Well before we were faced with a national pandemic, Memphis was facing an affordable housing crisis. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition report released in March 2020, The Gap: A Shortage of Affordable Homes, the Memphis metro area has a deficit of over 38,000 units of affordable housing for households at or below the poverty level or at or below 30% of area median income.
The source data for this report is the 2018 American Community Survey. In 2018, the unemployment rate in Memphis was just under 4% and as of August of this year, the unemployment rate was almost 12%. So one can only imagine how much greater that need is today. These statistics are alarming, and it is a reality that so many people in our community are faced with every day.
During the pandemic, there have been federal, state, and local measures to provide funding and protection from eviction in an effort to help families remain in their homes. However, some families will inevitably be forced from their homes and their options will be limited.
Housing security is just one issue low-income families are grappling with now. Another significant challenge is education and childcare for their children. Schools were closed for months, many summer camps and programs were canceled and now the school year has begun virtually. Not only are parents in need of childcare solutions, but many of these same families are also casualties of the digital divide, severely limiting their ability to participate in the new virtual reality.
In April, The Memphis Flyer published that “census data shows that in South Memphis and Washington Heights neighborhoods more than 80% of households have no broadband internet access. In Frayser, 63% of households are without internet access.” Furthermore, the article cited from a report by the National Inclusion Alliance that in 2016, of the 256,973 households in Memphis 126,428 of them had no broadband connection.
Shelby County Schools hopes to help close that gap as part of their virtual school year implementation strategy by offering free devices for every student and hotspots available for each household. However, we must consider when we are on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, what will the options be for these families?
Beyond the Pandemic, How Do We Build a More Equitable Memphis?
So many organizations across the Memphis community have stepped up to offer food, cleaning products, masks, and other much-needed resources to lessen the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been so inspirational to see our community band together in one of our greatest times of need. Nevertheless, the harsh reality is that many communities in our city are perpetually in a housing, economic, education, and healthcare crisis.
This is why it is critical that equitable development span beyond a building and four walls, and why ComCap and our partners are focused on developing thriving communities with both quality affordable housing and other resources not only in times of national crisis but every day.
Investing in Equity in South City
As units of housing are erected to replace the former public housing site, the changes to the landscape of South City are very apparent. In addition to the new housing development, Foote Park at South City, the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative (CNI) grant also provided funds for neighborhood and placemaking initiatives, such as park improvements, public art, a minor homeowner repair program, and a commercial façade improvement program, all visible throughout the neighborhood. But what you may not see is the dedicated community organizations such as the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis, Urban Strategies Inc., SCORE and many others that are working behind the scenes to invest in neighborhood families as well.
Furthermore, in order for historically disinvested communities to be revitalized while maintaining equity, it is critical that new investments offer a broad range of amenities, goods, and services. In South City, the CNI grant will also partially fund a new early childhood education center that will serve families in the neighborhood. The early childhood education center will be the anchor in the redeveloped MLK Transition Academy located directly across the street from the housing development. The redevelopment of the vacant school building, led by ComCap Partners, will transform the vacant school into a multi-use community space with services and resources for the neighborhood. The development team is seeking to include commercial and retail tenants, non-profit providers, and the proposed South City Museum and Cultural Center. The vision of the project is that the space will be a neighborhood hub, yet inclusive and inviting to the greater Memphis community.
Creating New Housing Stock in Frayser
On the north side of the city, Renaissance at Steele is in the final months of the substantial rehab of a dated, dilapidated apartment complex into a new quality, energy-efficient, and affordable development. This development is part of the Frayser Neighborhood Initiative, an effort to improve the built environment around schools and create a more stable living environment in the Frayser community. ComCap Partners and The Works, Inc., in partnership with Neighborhood Preservation Inc. are targeting blighted properties in close proximity to MLK College Prep, Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary School and Whitney Achievement School. We are so excited to be nearing completion because the road to get here was not easy. Many were skeptical that the project would be successful. But in an area where approximately 50% of housing is rental units, including numerous single-family units, there is a demand for quality rental housing.
In many economically distressed communities throughout our city, it is accepted that families live in sub-par conditions. The Frayser Neighborhood Initiative team is committed to changing this narrative, ComCap serves as the project’s co-developer with The Works Inc. which owns and will operate the development. Renaissance at Steele has been transformed into quality housing with amenities not often found in the area, such as a washer and dryer in each unit, a fitness center, playground, and bike stations. Additionally, the development includes a community building that will be programmed by The Works and offer a breadth of services and resources as well as gathering space for families living in the community.
While the everyday lives and challenges faced by families living in economically distressed areas may be different than those in more affluent areas, the basic desires of those residents are no different. The desire to have a nice and safe home.
Working together for a better Memphis
At ComCap, we are fully aware that we are not alone nor are we pioneers in this work. There were many before us, some still leading the way and several alongside. We are grateful for these partners because this work requires more from all of us.
Take a look at the communities that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19, where families have lost a substantial part of their income, and where kids are having to navigate a virtual school year in a challenging environment. Our hope is that the realities we have been faced with as a community can no longer be ignored. Maybe others are troubled by the disparities in our community and motivated to help find solutions. Although these issues will not be resolved overnight, we will make progress with more people dedicated to creating an equitable city for all Memphians.
Alex Willis – October 2020
1-U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2020). Economy at a Glance: Memphis, TN -MS-AR.
2-Delavega, E. & Blumenthal, G. (September 2020). 2019 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet.
3-Smith, M. (2020, April 29). Poverty in a Pandemic. Memphis Flyer.
4-National Low-Income Housing Coalition.(March 2020). The Gap: The Shortage of Affordable Homes.