SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — Thousands of blighted Shelby County properties are exempted from property taxes, even though some of them should be paying.

WREG found out the state isn’t keeping tabs on any of the exempt properties. It doesn’t even maintain an “active list” of exemptions, just the applications it’s received.

The dilapidated building in the picture below is on North Dunlap in Memphis. It was once a church, but it now sits empty with overgrown weeds, busted windows and a giant tree crushing the backside of the building.

“It’s terrible. Just terrible,” said neighbor Jannie Harper said. She called it a “disgrace to the community.”

A former church, now vacant and falling down, on North Dunlap in Memphis.

It’s a similar situation in South Memphis.

“It was here when I got here,” Geraldine Downey said, as she pointed to an old church next to her house on Wicks.

She says the special place she got married hasn’t been the same since her pastor got sick years ago. She said no one else moved in, unless you count thieves.

“Taking pipes, wires, everything out. Wrought iron, air conditioning, chairs. Just everything,” Downey said.

While neighbors didn’t have the exact dates, they tell us both properties have looked like blight for far too long. They said they are creating eyesores in their communities.

WREG has learned that despite the blight, the owners are not paying property taxes.

County records classify both places as religious institutions, exempting them from all property taxes.

According to Tennessee law, the State Board of Equalization in Nashville can grant tax exemptions to properties including those owned by charitable, religious, scientific and non-profit educational organizations.

In Shelby County alone, there are more than 17,500 properties currently on the tax exempt list according to Javier Bailey with the Shelby County Assessor’s Office

“So once the exemption is granted, it kind of remains exempt until such time it comes to the attention of the state,” Bailey said.

That means the property remains tax free until the state find outs it’s “not currently in use, has been abandoned, is not suitable for human habitation or is being used for nonexempt purpose.”

It also doesn’t require the assessor’s office proactively investigate. It just asks that the assessor’s office or a taxpayer let them know when a property is called into question.

Our investigation revealed that only happened five times between Jan 2019 and July 2021 with Shelby County properties.

“We realize that there are hundreds of properties that probably should not continue to be exempt,” Bailey said.

He explained some were recently brought to their attention.

“And the assessor has asked his staff to figure out what he can and cannot do under the law,” Bailey said.

As the law stands, a property’s exemption can only be removed if it’s transferred to a new owner or the state overturns it. So Bailey says right now all they can do is sift through every exempt property and let the state know what they find.

“We are going to ask the state to say Shelby County, here’s what you can and cannot do,” he said. “Upon receiving that kind of guidance, we will then take action.”

Bailey said he believes the undertaking will be difficult.

“Technology has changed now. We have the ability through, what we call picometre. It’s kind of like satellite views to view properties to get in the car and drive over to them,” Bailey said.

He said believes it will make a difference in the county.

“Once the properties that should not be exempt are placed back on the tax rolls, that forces the owners either to clean up the properties, to develop the properties or they are sold,” he said. “Because now there is a tax obligation attached to the property.”

Neighbors who live near these two churches hope that happens sooner than later.

We tried finding the current owners of the churches on Wicks and North Dunlap, but had no luck. Records indicate both properties have changed hands within the last decade, but the exemption remained.

We will let you know when the assessor’s office puts together that list.

If you would like to notify the state about a property: email sb.web@cot.tn.gov and include where the property is and a short statement of why you think the property should no longer be exempt.