By Madeline Faber
Blighted properties, overgrown lots and abandoned buildings are not unique to Memphis. But Memphis is the only city with a blight elimination charter that affirms cross-sector commitment to uproot the causes of blight and prevent further decline.
On March 17, a 35-person steering committee introduced the Blight Elimination Charter, a 23-page document designed by national experts and local municipal and development leaders.
The initiative is spearheaded by Neighborhood Preservation Inc., a nonprofit led by attorney Steve Barlow and developer Archie Willis. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said their municipalities will no longer tolerate a culture of blight.
Two nationally renowned blight abatement experts, Joe Schilling with the Urban Institute, and Kermit Lind with the Cleveland Marshall College of Law, have worked to draft the charter over the past year and a half.
A document can’t repair the decades of economic decline, crime and poverty linked to Memphis’ blight epidemic, but it does unite the fragmented efforts of the past decade in bringing about policy and cultural changes.
At the kickoff event held at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, nearly 150 people gathered to bring in the next chapter of Memphis’ flight against blight.
The first step in that fight is a cultural change. With nearly 13,000 identified blighted properties, dilapidation has become another part of Memphis’ landscape.
“The existence of blight is so prevalent it seems normal,” explained Lind.
“Memphis is among places where the culture of blight has deep roots,” added Schilling. “People have become numb to seeing blighted properties, and out of fear or frustration, it is being ignored.”
“We are 100 percent committed to the charter,” Strickland said. With that support, the next step for the charter is securing the formal endorsement of Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission.
Several members of the steering committee will continue on with the project as part of an action team to form in the spring. The first agenda item will be coming up with short- and long-term strategies to breathe life into the charter.
Barlow’s vision is that the charter act as a living document that affirms commitment and accountability, but can change to meet Memphis’ needs.
The charter’s vision statement reads, “Every neighborhood in Memphis and in
Shelby County has the right to be free from the negative impacts and influences caused by vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties.”
And its 10 core principles include:
• Acknowledge that blighted properties in Memphis neighborhoods harm the whole city and the region.
• Understand that blighted properties are more than just a matter of appearance – they reflect complex underlying economic and social challenges.
• Demand collaboration and strong leadership across all sectors, organizations and initiatives.
• Expand information systems, capabilities and capacities to ensure better data driven decision-making.
• Develop a policy system that continually adapts and refines its policies, procedures and programs.
• Initiate strategic proactive interventions and investment.
• Engage and empower the community in neighborhood stabilization and revitalization activities to address blighted properties.
• Encourage a new culture of care and renewal through a mix of incentives and penalties.
• Link blighted property remediation policies and programs with Memphis’ land use, community development, and economic development plans and relevant regulations, codes and development processes.
• Position Memphis as a national leader for developing innovative blight elimination solutions.