Mid-South News
8:37 am
Thu February 19, 2009

Burlington Area Neighborhood Fights Mortgage Crisis Fallout

Memphis, TN – The mortgage crisis is wreaking havoc in some Memphis neighborhoods. Candice Ludlow reports on how one neighborhood is taking charge.

Lynda Whalen is a middle-aged woman with a shock of red hair. She spends her days fighting to save her neighborhood, armed with her Jeep, clipboard and pencil. "Right now we're in phase 1 of Burlington, and we are on Doncaster. This is one of my problem streets," says Whalen.

The Burlington Area Neighborhood is carved out of the east end of Hickory Hill and straddles city and county property, with Riverdale to the west, Hacks Cross to the east, Winchester to the north and Shelby Drive bordering the south.

The neighborhood is still growing, but work stopped in phase three, says Whalen, who's the president of the Burlington Area Neighborhood Association. She says the builder went bankrupt. Now what's left are graded lots, foundations, and some partially built homes near Southwind High School.

Whalen and her husband purchased their split level home in the Burlington Area Neighborhood in the 1970s. The community was great, she says, until about two years ago. Now, it's deteriorating rapidly.

"If you have a shift then either to the rental market or to homeowners who are struggling to be homeowners, then all of those things that make for a stable neighborhood are going to be put in jeopardy," says Betts, who leads the Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action at the University of Memphis.

Several things are at play here, says Phyllis Betts. First, there was an exodus of middle class residents from Hickory Hill after the city annexed the area. That led to an influx of lower income people, who are not as able to maintain their properties. Since 2000, a large number of subprime loans were made in impoverished neighborhoods. Now the Burlington Area Neighborhood is feeling the pinch, like Hickory Hill did several years ago. "And they may be able to point to a couple of properties every couple of blocks that have gotten caught up in this sort of cycle of This is a rental property and here's a homeowner, and then they don't stay too long. That undermines the confidence of other people in the neighborhood. They try to get out. So it can quickly escalate," Betts says.

Remember Lynda Whalen? Her mission is to stop blight and crime from taking over her neighborhood. So she drives through her area with clipboard in hand to mark all code violations from too many cars in the driveway, people living in tents in the carport, overgrown yards, poor maintenance to structural damage. Some of her neighbors help, too. They meet monthly to note any changes or problem areas to report to the police, sheriff, and code enforcement to reduce blight and crime. When their concerns aren't addressed by the city or the bank that owns the vacant property, they take matters into their own hands. "If we have a house that we can't get anything to do anything about, we board em from the back cause if they're breaking in, they're breaking in from the back, not the front. Not only that, if you go down a street and see five houses boarded up, your property is just plummeting," Whalen says.

To buttress their efforts, the Burlington Neighborhood Association has joined forces with other southeast Memphis neighborhood organizations to form the Southeast Memphis Neighborhood Partnership. The group meets monthly at the Ridgeway police precinct to bring their complaints to the police, sheriff and code enforcement. The idea is that the problem properties will be dealt with more efficiently by working together and meeting with the city to stop creeping blight.

Their method isn't always working as witnessed at the January meeting, but Lynda believes they're getting further by meeting directly with the city. Beanie Self, the executive director of the Southeast Memphis Community Development Corporation, says, "They have not been able to get a response from the city to their particular needs especially code enforcement. Environmental code enforcement in this city has been in a sort of a flux, and that's just sort of a first line. When environmental code issues are not addressed then that is the first level of deterioration in my opinion of a neighborhood."

There is a cost, says Whalen. She's had her phone line cut, her tires slashed, but she still keeps her door open and continues to fight for her neighborhood. "It's really It's really a good area to live in. It's just that if we don't do something to stop the blight in it, we're going to end up like I hate to say it, Hickory Hill," says Whalen.