Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Sound County Policy On Free Lots Remains Homeless
Simply put, there is no basis for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners’ approving county government’s gift of 140 lots to Buehler Homes.
It is simply wrong on so many levels. Politically, it’s essentially the majority invoking their will on a district whose direct representative to Shelby County Board of Commissioners opposes the transfer. More to the point, that commissioner, Henri Brooks, is convincing in her concerns and compelling in her objections.
And yet, the county commissioners ignore the elected leader from North Memphis and instead take a wild gamble that these homes will not become anathema to neighborhood revitalization like so many that have gone before.
Responding to Real Plans
In the end, the biggest problem that we have with the decision of the board of commissioners is that they made it in a vacuum. We find it hard to imagine a scenario in which county government would give away 140 lots in Cordova or Midtown or University District without at least finding out about plans for those neighborhoods and without specific and detailed official public input.
After all, it’s not Shelby County Government that will deliver services or will be in charge of neighborhood revitalization efforts in the area where the new Buehler Homes are located. That’s City of Memphis. So far, we haven’t heard even a whisper of a question about how this fits into any ongoing programs funded and directed by the primary government for this area – city government.
And the commissioners’ complicity in undermining urban neighborhoods is deepened by their failure to advocate for development of the comprehensive plan for Memphis and Shelby County that is way overdue. Without a clear plan of what you are trying to achieve, a sense of what is needed and a master plan of what should be done, our community is seduced into a hodgepodge of ideas and projects.
The Real Problem
The greatest indictment of the Buehler gift is that it is next to impossible to find a professional planner or architect in the entire city who says it is a good idea. To the contrary, they point to it as the symbol of what’s wrong with decision-making about the future of neighborhoods and about the emphasis of good design overall in Memphis.
At the board of commissioners, there was of course the normal rhetoric about answering the housing demands of our neighborhoods. They need to drive into some of them. Right now, about 20% of all Memphis houses are vacant, and that number has more than doubled since 2000. Or put another way, there are now about 53,000 vacant houses in Memphis and they are inarguably seen as cancers on their neighborhoods.
We’re certain that Shelby County Government has seized many of them for non-payment of taxes, and it would seem that the vacant houses, not the vacant lots, that should get priority. We’d support Buehler getting some of them if the company would renovate them and make them presentable and habitable. Our neighborhoods have serious needs, and there is none more pressing than dealing with the vacant housing that can quickly deteriorate and become hang-outs for exactly the kind of people the neighborhoods don’t want.
Meanwhile, Sustainable Shelby talks a lot about urban gardening and farming. Perhaps, county government should walk the talk and use the lots for an innovative program for inner city residents to grow crops and set up co-ops. Who knows? Different kind of thinking could get a different answer, one that could even have national implications.
As the saying goes, if you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As long as county government thinks that it’s objective is to get rid of lots no matter what, it’s destined to make short-sighted decisions. Everything in a city is connected, and unless you look at an issue within the larger frame, you really haven’t looked at it at all.
Shelby County Government is in the prime negotiating position, so why not leverage Buehler Homes’ work inside Memphis to improve neighborhood character with renovated existing housing? If he can improve those county-owned vacant homes, we’re all for giving them to him and waiving taxes for five years, because at least in that way, he’s fulfilling a serious civic priority and neighborhood need.
It’s Policy, Stupid
Buehler Homes is not a social services agency. His business model makes him money and more power to him for that. But if his business model is to include the gift of public property, his product should respond directly to a serious public need and an official neighborhood revitalization plan.
In our form of government, the legislative branch sets policies that the executive branch carries out. Unfortunately, the vote on Beuhler Homes was about everything but sound public policy. It was treated as a political transaction. It was treated as a public relations exercise.
But it all obscures the truth. The board of commissioner’s decision on the 140 lots was anything but good policy. Usually, good policy is made in context and with an assessment of all available resources. In this instant, that context would have been a full understanding of neighborhood revitalization plans of City of Memphis and other relevant entities. It would also involve an inventory of resources and services as well as identifying the pressing needs of the area.
A Modest Proposal
Rather than do any of that, the board of commissioners has effectively plopped down houses all over North Memphis with no regard for any existing plans and without any response to a well-crafted strategic plan of action. It’s haphazard and it’s not strategic for neighborhoods whose futures have always gotten short shrift and given long odds.
It would seem prudent and logical that before Shelby County Government gives away any more lots inside the city limits of Memphis, it would adopt two overriding policies:
One, no county-owned property will be given to any person or any company that owes delinquent property taxes (Buehler Homes’ bill is just south of $1 million).
Two, no county-owned property will be given to any person or any company without consultation with City of Memphis to determine if the county’s action is consistent with programs that are under way.
Most of all, we hope that future decisions like this won’t be treated as if they’re about a political end game rather than about reaching the wisest possible public policy.