Every once in awhile something makes its way to the agenda of Memphis City Council or Shelby County Board of Commissioners that simply defies imagination.
The resolution on Monday’s board of commissioners’ agenda to give 140 county-owned lots to Beuhler Homes for rental housing is one of them.
There are so many reasons that county commissioners should at least go slow – if not vote against – a plan that seems to have more questions than solid assurances. Perhaps, the best way to do it would to be to take the time to carefully analyze the implications of this plan rather than respond to the politics of it.
So far, the push for the 140 lots has raised eyebrows but the political urgency behind it has raised even more. There seems to be a “take no prisoners” strategy to get it passed which in itself does nothing so much as spark more questions.
Opponents contend that the company is the equivalent of a public-sanctioned slum lord and advocates claim it as a company committed to constructing affordable houses in the urban core. In other words, there are a lot of concerns that need to be answered about Beuhler Homes.
Commissioner Mike Ritz raised a huge reason when he pointed out that the company owes $1.1 million in overdue property taxes. At a time when so many people say that government should operate like a business, it’s hard to fathom a private partnership getting off the ground if one of the partners had that kind of encumbrance.
One Central Garden resident put it succinctly in her email: “Why take properties from people who can’t pay taxes and give it to someone who is not paying his property taxes?” It’s a fair question. At the least, it would be prudent for the board of commissioners to have a signed, enforceable agreement from Buehler Homes for payment of its delinquent taxes before it considers doing anything with the company.
We’re not sure what Commissioner Steve Mulroy meant when we referred to making “some sort of moral statement,” but in truth, the only kind of statement that matters is a “paid in full” statement from the county trustee’s office.
The question by Commissioner Henri Brooks – who has been faithfully driving a core city initiative – proved there are concerns even more important than the monetary ones, citing the low-quality standards by Buehler Homes and complaints from many in the neighborhoods where they are located.
To address this, the company said it improved its designs as a result of negotiations with a design review process set up by the board of commissioners. However, the designs bear scant improvement over the houses that have, in Commissioner Brooks’ words, disregarded the interests of the inner city. Hers are cautionary words since she actually represents part of North Memphis where the lots are located.
Buehler Homes has given a lot of promises to get county approval of its lots, but if the past is the best predictor of the future, it’s hard to feel too much optimism that things will fundamentally be any different.
That legacy is stark testimony to the ambivalence that county government has shown for the more than 20 years that it has been enabling Buehler’s housing business. After all that time, Buehler Homes isn’t ever named as an example of the kind of urban infill that strengthens neighborhoods and the urban fabric. More to the point, it’s regularly pointed to as an example of the kind of disregard that is often prevalent whenever the client is the working poor, whether it is public transit or urban housing.
Plugging In CDC’s
There is hope of do things differently, and community development corporations are showing how it can be done. Back when Buehler Homes’s relationship with county government began, CDC’s were few and far between. Fortunately, that is no longer the case, and the most inventive, effective strategies originate there.
Because of the evolution of the CDC’s, it seems reasonable that decisions about the best use of county-owned lots should directly involve them. Perhaps, this takes the form of the CDC’s vetting the proposed uses, or even better, that the county asks them to develop ways that the lots could be used as leverage for their revitalization plans.
As proposed now, the use of these 140 lots is entirely up to the discretion of Buehler Homes, and in this way, the rental housing to spring up there could be in direct conflict with the aspirations of its residents and the plans of the CDC in that area.
It’s a serious disconnect. Even if county government is not interested in the opinions of the CDC’s, it would seem logical that county government itself would at least not take action on 140 lots unless it had its own over-arching neighborhood redevelopment plan – one that answers what kind of neighborhoods county government wants to create, what tool box of county incentives – including its lots – could be created to stimulate healthy neighborhoods, what is the consensus vision of the neighborhood and its CDC and what could county government do to work with city agencies who are much more engaged in the life of Memphis neighborhoods.
A Better Way
Ironically, Buehler Homes moved to the county board of commissioners’ agenda while an item that supported legislation to allow the county to donate tax sale property to CDC’s for commercial purposes foundered. There are 250 of these ordinances in other communities, so we’re hard-pressed to understand why there’s foot-dragging here, but hopefully, approval will be given in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, supporters of the land transfer from county government to the Buehler Homes suggest that anything is better than what exists now, but that’s one step (a short one) away from the “anything goes” approach that plagues declining Memphis neighborhood.
There should be a better way. It should involve development of a master plan for the neighborhood in conjunction with University of Memphis planners, a CDC and neighborhood residents, the assembly of all city and county incentives, a city-county neighborhood design review team and involvement of civic resources like the CD Council, UrbanArt Commission and the AIA chapter.
In other words, it’s past time to quit talking about how important our neighborhoods are and do something to help them. It’s time to make them a priority and to concentrate our energy, focus our resources and engage our imagination to do something that sets national standards.
The Right Call
One thing for sure: there will be people at Monday’s board of commissioners meeting to urge a different way of doing business. The CD Council has expressed its concern about “Buehler’s track record of building unattractive and low-quality housing.” Another member said that if the company is given the 140 lots, it “totally undercuts the efforts of real transformation in our inner city/often historic neighborhoods.”
It’s likely that some North Memphis constituents and neighborhood redevelopment leaders will oppose the resolution Monday or at least ask for it to be evaluated within a larger context. We can only hope that the board of commissioners listens.