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Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

As part of the change, the Community Foundation is supporting advocacy organizations with nearly $2.4 million

By meerna Jun25,2024
As part of the change, the Community Foundation is supporting advocacy organizations with nearly .4 million

The Memphis Tenants Association meets in November outside the Memphis Towers apartment complex for a press conference with partner organization MICAH. Photo: Andrea Morales for MLK50

The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis is taking a risk, hoping it will lead to major change in the city at a systemic level.

The foundation plans to donate nearly $2.4 million over the next five years to three organizations advocating for more equitable housing and criminal justice systems: the Greater Memphis Housing Justice Project, Just City and the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope.

This approach is riskier than funding direct services such as homeless shelters, but it is also more likely to create lasting change, said Aerial Ozuzu, the foundation’s director of community impact.

“(We wanted) to see work done in a different way. We are used to programs to help people every day,” Ozuzu said. “But how do we improve the (housing and justice) systems so that people are treated fairly?”

While the foundation’s primary role is to help donors deliver to nonprofits of their choice, the foundation has also long had its own grant-making activities. Before the pandemic, many of these funds went to organizations working with children. However, after last year’s strategic planning process, the foundation decided to make a change.

The decision may not pay off immediately, Ozuzu said. As the Greater Memphis Housing Justice Project, for example, tries to bring about big changes in housing policies and practices, it may take time to achieve tangible change.

“That’s what solving the root problem and working to change systems is all about. Even in five years… who knows what it will look like?” – Ozuzu said.

Whatever the organizations come up with in the meantime, the foundation has committed to funding them for five years, allowing them to spend the money largely as they see fit without imposing typical funding restrictions.

For GMHJP, the funding is a huge win. At $165,000 annually, this is the largest gift ever received by the nonprofit organization of the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis and the Memphis Public Law Center.

GMHJP co-founder Jamie Johnson, who is also executive director of MPILC, said it can be difficult to sell funders on tenant representation at a systemic level, especially when she can’t say exactly what the organization will accomplish because it will be led by tenants’ experience.

Jamie Johnson at the 2023 MLK50 Tenant Event. Photo: Isaac Singleton for MLK50

“If you force me to give a recipe for a year of work, if we really listen and (adapt), it really won’t be effective,” she said.

The Community Foundation’s willingness to entrust it with such a large, long-term commitment, she said, is huge for GMHJP. The funding allows the group to significantly expand its capacity by hiring its first full-time employee and beginning to pay part-time tenant organizers. This will allow the nonprofit to collect better data on evictions, such as why people are evicted, why most tenants don’t show up to court on the day of their eviction hearing, and how often evicted people have legitimate defenses, which can be successful if they will be able to afford a lawyer.

While details will be determined based on tenants and data collected, Johnson said she has three overall goals for the organization:

  1. Transforming the city’s housing narrative around tenants’ experiences and knowledge;
  2. building the capacity of local tenants to make their voices heard in the community, at City Hall and across the state;
  3. and changing local and state policies and practices that are skewed in favor of owners.

“We are educating people who will advocate for themselves and address the systems that harm them,” said GMHJP co-founder Shirley Bondon. “Not all tenants are bad. The owners are not bad at all. But there is definitely a power imbalance between tenants and landlords.”

The Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope in Memphis plans to use its portion of the $210,000-a-year grant for similar housing work and advocating for change in the local criminal justice system.

While MICAH has worked on housing issues in the past, its association with the issue has waxed and waned over the years. With the grant, it hopes to put significant effort and resources into improving conditions in rental homes and apartments in Memphis, said Gisela Guerrero, a community organizer hired by the coalition.

Like GMHJP, Guerrero said MICAH’s first steps will be to listen to tenants, prepare them to advocate for themselves and try to better understand the local housing landscape.

But she said the group plans to focus on the City of Memphis Health, Education and Housing Centers Council as a starting point. The quasi-governmental body provides tax credits and tax-exempt bonds for low-income housing, which developers say is necessary as affordable housing becomes increasingly difficult to build.

In exchange for this financial assistance, landlords promise to maintain healthy, safe and attractive outdoor spaces and provide tenants with certain “benefits” such as renovations, equipment upgrades or social services. If they don’t, the board could end lucrative tax incentives.

The Memphis Tenants Association filed its report in the lobby of the Cotton Exchange building, where the Health, Education and Housing Centers Board meets after its August session. Photo: Andrea Morales for MLK50

The board – under pressure from the Memphis Tenants Association – began taking a more proactive approach to compliance last year. The approximately 110 properties it subsidizes are subject to frequent evictions and city code violations. However, he is still hesitant to eliminate all tax breaks, fearing that it will lead to property owners going bankrupt, selling them or no longer paying for any maintenance.

The Memphis Tenants Association has been taking a less active approach to HEHF management since conditions at Memphis Towers – a property that was its priority – improved under new ownership.

MICAH hopes to build on MTU’s work.

“(MTU) has identified systemic problems that can be addressed through policy solutions,” said Austin Harrison, assistant professor of urban studies at Rhodes College and leader of the MICAH Housing Task Force. “The City of Memphis HEHF Board must… (use better) guardrails to protect our most vulnerable Memphis residents.”

Harrison, however, said he hopes his organization’s relationship with the HEHF will not be hostile. MICAH is currently trying to learn more about the board and possible ways to ensure that the properties it encourages are kept in good condition. Once he has refined his preferred solutions, he hopes to work with board members to implement them.

In addition to its housing efforts, MICAH will use the grant to revitalize its criminal justice support.

Guerrero said the organization is deeply frustrated by the Tennessee General Assembly’s recent rejection of police reform ordinances that her organization helped push through to the Memphis City Council after the murder of Tire Nichols. She believes that the public conversation about policing is becoming increasingly divided, with the dominant narrative that any attempt to reform the police or reduce its budget is an attempt to reduce public safety in the city.

People marched on Poplar Avenue in February 2023 during a protest against the police murder of Tire Nichols. Photo: Andrea Morales for MLK50

For that reason, Guerrero said MICAH plans to go back to square one: talk to more community members about the issue, as well as residents of cities that have improved public safety in ways other than adding police. Based on this study, the organization will plan its next public safety campaign.

All three grant recipients mentioned the General Assembly’s recent actions when they talked about their funding plans at the Community Foundation’s annual meeting.

Just City founder Josh Spickler said his organization will work to ensure fair bail practices in the county after a new state law — prohibiting judges from considering defendants’ finances when setting bail — “has disrupted everything.” Spickler told MLK50 he doesn’t think the law will withstand the legal challenges that are likely to come, but did not commit to Just City filing a lawsuit.

Just City will also use these funds – $100,000 annually – to continue paying bail on low-level charges, obtain the expungement of residents’ records, participate in “strategic litigation” to protect the rights of Memphians, and conduct “judicial oversight” and data analysis that ensures system transparency.

“We have to be very careful in the coming days that we don’t undercut some really, really important rights,” Spicler said. “Because, frankly, the presumption of innocence is under attack. We will try to protect it because it makes us safer.”

Jacob Steimer is a member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at [email protected]


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By meerna

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