Today, Mayor A C Wharton filed 138 lawsuits in General Sessions court against owners of blighted property all across the city.
With the help of city code inspectors and researchers at the University of Memphis, the city identified particularly blighted properties that have long been in violation of city code.
In a city that relies heavily on property taxes, Wharton called blight a “cancer on our source of survival.”
Holding up a picture of a house, boarded up and surrounded by trash and debris, Wharton said, “You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that things like this should not exist in America’s 18th or 19th largest city.”
Wharton stressed that the city is not interested in punishing people who are unable to afford home renovations or tearing down every neglected property.
But property owners, particularly owners of multiple properties who are able to clean things up, will be held accountable.
“It’s not a question of whether we’re going to sue you, but when we’re going to sue you,” said Wharton. “Hopefully we won’t have to keep filing the lawsuits. Hopefully they’ll get the message. Because they’re going to have to lawyer up every time we sue them.”
Wharton is also targeting property owners who live as far away as California and Florida and as close as Mississippi.
“I was just looking at the addresses of some of the owners — Oxford and places like that. If it’s not good enough for the cities where they live, it’s not good enough for the city of Memphis,” he said, adding candidly, “I wish I had a way of taking some of these properties, putting them on a flatbed, and rolling them right into their neighborhoods and saying ‘We brought your house to you.’ I wonder how long their neighbors would let them stay.”
As part of the process, each owner has a chance to come up with a plan to fix the property. If he or she cannot do this, the judge will appoint a third party receiver to restore the property to “fit and habitable standards,” at the expense of the owner.
Funding for the initiative comes in part from donations by the Hyde Foundation and Methodist LeBonheur.