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Film series documenting Memphis’ housing challenges premiers to packed house

By Cole Bradley, High Ground News

On April 15, The CMPLX gallery and artists’ collective in Orange Mound hosted a film premier for a packed house of Memphis residents, community leaders and government officials.

The film was a roughly 20-minute documentary titled “How Did We Get Here.” It followed three major factors contributing to Memphis’ current housing landscape — urban renewal, urban sprawl and the foreclosure crisis.

Related: “Seeing Red I: Mapping 90 years of redlining in Memphis

It’s the first of a nine-part series titled “In the Absence.” It was shot over two years and follows Memphis-based Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. and its many partners in the fight for fair, safe and affordable housing. NPI, a community revitalization nonprofit dedicated to fighting Memphis’ blighted and abandoned properties, is funding the series.

Taken together, the films break down the city’s biggest barriers to housing equality and neighborhood revitalization. The film shows that chief among those factors is a century of race-based economic and housing policies that stifled prosperity and homeownership in Memphis’ majority-Black neighborhoods and led to a lack of safe and affordable housing for low-income families across the city.

In addition, Memphis faces declining homeownership, a city-wide accumulation of blighted rental properties and a lack of code enforcement officers to address the problem.

But NPI’s president, Steve Barlow, said this is ultimately an uplifting story with a focus on the successes and innovative solutions from nonprofit partners like The Works, Inc. and United Housing, as well as government agencies like Memphis-Shelby County Code Enforcement and Shelby County Environmental Court and other key partners, including the University of Memphis’ environmental law clinic.

“It’s not a doom and gloom scenario,” said Barlow. “We have a big challenge but also a creative, collaborative, sustainable response to the challenge … We have a long way to go, but we are a resilient, connected and really inspiring community for work on neighborhood and community-based challenges.”

Barlow expects the series to morph into a feature-length film by the end of 2019.

“There were a lot of factors, but for time’s sake, we had to boil it down to three we could put into a cohesive narrative,” said the film’s producer, Benjamin Rednour of Pigeon Roost filmmakers. Rednour is one half of the core filmmaking team alongside director Jordan Danelz.

The screening also included a panel discussion featuring many of Memphis’ most respected and dynamic leaders in housing and community development. They discussed the historic and current housing trends featured in the film, shared their own experiences and fielded questions from the audience.

The panel was hosted by Britney Thornton, founder of JUICE Orange Mound, a grassroots nonprofit community association. The panelists were Roshun Austin, president/CEO of The Works, Inc.; NPI’s Barlow; Marlon Foster, founder and executive director of Knowledge Quest; Amy Schaftlein, executive director of United Housing and Archie Wilis, founder and president of ComCap Partners.

A panel of Memphis housing experts discussed the film and their professional experiences at the screening of ‘How Did We Get Here.’ Left to Right: Steve Barlow, president of NPI; Amy Schaftlein, executive director of United Housing; Archie Wilis, founder and president of ComCap Partners; Roshun Austin, President/CEO of The Works, Inc; Marlon Foster, founder and executive director of Knowledge Quest and host Britney Thornton, founder of JUICE Orange Mound. (Cole Bradley)

“We were inspired to see how many people were willing and interested to come on a weeknight and sit and talk about this sort of depressing but important-for-Memphis challenge,” said Barlow. “I felt very privileged to have the panelists up there.”

NPI also hopes the films showcase the resiliency of the city and inspire audiences to learn more and get involved with the people and organizations featured in the series.

Related: “Seeing Red II: South Memphis CDC brings investment back to Memphis’ formerly redlined communities

NPI and the documentary team plan to host monthly screenings in communities affected by Memphis’ housing crisis until all nine chapters are released. They’re working on solidifying the next date and location, but it will likely be hosted in Frayser. Follow NPI’s website and social media for updates to the chapter release and screening schedules.

How Did We Get Here?

Together, the panelists and film summarized the key policies and actions that brought Memphis to its current state.

Currently, Black families in Shelby County have an median household income of $35,632 compared to $71,158 for white families. Only 42 percent of Black families own homes compared to 72 percent of white families, and home ownership among Black families dropped 18 percent following the 2008 financial crisis.

Across Memphis, NPI estimates 13,000 to 15,000 vacant or abandoned properties. Out of state companies with hundreds of properties in Memphis dominate the list of top code enforcement violations.

This landscape is not the result of accidental policy or an individual’s personal failings. It is the result of hundreds of years of socially acceptable racism and discriminatory social and economic policies that intentionally kept Black Memphians from home ownership and middle-class stability. The policies include slavery and Jim Crow segregation, redlining, blockbusting, white flight and urban renewal.

“The video levels the playing field to say, ‘Yes, you’re living with an issue, but this issue is so much larger than you and it was designed by someone who directly targeted you as a vulnerable person,” said Thornton.

In the later 20th century, predatory lending practices replaced redlining and targeted people and communities of color. The 2008 financial crisis devastated families of color at disproportionate rates and further erased Black wealth.

“Urban renewal and urban sprawl really gutted the core of the city, and the foreclosure crisis really just added another level of complexity on top of it of those who were in the core losing a lot of their property,” said Rednour.

Starting in Orange Mound

Barlow said they chose Orange Mound and The CMPLX, located at 2234 Lamar Avenue, for the series premier for a number of reasons.

NPI has worked in Orange Mound and knew there were strong community leaders like Thornton and JUICE Orange Mound to help facilitate and promote the event.

Related: “The CMPLX opens to packed house in Orange Mound

The CMPLX, which opened in January, is an activation of a vacant space and serves as a hub for Black creativity and resiliency and the revitalization of Orange Mound. The neighborhood was once a thriving, self-sufficient Black community, but decades of disinvestment led to a heavy decline. Orange Mound was also hard-hit by the financial and foreclosure crises.

“There are a lot of tax foreclosed vacant lots and abandoned houses in the community that a lot of neighborhood groups, the city and other partners are trying to work on addressing,” said Barlow of the Orange Mound neighborhood.

JUICE Orange Mound is currently partnering with NPI on a blight and property assessment survey in the neighborhood. Thornton said there are 4,000 parcels in Orange Mound, and they’re about halfway through the assessment.

“It’s really thorough, so that’s what I’m most excited about,” said Thornton, who grew up in Orange Mound and founded JUICE in 2016. “We’re wanting to get that data to residents so we can start to build a movement around it.”

“I’ve been in the community going on three decades. I’ve looked at a lot of my family and friends who have never experienced prosperity, and it’s just frustrating because you want it so much for yourself but also for other people you know and love,” she said.

Thornton said she hopes the audience who saw the first film spreads its message and raises awareness of the issues facing communities like hers, but she has concerns that there weren’t many Orange Mound residents in the audience. JUICE Orange Mound had a previously scheduled community meeting at the same time as the screening.

“If we don’t get more community members to see the film then it’s going to have a limited impact,” Thornton continued. “I don’t have a problem with other people being inspired to move to action, but it’s something to be said when so many people who are affected by the issues don’t get to own the privilege of advocating for their issues.”

Rednour also said he wished there were more residents, but the film’s partners are learning from this first event and will work to adjust their outreach strategy for the remaining screenings. He also said the series and a large amount of unused footage will be made public.

“Twenty thousand gigabytes of this story is going to be shared with the partners that are in it and the public. It’s also going to be a resource for the city,” he said.

Benjamin Rednour (left), producer of the film series chronicling the state of housing in Memphis, talks with Orange Mound resident Mr. Muhammad at the screening of the first chapter. (Cole Bradley)

What to Expect from the Series

The nine-part series will be shared in free monthly screenings across Memphis.

Chapter 1: How Did We Get Here
Explores how urban renewal, urban sprawl and the foreclosure crisis shaped Memphis

Chapter 2: Inventory
Memphis-Shelby County Code Enforcement, nonprofits and other key players ask themselves, “How big is this problem?,” and begin to systematically survey the state of Memphis housing

Chapter 3: Bringing Interest Groups Together
Follows housing organizations across the city and within individual neighborhoods as they begin to break down silos and band together

Chapter 4: Environmental Court
Follows Shelby County Environmental Court founder Judge Larry Potter as he passes charge of the court to Judge Patrick Dandridge and chronicles the court’s mission to fight problem property owners alongside code enforcement

Chapter 5: Code Enforcement
Follows code enforcement inspectors for two months and documents their struggle to enforce safe living conditions in a city with 324 square-miles and only 41 code officers, including an intimate look inside the homes of low-income families paying high rents for dangerous housing

Chapter 6: Affordable Housing
Explores transiency within a neighborhood as residents continuously move in the search for quality affordable housing and how constant upheaval affects the families, children and the larger community

Chapter 7: Neighborhood Stabilization
Follows Marlon Foster and Knowledge Quest’s efforts to stabilize individual residents and their larger South Memphis neighborhood

Chapter 8: The Law School
Explores the University of Memphis’ environmental law clinic where law students work with legal professionals and community members to bring problem property owners to justice in environmental court

Chapter 9: Home Ownership
Follows the efforts of The Works, Inc., United Housing and similar organizations whose programs help demonstrate what’s possible when neighborhoods are stable and well-resourced, problem property owners are held accountable and people have adequate financial literacy and other supports to purchase and maintain a home

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