The Investigators: Work resumes at utility site amid race discrimination investigation

The Investigators: Work resumes at utility site amid race discrimination investigation

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A multi-million dollar MLGW project is the focus of a federal fair housing investigation centered on race.

The utility company just started work at the project site, even as the investigation continues.

Sixty-year-old Dorothy Ross is the reason there is an investigation.

Memphis Light, Gas and Water bought her home in the Hollywood/Hyde Park neighborhood and bulldozed it to make room for an expansion of its North Service Center.

“I miss that place,” Ross told the Investigators. “It was a nice neighborhood. I was comfortable, content. We didn’t have no problems. My children had a big old field. I could let them go over there and play basketball or whatever and I could watch them.”

The Investigators interviewed Ms. Ross at her *new home, which she purchased nearly three years ago.

“They was in a big hurry at the time but they still ain’t done nothing to the property over there,” she said.

That changed slightly in June when MLGW began preparing the site for that expansion.

The Center has been in the same location since the 1950s.

Ross purchased her home, which sat just across the street, in 1973.

Few things changed about 995 North Bingham until MLGW knocked on the door in 2017.

“My grandbaby say ‘someone want to see you,’ so I went to the door and they hand me that contract and I say, ‘what’s this contract for?’ She said, ‘we fixing to buy up around here.’”

MLGW’s contract put the value of Ross’s house at just under $18,000.

Ross told the company that would only cover the remaining balance on her mortgage.

It was not enough for a down payment on a new house or moving expenses.

“They said 'No, we’re just going to pay you what it’s worth and you got a certain amount of time to get out,’” she said of the utility.

Ms. Ross held on to her home as long as she could, even as the utility company continued to buy the houses surrounding hers.

But then, an MLGW employee sent Ross a letter that reads, “I sincerely appreciate the many conversations I have had with you. Again, your property is needed for the expansion of the North Service Center. Should we be unable to finalize the contract by March 2017, I will have no other choice but to forward this matter to our legal department.”

The purchase of Ross’s home was finalized in December 2017.

“I figured it was wrong they were taking our property. They was throwing us - it was like they was throwing us out of our houses. I don’t think that was fair,” said Ross.

She filed a housing discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development two months later.

The complaint alleges Mayor Jim Strickland and MLGW “forced her to sell her house and discriminated against her and her family based on their race and color.”

“Do you think it had to do with race,” asked the Investigators.

“I hate to say it though but yes. Because it was the other race they would’ve come in there with checks that long. You know what I mean? But they don’t want to give us anything,” she said."

The Investigators sat down with Alonzo Weaver, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for MLGW.

“I’m sorry they feel that way,” said Weaver. “We tried to work with them as best as we can. We tried to give them a fair price for the property.”

We asked Weaver why there was a rush to buy the properties when, nearly three years later, the lots remain empty.

“You need to know what you have available and know what’s there. That factors into the design,” he said.

According to Weaver, the expansion allows repair and maintenance operations to consolidate and move from MLGW’s Central Shops facility downtown.

“We want to serve our customers better, we want to be more efficient, we want to have good workspace for our employees,” he said. “So that’s part of the reason why we’re moving to that site.”

Weaver also said when the company made the decision to move, most of the properties in Ross’s neighborhood were vacant or abandoned.

“We’re choosing to make a $42 million investment in that neighborhood.”

“But there isn’t much a neighborhood left to invest in it sounds like from who we spoke to out there,” said the Investigators.

“Mmhmm,” said Weaver. “We saw that there was vacant property available, the neighborhood has changed, this is an area that we could expand in.”

Preparation work for the site was included in this year’s budget but because of the pandemic, construction won’t begin until next year.

Meanwhile, Ross remains just as perplexed about the transaction today as she was in 2017.

“I don’t see why they came in and want to take all our homes from us. And don’t want to help us get up on our feet to find something else.”

HUD wrote the Investigators an email saying the agency “cannot discuss an ongoing investigation at this time.”

Mayor Strickland was named in Ross’s complaint, so the Investigators reached out to his administration.

A city spokesperson said “this is an MLGW project and we do not purchase land on behalf of the utility.”

An MLGW spokesperson wrote in an email “MLGW respectfully declines to make further statements while the HUD investigation is ongoing.”

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