MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An organization is tackling the blight that plagues the city head-on and making changes, one house at a time.
The Blight Authority of Memphis works with developers to turn forgotten areas into beautiful places to live.
At Wolf River Bluffs in Frayser, what used to be a wooded area is now a sprawling and vibrant neighborhood. It’s a project that was conducted by a partnership with United Housing and the City of Memphis.
“Each of these homes are energy efficient, affordable, and great opportunities for the citizens here in the city of Memphis,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Blight Authority, as he walked through the neighborhood.
“If you see all this land behind us with the beautiful forest background, all that land is currently in our Land Bank depository program at the Blight Authority, by United Housing. Because in the future they intend to build more programs like this here in Frayser,” he said.
Harris makes the connections for this type of change to happen in a city trying to get rid of unused, problem areas.
“We are taking blighted vacant lots and we are transforming them into economic opportunities,” he said.
The Blight Authority was formed by the Memphis City Council in 2015 and charged with helping solve a growing problem of blight in Memphis — properties that have long been forgotten, abandoned, or kept in such poor condition they have become a stain on the community.
“This is a new way of addressing home ownership, and the blight issues in regards to properties,” said Memphis City Council Member Cheyenne Johnson.
She sits on the Blight Authority Board and is a liaison for the City Council. She says that, instead of developing one property here and another there, BAM acts as a land bank for developers.
“So what BAM does is, BAM actually holds the property for the developers until we have a significant number of properties that it actually makes sense, financially, to actually make improvements or rebuild those properties,” Johnson said.
By acquiring empty lots from the Land Bank, the Blight Authority can sell it to a qualified developer to build an affordable home there and slowly improve the entire area.
“What we would do is begin the research to see if any of the other properties are having tax issues or what the ownership situation is,” Harris said. “If they are just here and they are vacant, how can we find ways to acquire them.”
That means not only selling to local developers but also to individuals and nonprofits who want to purchase in their own neighborhoods and improve where they live.
“We are identifying so many people in the community already, that are just resident community leaders, who are passionate about their communities and want to make it better, and they want to participate in these programs and be a part of this,” Harris said.
They are looking strategically for properties in Frayser, North Memphis, South Memphis, Westwood, and Orange Mound, with a goal of moving eastward.
They can then work with a developer who tries to put affordable housing on the land, like a tiny home project, where the lots are smaller and all the homes are under $100,000. It’s similar to an apartment, but it’s something people own instead of rent.
“Think about the families that are suffering from housing insecurity,” Harris said. “Well, to be able to have something that you can call your own, to be able to say, ‘You know what, when I come home every day, this is my own.’ That’s a great feeling.”
BAM also hopes to change how real estate is done. Instead of out-of-town investors buying properties, they want opportunities for locals to get a chance to make their communities better.
“We’re not working with the out-of-town, ill-intentioned investors,” Harris said. “We’re focused on, how do we take care of Memphis — Memphis first.”
BAM works with the local developers to determine what’s the best use and what fits into the communities, building and making homeownership possible.
For a lot of families, this can be a new beginning, a legacy, or a pathway to home ownership. It’s something they can pass down, generation to generation.