MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Back in 2019 when George Thompson got a citation and letter from the city of Memphis, he thought the worst.
“I said, ‘What? They can take my house?’” he said. “I didn’t want to take a chance on it.”
The city cited him for bad sidewalks and took the case to court until he borrowed money to pay the $3,000 bill.
A WREG Problem Solvers investigation found the city gave out an average of more than one of these citations every day since October 2018.
“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,” Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht said.
But most people who spoke with the Problem Solvers thought the city maintained sidewalks.
“I don’t know if most homeowners know a sidewalk is their responsibility,” said Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the South Memphis Renewal Community Development Corporation.
Eric Rogers found a similar situation where he lives in Kansas City.
“It’s really common for folks to not realize. That fact is not publicized,” said the executive director of BikeWalkKC, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
In fact, our Problem Solvers investigation found 38106 in South Memphis had the most citations over three years. The area has a poverty rate of more than 40 percent.
“It really is something that impacts those disinvested neighborhoods more than others,” Rogers said. “It really was a problem that was falling disproportionately on the low income most vulnerable parts of our community.”
His group and others pushed for a change. They got it in 2017.
“We took the financial responsibility for sidewalk upkeep off the homeowners and made it a public responsibility the city’s responsible for,” Rogers said.
At the same time, voters approved an $800 million infrastructure bond with funding reserved for sidewalks.
“It’s had a big impact in our community on issues of equity,” Rogers said.
Memphis Councilman Chase Carlisle responded to the Problem Solvers story by proposing changes at home. But he doesn’t think Memphis can go the same way as Kansas City.
“I don’t think it’d happen in the near term just to be frank,” he said of the city taking over sidewalk responsibilities. “For us to repair our sidewalks you’re looking somewhere in the billions.”
In fact, administration officials estimated it would take about $1.1 billion to replace all existing sidewalks in Memphis. That’s well beyond the city’s annual total budget of around $700 million. Kansas City has a budget nearly three times that of Memphis at $2 billion.
Memphis administration officials also said if they took over sidewalks, annual maintenance would cost $19 million, the same amount they spend on fixing potholes.
Instead, Carlisle wanted to expand the city’s sidewalk assistance program.
“What I’d probably look at would be more of a needs based,” Carlisle said.
On October 18, city council passed his resolution to designate $500,000 more to sidewalk repair assistance. They recommended loosening requirements for homeowners income eligibility to being 45 percent of the area’s median income.
Mayor Jim Strickland will now decide whether to include in his budget.