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Seeking Safety: Dealing with blight complaints requires new approach, Memphis says

Posted February 23, 2014

Jessica Grafenred, an officer with the Memphis Police Department, answers calls on the CrimeStoppers tip line and monitors the cameras.
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— The strategy seems so simple and effective: Instead of responding to individual complaints of blight, why not attack entire areas at one time?

That's exactly what Memphis did, starting in 2011, after Onzie Horne became the city's deputy director of community enhancement.

For years, Horne said, code enforcement inspectors responded to individual complaints of abandoned homes and vehicles, trash and overgrown properties.

The complaints came from residents, elected officials, service agencies and elsewhere, Horne said. The complaints were put into a hopper and doled out to inspectors by type and level of priority.

"It was a rather complicated mess," Horne said.

The department was so inefficient back then, he said, that he ordered an investigation in hopes of weeding out wrongdoing.

The investigation did not reveal any crimes, he said, just a lack of a systematic approach for inspectors to respond to complaints. As a result, the city faced a backlog exceeding 25,000 code enforcement cases and 40,000 complaints about overgrown lots, Horne said.

Horne and other city officials put their heads together and came up with a blight-reduction initiative that became known as 25 Square Blocks.

Inspectors started by canvassing a single 25-square-block area, documenting violations along the way. They notified property owners that they had five days to clean up the mess. After the five days, the city moved in and took care of any violations, then billed the property owners for the work.

The city didn't stop there. Other departments inspected the area for broken sidewalks and street lights, potholes and utility leaks. Any problems found were promptly fixed, Horne said.

Under the new approach, inspectors did not have to zig-zag all over town responding to a single complaint, and debris could be hauled away at the project's completion, saving time and money.

Memphis also saves money by contracting with vendors who hire convicted felons to mow yards and haul off rubbish. Not only can a lot be cleaned for substantially less money, Horne said, jobs are also provided to ex-convicts who have few other employment opportunities.

In the old days, Horne said, the city responded to about 6,800 complaints a year. At the end of this fiscal year, he said, the city expects to have cleaned up 39,000 lots. Horne said his department's budget has remained unchanged.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton is a cheerleader of 25 Square Blocks, saying it is much more efficient and effective than the old way of doing things.

"Sure, you can run in there with track hoes or whatever and take down a vacant house that trees have grown through," Wharton said. "We can do that in an hour and then go. But guess what: Five days, later somebody is calling about a house three doors down from that one.

"So what do you do? You turn around and you are back out there again or you don't go back because you say we have just been out there. We can't come. And of course, the neighborhood becomes alienated."

Horne said 25 Square Blocks has rejuvenated not just neighborhoods but the people who live there.

"We have citizens that come out when they see our crews in the area and say, 'We didn't think the city cared. We have never seen anything like this. What are you guys doing?'

"When we communicate what the program is all about, people change their attitudes about their own properties. They come out and start repairing their fences and repairing the stoop."

Horne says 25 Square Blocks is the best initiative to relieve blight.

"The reason is really simple," he said. "This city, no city will ever have the resources to be able to address all these issues on their own. What we can do is we can change the pathology of neighborhoods, give hope to property owners that changes will occur so that they reinvest and have some responsibility for their own properties."

Scott Shuford, Fayetteville's development services director, takes pride in the fact that about 75 percent of reported violations in this city come from his own inspectors. In most cities, he said, residents report the majority of violations.

Shuford also credits Bart Swanson, his division manager of housing and code enforcement, with overhauling the code enforcement office. When Swanson was hired, Shuford said, the office could respond to only about 5,000 complaints a year. Now, he said, inspectors respond to about 13,000 violations annually. 

But Shuford acknowledged that Fayetteville's approach remains reactive rather than proactive. He said he sees merit in the 25-Square Block concept and intends to look into it further.

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