Neighbors say blight fight made more difficult after coronavirus closes courts

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Neighbors fighting blight for years in a northeast Memphis neighborhood say they feel their efforts have come to a halt due to the coronavirus.

They say blight is now spreading in this pandemic, literally spilling into the street.

In the community development world, few would question that the building at 853 North Highland is a “nuisance property.” A refrigerator, bags of trash, and pieces of metal and wood are piled high, overflowing into the sidewalk and into the busy street.

“Behind us is one of those properties and possibly, probably the worst in the neighborhood, where a lot of time it doesn’t get better,” said Christina Crutchfield with The Heights Community Development Corporation, a non-profit serving the neighborhoods north of Summer Avenue.

She says her team has tried to do something about this property for months.

“No matter how many times we have taken it to court, no matter how many times we’ve reported it, it just doesn’t seem to get better,” Crutchfield said.

The building’s owner has received several code violations and has been in and out of Environmental Court since last year. Crutchfield says neighborhood associations have shown up to court three different times to protest this property.

“Every time it gets extended, it just pushes back the time they have to hopefully clean it up,” she said.

The latest court date got postponed indefinitely.

To stop the spread of COVID-19, the Tennessee Supreme Court ordered only in-custody cases can continue, meaning everything in Environmental Court is on hold.

Over the last month, Crutchfield said things at the North Highland building keep getting worse. It’s at the point where people have to walk in the street to get around it, she said.

According to tax and property records, the owner of the commercial property is listed as an LLC called JD Ventures Rust. It owns several other properties and is behind on taxes.

We tried calling several phone numbers associated with one of the owners, but had no luck.

Memphis city officials told us they can do some virtual hearings in Environmental Court, but the owner has to agree to it. They’ve contacted the owner to set something up.

There are other blighted properties in the area that neighbors say are also getting worse in the pandemic. Crutchfield is certain other neighborhoods are facing this problem

“It’s a major concern and problem we’ve been experiencing in our neighborhood,” she said.

Code Enforcement says their efforts have “not wavered due to COVID-19,” and “exterior inspections and notice of violations have not been affected” except for “some slight modifications made to accommodate social distancing.”

Code Enforcement said interior inspections are only taking place in emergency situations.

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