MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For those who may think sidewalks are no big deal, a WREG Problem Solvers investigation found the stakes can be very high for homeowners. 

Many are surprised to find out that they, not the city, are responsible for the sidewalks in front of their property. And if you are cited for poor sidewalks and don’t get them up to code, the City of Memphis can put a lien on your property.

George Thompson called the Problem Solvers when it happened to him. He, like many others who spoke with the Problem Solvers, thought sidewalks were the city’s responsibility.

He lives in the Speedway Terrace area on North Parkway, where large trees line the wide median.

“I wanted to know why as homeowners we have to pay for that when basically, the trees were already planted,” he said.

The city took him to environmental court where they threatened a lien on his property. He eventually paid around $3,000 for the new sidewalks.

“Like a hardship there,” he said of the cost, which he had to pay around the same time his wife died.

The experience left Thompson with a bad taste in his mouth so he called the WREG Problem Solvers. He thought the city was singling out his area.

“I want to know why the people on North Parkway have got to do this,” he said. “St. Jude carries a big stick. We know this area covers a big stick.”

WREG analyzed records from the city showing all sidewalk citations since October 2018. They showed they’ve given out more than 1,500 citations, or an average of more than one a day.

The records also showed they often write citations in clusters by targeting multiples homes in one area. Officials said the citations only stem from complaints.

The WREG Problem Solvers requested the complaint leading them to Thompson’s home, but after multiple requests since July 15, the city had not provided it.

We also tried to ask Memphis Chief Engineer Manny Belen, whose department regulates city sidewalk permits, but he wouldn’t answer questions on camera.

After several months, we were granted a short interview with Director of Public Works Robert Knecht, whose department handles code enforcement. We asked if he knew why the city had not provided the complaints they said led to Thompson’s and others’ citations.

“No, not to my knowledge,” Knecht answered.

So the Problem Solvers dug deeper into the numbers.

They did not show Thompson’s Speedway Terrace area getting targeted. In fact, of all zip codes, 38106 in South Memphis had the most sidewalk citations, including a cluster of 43 homes on James and Greenwood Streets, where Marilyn Parker lives.

“That’s a lot,” Parker said. “It’s an old neighborhood.”

We took the findings to Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the South Memphis Renewal Community Development Corporation.

“I think probably because it’s an older part of the city and not as much new development going on,” he said. “I don’t think many people know the sidewalk is their responsibility. That’s the shock. If there was a way to maybe some subsidy or something.”

In fact, the city offers a sidewalk repair assistance program; it generally applies to households making around $25,000 or less. For those who earn more than that, sidewalks are still pricey.

“I think it was $4,000 or $5,000,” Parker said of her new sidewalks. She’d been wanting new ones for years but could only afford the new ones when her husband retired.

According to a University of Memphis study, 38106 has a poverty rate of more than 40 percent.

“That to me seems like a little much to put a lien on somebody’s house because a sidewalk is broken,” Higgs said.

The Problem Solvers asked Knecht, the director of public works, if city officials had a response to the criticism.

“The sidewalk ordinance is the same one that’s been in existence for decades,” he said. “If the owner can’t pay for it then we place a lien on the property. That’s standard practice through the city’s practices of bringing owners into compliance of the city’s code violations.”

Thompson thought he could’ve lost his house. He didn’t want to take a chance on it, so he ended up getting help from his children to afford the work.

He and the others hoped the city would change its policy.

Got a problem? Contact WREG Problem Solver Stacy Jacobson at 901-543-2334 or stacy.jacobson@wreg.com