“In The Absence” Pigeon Roost Filmmakers Discuss Blight & ‘Shadow Investors’

Benjamin Rednour (left) and Jordan Danelz of Pigeon Roost Films visited the WYPL studios in May, 2019.

Mark Fleischer: Benjamin Rednour and Jordan Danelz of Pigeon Roost films (pigeonroost.co) have been for the last couple years working with Neighborhood Preservation, Inc. on their film “In The Absence,” which documents the causes and effects of blight and the efforts of our city to fight it. There are nine chapters in the film – two of which have been shown locally so far. How did this come together with NPI? 

Benjamin Rednour: Steve (Steve Barlow, NPI President) came to me and asked for some social media content. I racked my brain, just trying to figure out a way to cover blight, and I connected with Jordan and said Hey, I’m having roadblocks with this. We and the NPI team eventually came up with this idea to have a series that we would release online. We fleshed out the topics that we needed to cover and came up with this nine-part series. 

Jordan Danelz: It’s been two years of filmmaking; we have the first two out with the third out next month. We’re revealing each chapter in a different neighborhood throughout the city. 

Mark: Talking about blight, when you get into the nitty-gritty of what that means to everyone, it affects all of us, layer by layer, story by story. 

Jordan: The hard part is that a lot of people still don’t know what blight is. It’s an aspect of everything: it’s your health, your housing, schooling, police force. It’s all government services. Blight wraps everything together and we had to figure out a way that we could tell the story of Memphis through NPI and through the organizations that work with it in a way that brings the heart and the emotion in.

Mark: I’ve seen chapter 2 and I saw your preview back in November. It was powerful. 

Benjamin: You saw the chapter on Code. 

Mark: Yes! Oh man. So I think this really speaks to what you were saying about how people don’t really understand blight until you show them something like this. The preview on Code Enforcement – share what that was about.

Jordan: One thing that I learned about this world (of blight) is that has a snowball effect. There’s many reasons why we’re at the place that we’re at today: the 2008 foreclosure crisis effected whole neighborhoods; communities lost generational wealth through foreclosure; and people were treated unfairly by Wells Fargo and other major banks. You had communities that used to be homeowners now being forced into the rental market, already strapped for cash, and finding substandard housing to accommodate their financial situation. 

These banks are coming back by and buying up their single family housing units for pennies on the dollar. And so what used to be a foreclosure crisis is now turning into a renters’ crisis. 

I think we’re going to start to learn more about this as the years continue on … these families are paying market rate for good housing, but the people that own the property or out-of-towners that haven’t invested back into the property. There’s mold growing everywhere, there’s electrical issues. 

I mean you could go on and on with the amount of issues that these places have, but what really rings true is that you see these kids crawling on the floor and they’re coughing, and they don’t stop coughing. We went to multiple apartment complexes and you hear coughing at every single apartment and it’s coming from kids that are under the age of 6. How do you start your life that way? How are they going to have a fair chance a fair shot?

Mark: That is what I found to be so compelling, and heartbreaking. I know these stories, but to see it in a in a film where you find yourself in that world and right there on the floor with the with the child – you realize how serious these issues are and how really heartbreaking it is.

Benjamin: There’s thousands of people in the city that are dealing with a lot. Like Jordan said, How do you how do you get a fair chance at life when you’re already at a substandard level? And then for us as filmmakers, we’re trying to highlight those in the community doing such great work to help these people. 

You know, these are our neighbors. And blight in certain areas of Memphis affect the property values all around the city core – empty homes in North and South Memphis that were or are red-lined affects us all. What we’re trying to do is share how this hurts everybody, no matter where you live. 

Blighted shotgun home (courtesy Blight Elimination Steering Team at memphisflightsblight.com)

Jordan: And you can’t have a proper community or neighborhood when everyone is transient and moving from place to place. Like the properties we see with beds thrown out – toys, clothing, and random furniture just all stacked together outside of what is clearly a rental property and belongings are now on the street. If you’re a Memphian you’ve seen it and you know what that means: someone’s been forced out and they have nowhere else to go. 

Then what does that mean for City Services? It’s a major burden on the city tax base, money that could be spent on making our parks prettier, helping reinvest in the school system. As a city we need figure this out. It’s a constant tax drain. 

Mark: It’s heartbreaking. And these families, because they’re renters, are afraid to speak up. They know that if they truly held the landlord accountable that either there’d be some sort of retaliatory type thing where the landlord says You’re out… 

Jordan: Which is a real thing.

Mark: …  or it could be Code Enforcement comes and shuts down the entire complex, displacing dozens of families. You’re right, it’s a very real thing. 

Jordan: Another example is the single mom paying cash for rent. She’s not building a credit score like she would at an apartment complex where she would pay through a normal way of doing things. None of these families can build credit when they’re living in these conditions.

Benjamin: We filmed in one apartment complex where the renters were complaining about paying various rents per month – not consistent – and they’d write it down on a piece of paper. So there’s no rental history. Their credit doesn’t exist. 

Jordan: Another story that were telling is about a big issue over a company called Cerberus – which by the way is named after the gargoyle that guards the gates of Hell – and they own over 2,000 single-family houses (and they are the worst code violators in the city and with the highest eviction rates). We have to be careful because companies like this come in to communities like ours and they’re not here for any other thing than to exploit the city for profit. It’s really scary. 

Mark: That was in the Washington Post, a worst-case nightmare scenario for out-of-town ownership. See full story here: https://storyboardmemphis.org/community-development-law-corner/combating-predatory-investors/

Jordan: Worst-case on steroids. We’re losing whole neighborhood’s to these companies – we call it Shadow Inventory – where we could see homeownership, kids growing up together who know their teachers, and parents investing in the local school. You can’t maintain a culture and a community where everyone’s just renters. You need to have a mix of renters and homeownership to maintain the core culture and structure of a community.

Mark: It seems like both of you really had a passion for this to begin with – you talked earlier about working with Steve Barlow. Steve and his team have really forged ahead full throttle in addressing these things. The fact that you two are doing this to raise the awareness and getting more people on board is refreshing.

Jordan: Marlon Foster kind of coined this term “indigenous neighborhood leadership.” There’s really powerful stakeholders throughout Memphis that are finally getting recognized by powerful individuals who are listening, engaging and funding these indigenous leaders, so they can do the hard work. These leaders have been doing it for years unnoticed. But today it’s “Let’s go in there. We’re listening. What do you need? Let’s help you.”  <>

This is a partial transcript from the May 15, 2019 StoryBoard 30, Episode 11. Listen to the full show here: https://storyboardmemphis.org/storyboard-30-podcast/sb-30-episode-11-benjamin-rednour-and-jordan-danelz-of-pigeon-roost-productions/

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