Stuck in the system: Why a blighted home can remain standing when it is both a public nuisance and tax delinquent

When the government fails to guard Memphis neighborhoods and Shelby County taxpayers

Blight: Stuck in the system

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - When 92-year-old Ozzie Elliott sits on the front porch of her South Memphis home, she faces the home across the street that has been boarded up, vacant and neglected for the better part of 10 years.

“It’s kind of lonesome to me,” said Elliott. “It’s kind of scary. There’s people that go in there.”

Down the street is Fletcher’s Memorial Community Baptist Church.

Over the years, the pastors have watched the homes on Lucy Avenue change from vibrant to vacant. However, the church has remained.

“The abandoned home says nobody cares,” said Rev. Dr. Della Brengettsey. “But the church’s responsibility is to take care of the people who are left behind. The forgotten ones.”

Pastor Guy Martin remembers years ago when there was activity at 310 Lucy Ave.

“It looked real nice,” he said. “It had a lot of people in and out.”

However, due to negligent home owners and a lack of government oversight, the house has continued to deteriorate for over a decade.

The WMC Action News 5 Investigators looked into the history of the blighted property and found that in March 2009 a City of Memphis code enforcement inspector deemed the property derelict and the city scheduled the home for demolition.

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According to Public Works Director Robert Knecht, the property owner was given a chance to rehabilitate the property. He never did.

The homeowner also had not been paying his taxes.

The following year, in 2010, the Shelby County trustee put the home up for a tax sale.

There were no buyers and it went into the Shelby County Land Bank, which is a depository for county-owned properties with an online portal, available to buyers worldwide.

In 2012, another person bought the property by buying the back taxes on the home. However, that second owner also did not rehab the property and code violations began piling up.

What’s more, he stopped paying his taxes too.

“You and I are paying our taxes and we’re paying someone else’s share,” said Shelby County Trustee Regina Newman.

Newman is in charge of collecting delinquent taxes.

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Memphis properties qualify for a tax sale if the property owner is 17 months or more behind on their taxes.

When Newman took office last year, there were 11,740 tax sale-eligible properties waiting for action.

“One of the reasons was that the title work wasn’t able to be done by the vendor that my predecessor had,” she said. “It’s very difficult with five or six tax sales a year for any one vendor to do that much title work. That’s thousands and thousands of parcels of title work.”

To get those properties moving, Newman recently hired three additional law firms to do the title work necessary.

In October, 310 Lucy Ave. was put up for a tax sale and there was no buyer.

The current owner of the home gets a redemption period, but if he doesn’t pay his taxes by then Shelby County will take the property and it will go into its land bank.

There are over 4,500 properties in the land bank at a maintenance cost of approximately $600 each. That means Shelby County taxpayers are paying $1.5 million each year to take care of properties for which no one else is caring.

However, as 310 Lucy shows from its past, a new buyer doesn’t guarantee new life.

We called other cities with land banks and found the Detroit Land Bank Authority in Michigan requires buyers to renovate blighted properties within six months. Shelby County does not.

Detroit will take back ownership of properties that aren’t improved.

Meanwhile, the only recourse in Shelby County is tacking on more code violations, which puts the responsibility back on code enforcement at the Shelby County Environmental Court, where code violations are enforced if inspectors aren’t having success with an owner.

“You can’t just keep selling properties as is without listing what’s wrong with the properties and then not having any level of accountability when you sell those properties,” said Judge Patrick Dandridge.

He is the sole person deciding cases in Shelby County Environmental Court.

“They’ll sell blighted properties, that perhaps need to be demolished, for pennies on the dollar. Well, that’s not going to help the blight fight,” he told the WMC Investigators. “That might help gain some of part of the taxes that were paid but you have not addressed or identified the blight that’s just continuing.”

The Investigators: Thousands of blighted homes impacting Memphis neighborhoods

310 Lucy has been in Environmental Court since 2016 when the City sued the homeowner, saying the property was a public nuisance.

The Investigators asked Robert Knecht why the house could be condemned, declared a public nuisance and still no action has been taken.

“As it was not rehabilitated and has not been condemned this is a good example of a property that we should have definitely managed better,” Knecht answered in an email.

After more than a decade of watching and waiting, Ms. Elliott hopes the house across the street will someday look like a home again.

“I wish someone would move in it,” she said.

The pastors who stayed behind to care for the forgotten ones prays Lucy Avenue returns to what it once was.

“We need to encourage people to come on back to Memphis,” said Brengettsey. “Take part and be a part of what’s going on here because we really have something great going on in Memphis.”

The City of Memphis plans to sue 310 Lucy Ave. under a new amendment to the state’s Neighborhood Preservation Act, which allows cities to sue nuisance properties when owners can’t be found. That could lead to another demolition date for the property.

The Investigators went to other two addresses for the owner of 310 Lucy to try to speak with him but had no luck tracking him down.

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