07/30/2012 06:38 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2012

25 Square: Memphis Puts Ex-Felons And Others To Work Cleaning Up Problem Properties


For many years, Memphis held the distinction of America's Cleanest City.

Much has changed in America since then. Most recently, we've seen the collapse of the housing market and the worst economic recession this country has experienced since The Great Depression.

It's a crisis that didn't hit Memphis as hard as some cities, but between the twin tidal waves of foreclosures and job market losses, Memphis has been left with pockets of unemployment and pockets of blight, most times right on top of each other.

For the well-being of the city and its citizens, Memphis City government has a responsibility to both generate economic growth and to keep neighborhoods free of overgrown lots, illegal dumps, and other eyesores.

In the past, Memphis fought blight one lot at a time, with crews crisscrossing the city to respond to citizen complaints. It wasn't particularly efficient and, even though we were responding to calls from our constituents, it wasn't particularly effective.

Recently, we've rethought that approach, literally working from the ground up, and we've found a simple solution that makes sense for the city, our neighborhoods, and some of our most economically unstable citizens.

We call it 25 Square -- we target 25-square-block areas of the city at a time. Instead of mowing one overgrown lot and leaving another lurking just down the block, 25 Square sends crews to deal with every type of blight at once: Weeds and overgrown grass are cut, abandoned and dilapidated houses are demolished, streets are swept, potholes are filled, litter and debris are removed, and sidewalks and alleys are cleared.

Before we send the crews, we ask residents to survey the 25-square blocks and give us a detailed list of the neighborhood's problem properties. Not only does it get the community involved in the process, citizens know their neighborhoods -- and the challenges within them -- better than anyone else.

The 25-Square saturation strategy virtually eliminates excessive travel and loading/unloading time, making it 80 percent more efficient that previous efforts and lowering the per unit cost of each remediation. It doesn't decrease the city's overall blight budget, but it does allow us to do more with what we have and, with the number of foreclosures in the Memphis area, we must do more with what we have.

In one large area early on, the crews mowed or trimmed 512 properties, hauled away 25 truckloads of garbage and debris, boarded up 44 houses, and demolished another 18 houses.

25 Square has also resulted in some additional benefits.

As crews remove abandoned tires from vacant lots or demolish dilapidated homes, residents come out of their houses to cut their own grass, sweep their own sidewalks, and trim their own hedges. 25 Square re-invigorates the pride our citizens feel for their communities.

One of Memphis' priorities is to grow prosperity and opportunity for all -- not just the unemployed and the underemployed, but the unemployable. There are those individuals who may not have made the right choices in the past -- maybe they didn't finish school, maybe they found themselves in jail -- and who, even though they want to get on the right path, cannot seem to stay find their way.

In going from working so-called "hot tickets" to mitigating eight to 15 25-square-block areas at a time, we had to supplement our city crews with several contract crews. Sensing a chance to grow opportunity, 25 Square works with smaller groups and entrepreneurs.

Some of our most successful crews are from an organization called Lifeline to Success, an ex-offender re-entry program. They started with just a few guys and some mowers, and a year or so later, have been able to invest in heavier equipment like bushhogs. As they build their capacity and their reputation, we are confident they will be able to contract with private companies and to diversify into other industries.

For Memphis city government, 25 Square may be a saturation strategy to deal with blight. But for the crews from Lifeline to Success, 25 Square is a stepping stone. And, with those kinds of results, we can reclaim our neighborhoods, our homes, and our future.