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Stuck in the Middle

Part 2: A TIF grows in Binghampton after decades of Disinvestment

New TIF brings inspiration, investment to old neighborhood

Steve Shular, City of Memphis special assistant for neighborhood concerns, surveyed vacant homes and blighted areas last week on Red Oak Street in Binghampton. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

More in this series
Part 1: Razing relic apartments gives hope to historic, forgotten neighborhood
Part 3: Binghampton cherishes its diversity, potential

The man from the mayor’s office drove slowly down Red Oak, a short, narrow street on the east side of Binghampton. 

The street was developed in the 1940’s as part of a post-World War II subdivision named Prosperity Park. 

This part of Binghampton has never seen prosperity. 

The south end of Red Oak winds through a sprawling, government-subsidized apartment complex where more than a third of the residents are refugees. 

The shorter north end of Red Oak is described as “faulty” and “obsolete” in the neighborhood’s 2018 strategy plan for tax increment financing (TIF). 

It’s crammed with 29 houses in varying states of decline. Six houses are boarded up. Four lots are empty. Several others look like they should have been. The street is cluttered with high weeds, trash and other hazards. 

“That’s a problem,” said Steve Shular, Mayor Jim Strickland’s special assistant for neighborhood concerns. 

He was looking at a disabled red pickup truck parked on the street. With three of its wheels missing, the truck was balancing precariously on a pile of bricks. 

“Some kid’s going to run into that thing on his bike and get seriously hurt, or worse,” said Shular’s tour guide, Henry Nelson, the director of an after-school program one street over on Carpenter Street. 

“We’ll take care of it,” said Shular, who was making a “windshield survey” of code violations in the neighborhood. 

A few hours later, an officer from the Tillman precinct put an intent-to-tow ticket on the truck. The truck and the bricks were gone the next day. 

If only things were always that easy in Binghampton, an up-and-coming but still down-and-out neighborhood balancing precariously between boom and blight. 

Property values on the eastern and western edges of Binghampton are rising, in some cases more than doubling in recent years. New homes are selling for $200,000 to $400,000. 

But on “obsolete” streets like Red Oak, stuck beside an old industrial area and shoehorned between a railroad line and a high-voltage power line, property values are still falling. 

“Many of the lots located in the redevelopment area are too small to accommodate modern amenities,” notes the 2018 report, formally called the Binghampton TIF Implementation Strategy Report.  

That includes several slender 25-foot-wide lots on Red Oak. One contains a tiny 716-square-foot house built in 1948. 

Twenty-five years ago, the house sold for $24,500. A year ago, it sold for $5,500. 

Removing vehicles that don’t work from the street is a lot less complicated than removing houses or lots that don’t work. 

“The condemnation process can take years,” Shular said. “Meanwhile, property values keep going down and that creates even more blighted conditions. It’s a downward spiral that’s very difficult to stop.” 

Nelson smiled. “Difficult, but not impossible, we hope,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to try to do with the TIF.” 

The Binghampton neighborhood has reached a tipping point. The recent success of the Broad Avenue Arts District and the development of the Gateway Center make this make this a critical time in Binghampton.

Binghampton TIF Implementation Strategy Report

“The TIF” is the Binghampton Community Tax Increment Financing District. 

The district, shaped like a trapezoid, covers less than two square miles of residential, commercial and industrial land in the middle of Memphis. 

Its 12,000 or so residents live south of Summer Avenue, north of Poplar Avenue and Chickasaw Gardens, west of Chickasaw Country Club and East Memphis, and east of Overton Park and Midtown. 

“The Binghampton area is a bridge between the economic vibrancy found to its east, south and west, and the economic decline found to its north,” says the strategy report. 

The TIF district was created two years ago by the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, primarily “to address blight and provide affordable housing” in Binghampton. 

“The Binghampton neighborhood has reached a tipping point,” the report says. “The recent success of the Broad Avenue Arts District and the development of the Binghampton Gateway Center make this a critical time in Binghampton.” 

The TIF district is designed to take advantage of rising property values in some parts of Binghampton — rejuvenated commercial properties along Broad Avenue and Sam Cooper Boulevard, and renewed residential properties on the eastern and western edges. 

Ceasar Lomo, who moved to Binghampton as a refugee from war-ravaged Sudan in 2001, mows the backyard of his newly purchased home on Princeton Avenue. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Those growing “tax increments” — based on 2017 property assessments — will be collected in a special fund and used to make improvements and spur investments in other parts of Binghampton. 

“Over the last two decades, the Binghampton Neighborhood has seen slow progression of redevelopment but left several neighborhood areas without investment,” the report says. 

“Private investment has overlooked these areas where low-income housing, deteriorating buildings, vacant lots, and neglect exist despite being in immediate vicinity of jobs and thriving neighborhoods.” 

Areas like Red Oak on the east side of Binghampton, where one in five properties is blighted or vacant, renters outnumber homeowners more than two to one, and a quarter of homeowners owe more than their house is worth, a painful phenomenon known as being upside down on a loan. 

Areas where half the residents live on less than $20,000 a year, and a third of households have no wage or salary income at all, and more than half the children live in poverty. 

“Continuing to neglect this area will lead to fewer opportunities for affordable housing, deterioration of the tax base, and likely will continue disinvestment in area property and business,” the strategy report says. 

If all goes according to plan, the TIF district is expected to generate $26 million in neighborhood investments over the next 30 years. 

Neighborhood leaders believe they can use those investments to leverage millions more in public and private funds. 

“Now is the time to increase investments in proven strategies that improve the quality of life for residents of the low-income Binghampton community,” the report says. 

“It is essential that Binghampton residents play a role in determining how those funds are expended.” 

They intend to. They’ve invested their lives here. They want a say in how they invest their own property taxes. 

“Now is the time to increase investments in proven strategies that improve the quality of life for residents of the low-income Binghampton community. It is essential that Binghampton residents play a role in determining how those funds are expended.”

Binghampton TIF Implementation Strategy Report

Thirteen men and women sat on folding chairs around folding tables one afternoon last month and began their deliberations on Binghampton’s future. 

Henry Nelson and Joni Laney call them to order. 

“Thank you for coming and for caring about your neighborhood,” said Nelson, a former radio personality who a year ago became executive director of Carpenter Art Garden, one of the neighborhood’s most beloved nonprofits. 

Nelson and Laney are co-chairs of the new Binghampton Community Advisory Committee and called them to order. 

“Let’s just go around the table and introduce ourselves and say a word or two about why we’re here and what we want the TIF to do for Binghampton,” said Laney, a former high school English teacher who has lived on the west side with her minister husband since 2002. 

Longtime Binghampton resident Joni Laney is a member of the Binghampton TIF Advisory Board and also leads the Binghampton Community Land Trust group. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

As the members introduced themselves, they talked about the problems they see in the neighborhood — the blight, the crime, the inequity, and the other barriers to its growth and development. 

They also talked about what they loved and wanted to preserve about Binghampton — its diversity, affordability and proximity, its history and sense of community, its promise. 

“Binghampton has been good to me,” said Ceasar Lomo, who grew up in the Red Oak apartments. 

“I have been surrounded by people who seek the good of the place.” 

For Lomo, that includes people from Catholic Charities who helped his family resettle in Binghampton when they arrived as refugees from war-ravaged Sudan in 2001. 

People from local churches who helped his mother, Ruth, start the Refugee Empowerment Program, which since 2002 has helped hundreds of Binghampton families navigate their new world. 

People from local churches who helped him and hundreds of other Binghampton kids attend the Neighborhood School, a small Christian school next door to their government-subsidized apartment on Red Oak. 

People from the Binghampton Development Corp. who have renovated or built dozens of homes — including the house Lomo and his wife bought for $185,000 earlier this year on Princeton Avenue near Holmes. 

His new neighbors. 

The older men who work in their yards, share their tools and expertise, and keep an eye on things. 

Ceasar Lomo sits on the porch of the home he and wife, Megan, recently purchased on Princeton Avenue. Lomo is a member of the Binghampton TIF Advisory Board. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

The younger couples who work at a school or health clinic in the neighborhood and who want to live where they work. 

The new friends who helped him build a fence around his backyard. 

“My neighbors have become like family to us,” said Lomo. “They check on our house when we’re gone. They look out for us when we’re here. We do the same for them.” 

A few weeks ago, one of Lomo’s neighbors, a Hispanic man, was robbed at gunpoint while he was cutting his grass in the middle of the day. 

There’s a SkyCop surveillance camera on the street, but a large, leafy tree obscured its view. The neighborhood rallied. 

“Now we spend a lot more time outside, talking to each other, helping each other out, being more visible,” Lomo says. 

Lomo was 12 when he moved from a refugee camp in Africa to a sprawling apartment complex in Binghampton. He was surprised the first time he heard gunshots in America. 

“I thought we were escaping all of that. I thought maybe the violence in Sudan had followed us here,” he said. “Then, after 9/11, I realized no place is completely safe. We have to work hard and make it better.” 

“How do you grow Binghampton and preserve the affordability and diversity and sense of community that makes it special? How do you improve the lives of people who live in Binghampton in a way that prevents their displacement? It’s quite a challenge.”

Kenny Latta, University of Memphis anthropology professor

Before they joined the advisory committee, Laney and Lomo were members of the Binghampton Neighborhood TIF Task Force. Its 16 members represented six different sections of the neighborhood, including the Broad Avenue Arts District. 

In interviews, focus groups and public meetings organized by the Center for Transforming Communities (CTC), task force members talked to more than 300 other neighborhood residents. 

They helped the opens in a new windowBinghampton Development Corp. write guidelines for how TIF dollars should be used in the neighborhood. 

The Binghampton TIF is the newest of five TIF districts in Memphis, and one of only two “neighborhood TIFs.” The other is Uptown. But Binghampton is the only neighborhood whose residents are in on the process from the beginning. 

Laney and Lomo and 10 other members of the advisory committee will meet once a month to make sure TIF proposals align with the neighborhood’s goals: affordable housing, infrastructure improvements, blight remediation and equitable economic development. 

The itemized list of 28 priorities include: 

  • Clean up areas of concentrated blight or environmental hazards.
  • Redevelop property that was previously vacant or blighted.
  • Expand the variety of affordable housing.
  • Improve the conditions of existing housing stock
  • Offer opportunities for homeownership for long-term Binghampton residents.
  • Assure that 50% of housing units are affordable.

The overarching goal: “Avoiding displacement of existing residents. To the greatest extent possible, this should be top of mind in determining how TIF funds should be utilized, especially as it relates to housing.” 

That won’t be easy. 

Some local TIF districts are designed for specific economic development projects, such as the Graceland area or the Highland Strip. Developers or governments finance the projects and get repaid over time by the increasing “tax increments.” 

The Binghampton TIF is a pay-as-you-go model. The district can only spend the “tax increments” that have accrued. So far, that’s about $200,000. 

That’s not the only complicating factor. 

The more property values and tax collections go up in Binghampton, the more TIF dollars will be available for improvements that make the neighborhood more stable and attractive. 

But the more property values and taxes go up, the more expensive the neighborhood becomes for homeowners, renters and small business owners. 

How will the Binghampton TIF pull up areas like Red Oak and not push out people who live there? 

“How do you grow Binghampton and preserve the affordability and diversity and sense of community that makes it special?” asked Kenny Latta, an anthropology professor at the University of Memphis. 

Latta, who lives in Binghampton, worked for the CTC and helped the Binghampton task force develop its goals and guidelines. 

“How do you improve the lives of people who live in Binghampton in a way that prevents their displacement? It’s quite a challenge.” 

During a meeting of the Binghampton Community Land Trust, resident Joni Laney uses a large map adorned with colored push pins representing the area home recently sold, renovated, for sale or turned into Airbnbs. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

The challenge is illustrated by a large map in Joni Laney’s living room. The west side of Binghampton looks like a pin cushion. 

Blue pins represent the 50 houses that have sold since January. 

Green pins show the 17 houses that are being renovated. 

Red pins show the 8 houses that have been turned into Airbnb’s. 

Yellow pins are stuck on two houses that are for sale. 

“Those are the ones we know about,” said Laney. “A lot of houses are selling before a sign goes up.” 

A lot of houses are just sitting. 

White pins show the 30 residential properties that are empty or abandoned.  

But one of those houses is destined to become part of the new Binghampton Community Land Trust. 

The trust was incorporated a year ago by 20 neighborhood members, including Laney, Lomo and Magaly Cruz. 

“There was a sense of urgency in the members of the Binghampton Neighborhood to organize and fight to preserve affordable housing and prevent displacement,” said Cruz, who moved into the neighborhood seven years ago with her mother. 

“The market is beginning to look at Binghampton housing as a potentially viable investment. It is crucial that Binghampton make a hard push over the coming years to eliminate blight through the creation of high-quality affordable rental and homeownership housing opportunities.”

Binghampton TIF Implementation Strategy Report

Developing a community land trust is one of a dozen “affordable housing” strategies recommended by the TIF report. 

“The market is beginning to look at Binghampton housing as a potentially viable investment,” the 2018 strategy plan says. “It is crucial that Binghampton make a hard push over the coming years to eliminate blight through the creation of high-quality affordable rental and homeownership housing opportunities.” 

Properties and property values in Binghampton still reflect how the neighborhood was redlined by the federal government in the 1930’s and 1940’s to stem the “infiltration” of minorities. 

But things are changing. 

The “still desirable” edge along Overton Park remains so. Sixteen new homes built near the corner of East Parkway and Sam Cooper Boulevard sold for more than $350,000 each. 

The “definitely declining” area west of the railroad lines that bisect the neighborhood is definitely rising. 

A renovated home on McAdoo Avenue purchased for $55,000 in 2018 sold for $175,000 earlier this year. Another renovated house on School Avenue that sold for $50,000 in 2018 was listed this year for $199,000. 

Steve Shular, City of Memphis special assistant for neighborhood concerns, surveyed a plot of overgrown grass in Binghampton on Oct. 10. (Mark Weber/Daily Memphian)

Meanwhile, the “hazardous” and “undesirable” area east of the railroad lines is struggling, although things are changing there, too. 

Tillman Cove, a big, blighted apartment complex just a block from “obsolete” Red Oak is being demolished and replaced with “mixed-income” housing. 

Chickasaw Place, an even bigger, government-subsidized complex also known as “Red Oak” for the street that winds through it, is scheduled for improvements next year. 

And new “infill” homes being built along streets that run west from Holmes are selling for up to $200,000. 

“We care about preserving the life and vitality and diversity of this neighborhood,” Laney said. 

“For us, that means not allowing developers to gentrify all the housing, insuring that families who want to buy homes are able to, making sure that vacant and derelict properties are rehabbed responsibly, and maintaining what has become cultural, racial, economic diversity in a city where that is hard to find.” 

Like many of her neighbors, Laney was drawn to Binghampton by its diversity and sense of community. 

“My wife and I wanted to buy a house on the west side of the neighborhood, where we had been renting. It was too expensive,. If you could pick up our house and move it to West Binghampton, it would double in value. That doesn’t make any sense. I’ve lived on both sides of Binghampton. One is no better than the other.”

Ceasar Lomo

“There are not many places where children play on the playground and different languages are spoken,” said Laney. 

“Where people who gather up fruits and vegetables on Food Pantry days all have on the clothing of their home countries —the bright colors of Africa, the weaves of Nepal, the slippers from Vietnam. 

“Where my neighbors bring over hot tamales when there is sickness or celebration. Where we know the people up and down the street and all of us together have taken care of each other.” 

And like many of her neighbors, Laney, now retired, couldn’t afford to move into the place she has called home since 2002. Neither could Cruz, a teacher, or Lomo, who works at the FedEx hub. 

“My wife and I wanted to buy a house on the west side of the neighborhood, where we had been renting. It was too expensive,” says Lomo. 

“If you could pick up our house and move it to West Binghampton, it would double in value. That doesn’t make any sense. I’ve lived on both sides of Binghampton. One is no better than the other.” 

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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