communities of color.
- Leverage the charter to bring attention to disinvested neighborhoods. The NPI communication team’s framing and marketing activities around the Memphis charter and Community Blight Summit helped attract new voices to the blight fight. The summit not only celebrated the charter’s release but also generated political and community momentum through news articles, a compelling website, and a powerful video.
- Adapt best practices and innovative policies from other places. Dozens of cities are testing new ways of reclaiming, restoring, and reusing vacant, blighted properties. National networks and nonprofits, such as the Center for Community Progress, offer opportunities for practitioners and policymakers to share ideas and support each other.
- Form a blight coordinating council or team. Blight did not happen overnight, and it will take the concerted efforts of a willing coalition to address the constant churn of property abandonment in our cities. Too often, however, the great ideas set forth in blight plans or charters do not get off the ground. Based on the 10-year track record of Cleveland’s Vacant and Abandoned Property Action Council, communities should create and convene a regular working group around blight-elimination activities and initiatives. Memphis put implementation front and center by writing a separate section in the charter that calls for two critical goals: forming a Blight Coordinating Team and developing a Blight Elimination Action Plan. Plans are already underway in Memphis to bring that team together for its first meeting this month.
Blight charters can be critical first steps for communities reclaiming and reusing vacant and abandoned properties. Policymakers and community leaders must understand that while such documents can rally everyone around common principles and goals, they are also living documents that must be constantly consulted, reviewed, and revised. With the release and subsequent endorsements of its Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter, Memphis has charted a new course in its long history of fighting blighted properties and offers other cities a potentially new path.
Memphis, Tennessee is pictured in February 2016. Photo via Shutterstock.