This story will air on News Channel 3 at 10pm on Monday. The video will be attached here after it airs.
Memphis, Tennessee — For those who might think sidewalks are no big deal, a survey by WREG Problem Solvers finds that the stakes can be very high for homeowners.
Many were surprised to learn that they, not the city, were responsible for the sidewalks in front of their property. The City of Memphis can place a lien on your property if you’re cited for poor sidewalks and don’t make them comply with the code.
George Thompson calls the problem solver when this happens. He, like many others who talk to problem solvers, believes that sidewalks are the responsibility of the city.
He lives in the Speedway Terrace area of North Parkway, where large trees line the wide middle.
“I wonder why as homeowners we have to pay for it when the trees are basically planted,” he said.
The city took him to environmental court, where they threatened to place a lien on his property. He ended up paying about $3,000 for the new sidewalk.
“It’s like the difficulty there,” he said of the fee, which he had to pay at the same time his wife died.
The experience left Thompson inarticulate, so he called WREG problem solvers. He believes the city is being cut off from his area.
“I wonder why people on North Park Road have to do this,” he said. “Stone. Jude is holding a large stick. We know this area is covered with a large stick.”
WREG analyzed the city’s records showing all sidewalk citations since October 2018. They show that they have given more than 1,500 citations, or an average of more than 1 per day.
Records also show that they often wrote citations by targeting multiple households in an area. Officials said the citations stemmed only from complaints.
WREG problem solvers asked the complaint to take them to Thompson’s home, but the city has not provided it after multiple requests since July 15.
We also tried to ask Memphis chief engineer Manny Bellen, whose department manages the city’s sidewalk permits, but he won’t answer questions on camera.
A few months later, we obtained a brief interview with Robert Knecht, director of public works, whose department is responsible for law enforcement. We asked him if he knew why the city didn’t provide what they said had led to the complaints Thompson and others were cited.
“No, as far as I know,” Knecht replied.
So problem solvers dig deeper into the numbers.
They did not show Thompson’s Speedway Terrace area being targeted. In fact, 38106 in South Memphis had the most sidewalk citations of any zip code, including 43 homes on James Street and Greenwood Street, where Marilyn Parker lived.
“It’s a lot,” Parker said. “It’s an old neighborhood.”
We turned our findings to Jeffrey Higgs, executive director of the South Memphis Renewal Community Development Corporation.
“I think it might be because it’s an older part of the city that doesn’t have as much new development,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of people know that the sidewalk is their responsibility. That’s the shock. If there’s a way to get some subsidy or something.”
In fact, the city offers a sidewalk repair assistance program; it’s generally available to households with an annual income of $25,000 or less. For those with higher incomes, sidewalks are still expensive.
“I think it’s $4,000 or $5,000,” Parker said of her new sidewalk. She wanted new ones for years, but couldn’t afford them until her husband retired.
According to a study by the University of Memphis, 38,106 had a poverty rate of over 40 percent.
“To me, having a lien on someone’s house because the sidewalk is broken seems like a bit of an overkill,” Higgs said.
Problem solvers asked Knecht, the director of public works, if city officials responded to the criticism.
“The sidewalk ordinance is the same one that has been in place for decades,” he said. “If the owner can’t pay, then we put a lien on the property. This is standard practice in the city for owners to comply with city violations.”
Thompson thinks he may have lost his house. He didn’t want to take risks, so he ended up getting the help of the kids to take on the job.
He and others hope the city will change its policies.
► Is there a problem? Contact WREG Problem Solver Stacy Jacobson at 901-543-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org