Law Student Attorneys Aid City in Addressing Problem Properties

In our first Community Development Law Corner piece, we highlighted the complex web of legal ills that so often causes a property to devolve into and linger as the badly neglected, abandoned house next door or apartment complex down the street. 

We asserted that committed lawyers and creative legal solutions working at an address-to-address level are necessary to remove barriers to resuscitation that nearly always include some combination of murky title, elusive owners, delinquent taxes, and other issues not always apparent from a property’s otherwise poor physical condition. While resource limitations would normally prevent adoption of such an approach, an academic partnership unique to Memphis exemplifies the many benefits that innovative legal triage can bring in the problem property context.  

In January 2015, the University of Memphis School of Law and the City of Memphis launched the Neighborhood Preservation Clinic. In the Clinic, we supervise upper-level law students as they investigate property ownership and conditions; work closely with Memphis Code Enforcement professionals; and research, prepare, and represent the City in civil lawsuits filed under the Tennessee Neighborhood Preservation Act (NPA) in the Shelby County Environmental Court.  

Each Clinic student assumes the role of lead attorney for the 30 to 40 NPA cases he or she is assigned during the academic semester. Clinic responsibilities include weekly Environmental Court appearances, during which the student attorneys present at hearings and status updates, negotiate with opposing counsel and parties, and do all else that is necessary to move the City’s cases forward. 

To prepare them for and complement their casework, Clinic students participate in an intensive orientation and weekly classroom sessions focused on the causes of the pervasive challenges of property vacancy and abandonment in Memphis and what is being done to address those challenges here and elsewhere.

The first Clinic classes introduce the law students to substantive code enforcement and public nuisance law, national models of legal strategies to address problem properties, practice and procedure in the Environmental Court, and the issues of ethics and professionalism that arise in the context of their cases.  

A half-day ride-along with Code Enforcement then offers an orientation highlight for students who have never seen up close the degree of abandonment and deterioration of housing in some Memphis neighborhoods. During subsequent classes, the students meet community and neighborhood leadership and are able to get a real feel for what is happening in Memphis neighborhoods and how what they are doing in court makes a difference. Thereafter, classes throughout the semester include a case rounds component, during which students engage in an ongoing dialogue about the challenges they are experiencing while managing Clinic’s cases. In addition to their cases and classwork, a community outreach component requires teams of students to develop and present a solution or recommendation to an external audience of their choice. In a given week, Clinic students are required to spend about 15 hours representing the City of Memphis in these cases and working on special projects to educate and inform the public and improve neighborhoods. 

Importantly, the Clinic approach instills in the law students an appreciation for the need to understand the unique story and circumstances that distinguish each of the problem properties they are working to resolve. Every property has a story, and through the students, the City can uncover the crucial details underlying how the property came to be in a distressed state; who owned the property previously and how it came to be the responsibility of the current owner; where the property is located and how it has impacted the people, homes, and community around it. Understanding each property in this more nuanced way allows for a customized strategy to be developed, discussed, implemented, and executed—often with the ongoing cooperation of the property’s owner.  

The results have included the abatement of hundreds of public nuisance properties through either court-supervised rehabilitation by the owner or demolition of those structures in the poorest condition. Typical cases are not adversarial in nature but more focused on problem solving with a mutual goal of addressing a nuisance property that has been a cause of concern for the owner, the City, neighbors, and neighborhoods. Students are specifically trained to carefully listen and to work with property owners to find a solution to a long-recognized problem property that owners have frequently given up on.       

Now in its eighth semester of operation, the Clinic has trained more than 60 students and has emerged as a centerpiece of the collaborative effort to combat property blight in Memphis.   

Because of the Clinic’s demonstrated successes, the City provided funding that allowed for Neighborhood Preservation Staff Attorney Brittany Williams to join the Clinic team, based at the School of Law, in January 2016. Additionally, as of August 2016, the Clinic team now also includes two assistant city attorneys—Kenya Hooks and Will Gibbons—who split their time between the handling of NPA lawsuits and the prosecution of property owners under Tennessee’s criminal nuisance statute.  All told, the Clinic has filed approximately 750 new NPA lawsuits since its inception.  Under our supervision, Clinic students are handling those cases every week in Environmental Court. 

The Neighborhood Preservation Clinic is one unique way in which the City of Memphis, in partnership with the University of Memphis School of Law, is recruiting, training and putting to work committed future lawyers to develop and apply creative legal solutions to solve problem property challenges in neighborhoods one house at a time.  We are optimistic that the students who experience Memphis neighborhoods through the Clinic will become better attorneys and better Memphians, with a heightened awareness of the circumstances facing all of their neighbors and with the skills to do something to make a difference about neighborhood-level challenges of any type.   

Barlow and Schaffzin co-direct the University of Memphis School of Law’s Neighborhood Preservation Clinic where they supervise law students handling Environmental Court lawsuits on behalf of the City of Memphis. Schaffzin is an associate professor of law and director of experiential learning and Barlow is adjunct faculty and part time staff attorney for the City. Barlow serves as President of Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. Together, Steve and Danny are proud to have launched a new law partnership this year, Barlow & Schaffzin PLC.

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