Urban Innovator of the Week: Steve Barlow
Steve Barlow is a partner in Brewer & Barlow PLC, a civil justice law firm based in Memphis, and is also a staff attorney for the City of Memphis. He earned a masters degree in urban anthropology and worked in community development, neighborhood building, and affordable housing before attending law school, with the ultimate intention of marrying his passion for community organizing with the practice of law.
There are an estimated 13,000 structures or vacant lots in Memphis that qualify as being blighted. Since 1995, Barlow has worked in legislative advocacy and community development in Memphis, leading efforts to use civil litigation to hold negligent property owners accountable for blight.
“There is frustration in Memphis at the level of abandonment and the length of vacancy of certain properties,” he says.
He initially started by volunteering to sue the owners of vacant properties on behalf of neighborhood groups and uses the full power of the law to fight blight in Memphis, promoting respective and efficient code enforcement and effective property tax foreclosure systems.
“In any city you will find those issues present,” he says. “There are anti-neglect laws at the local level that give local government the right to enforce a basic standard for property conditions in the city or county, but there is usually not enough attention given to those.” State laws also give local tax collectors the right to take action when the owner doesn’t pay taxes.
These efforts led to the establishment of a coalition of economic and community development leaders working together to eliminate blight and build neighborhoods, Neighborhood Preservation, Inc., in 2012. “We were looking for a way to put together a stakeholder group that’s really hurt by this level of abandonment.”
NPI is a countywide nonprofit established to resolve vacant property and abandonment challenges facing Memphis.
“NPI is a thought leader around policy issues and around vacant properties in the Memphis area and statewide,” says Barlow. “We develop ideas for the state legislature and local ordinances that could make it easier to deal with this challenge that is holding back neighborhoods.”
The organization works on developing solutions to blight: demoing what needs to be demoed, getting properties occupied that can be occupied, helping homeowners get grants to make home improvements, working on creative solutions for multi-family housing, getting financing for affordable housing projects, working with families to create more stability and less uncertainty around housing, and eliminating the substandard housing that has been so prevalent for such a long time. They have also increased their policy advocacy work at the local and state levels, and work with data collection and tech companies like Memphis Property Hub and Innovate Memphis so that all agencies working on remediating blight have access to all of the data available on blighted properties.
“You have to understand where it is, what it looks like, and who owns what,” says Barlow. “There are a lot of complicated questions that you have to answer for each property, and if you can do that in a way that maximizes technology, then you’re way ahead.”
Barlow says the practical reason NPI formed was because the city of Memphis had begun a fairly aggressive litigation program built on some of the successes he had already had in the neighborhoods. He knew the courts would have to give property owners the opportunity to fix or tear down the properties, and if they didn’t (or couldn’t), the court would then bring in a third party nonprofit to take care of it. Barlow expected many properties would go into receivership, and wanted to be that third party solution.
“We knew there was a need for a countywide receiver to be available to be appointed by the court that was sensitive to affordable housing and blight issues,” says Barlow. “That’s why I went to form a new nonprofit. Whenever I describe the mission of NPI, literally it is a nonprofit that was formed to address the challenge of vacant and abandoned properties because the government can’t or doesn’t have the capacity, and the private sector won’t because there is no money in it. We’re here to fill in that gap. We live here in Memphis; we get to take more time than anyone in their right minds would take to face this challenge.
‘We call it our ‘intractable problem property program,'” he jokes.
NPI has taken a leadership role in galvanizing grassroots, public sector, and business community partners who want to be a part of the solution to this challenge, developing an action plan and convening in meetings on a monthly basis.
In collaboration with entities from the government, private, nonprofit, and foundation sectors working on dealing with vacancy and abandonment issues, they released the interdisciplinary Memphis Neighborhood Blight Elimination Charter in 2016, a single, focused strategy with an adoptable action plan to effectively and permanently remove blight from Memphis neighborhoods.
NPI is also experimenting with community development, investing in some areas where they see an opportunity to turn things around. Barlow says the NPI approach is to think about neighborhood revitalization in a parcel-by-parcel or property-by-property kind of way to resolve the challenges in order to have a positive impact.
“The flight from the urban core left behind a lot of mystery to who owns properties in the remaining urban core,” says Barlow. “That’s where my legal experience and work in real estate and finance comes in. We look at every parcel and work on resolving these title issues, so the real estate can become developable and useable again – an asset instead of a liability.”