— Larrison Campbell (@thisislarrison) July 17, 2017
The excavator tore the roof off of the blue clapboard house on its second try. Less than three minutes later, all that remained of the abandoned property at 3120 Sears St. was a pile of wood and roofing tiles — and a crowd that included some of the most important officials in the state.
Press conferences are unusual in this area of west Jackson, where chain-link fences delineate many of the property lines. But on Monday morning, the secretary of state, the speaker of the House of Representatives, the mayor of Jackson, three state senators, five state representatives and three city council members all turned out in the 90-degree heat to declare this soon-to-be-vacant lot the seat of progress in Jackson.
Monday’s announcement marks a partnership between the secretary of state’s office and Revitalize Mississippi. The non-profit, founded by Dr. Jim Johnston of Jackson, works to improve neighborhoods by helping local residents purchase and then restore tax-forfeited properties. The benefit for the state is that returning these properties to private ownership puts them back on the tax rolls.
“It’s very special, what Jim’s doing, and the partnership we’ve created,” said Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann. “What we’re doing here is planting a seed. We’re not just tearing down a house, we’re helping a community and a neighborhood rebuild itself.”
The key to this partnership is the concept of local ownership, getting neighborhood residents to purchase the properties.
“Having someone who’s in the community, they have more of an interest in seeing productive use, which is anything other than what’s happening right now,” said Andy Frame, director of Revitalize Mississippi. “It’s kind of breaking the inertia cycle where you’re no longer having outside people hope they can make a quick buck off of it. The key with community ownership as opposed to outsider investor ownership is that those in the community are those who are more likely to care about it.”
But as recently as a year ago, Johnston’s insistence that these properties should be owned by locals was a bone of contention between Revitalize Mississippi and the secretary of state’s office.
In an October conversation with Mississippi Today, Johnston expressed frustration that out-of-state investors could outbid locals on the tax-forfeited properties. He said he had seen a number of instances where the buyers did little to improve the property, patching them up and re-renting them or holding onto lots with the hope that they could eventually be sold at a profit. The result, he said, was that neighborhood blight continued.
“Blight is a cancer because it attracts criminal activity, drug activity, it makes neighborhoods unsafe for kids, and it contributes to people leaving the neighborhood,” Johnston said.
But the neighborhoods Johnston was working in were some of Jackson’s poorest, and he acknowledged that residents there often had trouble coming up with the thousands of dollars that the tax-forfeited properties sell for.
Hosemann said he and Johnston finally sat down and hammered out the details one day last fall.
“We were working on it before,” Hosemann said. “But he added an additional arrow to the quiver, which is the ability to raise private funds to tear down the structures.”
Under the new partnership agreement, when a local person applies to purchase a property, they can indicate on their application that they are working with Revitalize Mississippi. The non-profit then donates clean-up and demolition, which can cost up to $3,500, and the state reduces the sale price of the property to the buyer. Prices then range from $100 for a demolition to $520 for a house needing rehabilitation.
Nathan Barnes, who bought the property at 3120 Sears St., said he plans to turn his new property into a neighborhood garden and park.
“We’re going to help the neighborhood children learn how to plant food,” Barnes said. “We’ll have a community park. And I have a friend, he does some cooking, so he’s going to get a barbecue out there.”
Johnston began Revitalize Mississippi six years ago with an idea from then-mayor of Jackson Chokwe Lumumba. At Monday’s press conference, his son, newly elected Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, called this project a “demonstration of operational unity.”
“It looks good, it feels good, that we can work together, and it is a win-win for everyone,” Lumumba said. “Because taking away our blight is not only about the aesthetic appeal of our city, but it’s about changing a culture that is abandoned and torn down and rebuilding and moving towards a city that not only is a model for the state of Mississippi but will be a model for the world.”
In the past year, Revitalize Mississippi has cleaned up 48 lots and performed demolitions on 16 more lots previously owned by the state. On city-owned properties, they’ve cleaned up 27 lots and performed 23 more demolitions. Currently, 190 applications are pending with the state. City properties are acquired because of ordinance violations, while state properties are acquired through tax forfeitures.
“Neighborhood interest is greatly increasing,” said Johnston.
But, he acknowledged, so is blight. He said in Jackson each year, 600 to 700 properties “mature to the state,” meaning they end up in tax-forfeiture. But Johnston said the city carried out only approximately 250 demolitions in a two-year period.
“So we’re not getting ahead if it,” Johnston said. “It’s going to take a big state effort to turn this around.”
Monday’s press conference is an indication that many influential officials are invested in combating neighborhood blight.
“Every community wants to see vibrancy and they want to see prosperity, and eliminating dysfunctional properties and converting them into prosperous homes and businesses is a desirable goal for all of us,” said Speaker of the House Philip Gunn.
Editor’s note: Jim Johnston is a donor to Mississippi Today