This post was written by Steve Lockwood, executive director of the 15-year-old Frayser Community Development Corporation.  He has led the CDC’s work in this historic neighborhood annexed by Memphis in 1958 for about a dozen years.  The work of the CDC is inspirational, it informs work in other neighborhoods, and it is crucial to the future of Memphis itself.  

by Steve Lockwood

Yes, our problem is not gentrification. Our problem is that many of our neighborhoods are too cheap, not the other way around.

Where is the outrage or concern that we have neighborhoods where houses sell, on average, for less than $30K?

These are communities, largely African-American, where people who bought 20 years have built no equity. These same neighborhoods, due to their low value, do not attract capital – investors or home owners – who will buy and fix.

Why invest in a home that is worth very little, even after you’ve fixed it up?

No one I know wants neighborhoods that are strictly low income, yet virtually all subsidy funds dictate selling or renting to low or very low income families only. If you use subsidy funds from the City, State of Feds, you must turn down middle class tenants and buyers, thus perpetuating the problem.

Rising prices, in low value communities, will dramatically help the owners that remain. Yes, they will pay more taxes, but that is worth the price if your home value increases. We have set a goal, in Frayser, of raising the average sale price from $30,000 to $60,000. It is true, you do have to guard that low income renters do not get forced out.

However, current rental rates in low value neighborhoods are so low that apartment complexes are not profitable. Consequently, owners will not reinvest. Most low income, low value neighborhoods in Memphis have nothing but C/D grade apartments, if not downright abandoned.

Memphis has never had a strategy to defend its residential tax base. Low income neighborhoods are the primary victim of our willingness to ‘slash and burn’ our older communities. While we know that disinvestment of our existing neighborhoods, with their existing infrastructure, is devastating to our tax base, we continue to build megahighways to facilitate the outflow of capital and people.

The neighborhood in Memphis that has come closest to being gentrified is Cooper-Young. It’s also perhaps the most successful example of revitalization and reinvestment. It is a stable neighborhood in a sea of instability. And when seniors there on fixed incomes find they are straining to pay their taxes, they can sell their dilapidated home (that they were struggling to maintain) for $120,000 and transition into assisted living. That’s an option that residents in low value communities do not have.

There is such a thing as gentrification, it is just not a significant threat to communities in Memphis.