Launching the ACORN Home Savers Campaign in Memphis

Briefing the University of Memphis teams before doorknocking (Wade with organizer Teresa Jones and UM professors Maria Elena Delavega and Laura Saija)

Memphis   After several days in Arkansas working with Vision Property Management owner-occupants from Jacksonville to West Memphis, the ACORN Home Savers Campaign was preparing to dive into Memphis. Of course, we wanted to follow up with Vision owner-occupants there, but we were also interested in some of the other large rent-to-own and contract purchase companies in the Memphis market. Rents had soared an estimated 20% in the last three years in Memphis and eviction rates were among the highest for any city in the country at 5.5% according to recent studies. Furthermore, the entry of huge, Wall Street hedge fund operations like Apollo in the wake of the foreclosure crisis, who had also adopted this model and established large footprints in the market, made Memphis a city that was very important to the campaign and its ability to create change in business models and real estate markets.

Putting the list together was a tense, last minute affair as the numbers of potential volunteer canvassers seemed to be increasing instead of experiencing the usual drop-off, requiring constant toggling between the Shelby County Recorder’s records and the Assessor and tax records while beating a path through the maze of LLCs and corporate faces of these companies. We ended up focusing on three different companies as well as following up on our Vision agreement: Harbour Porfolio, the Dallas hedge fund, Apollo, the New York fund, and a large local player, APM or Affordable Property Management. Overall, we had more than 700 address to target over the weekend.

 

ACORN Home Savers Campaign organizer Dine’ Butler explaining the property mapping before the canvassing.

We had help from colleagues and friends connected to various departments at the University of Memphis, particularly Professor Maria Elena Delavega in the School of Social Work and Professor Laura Saija and Jessica Buttermore in the Planning department. Nonetheless, in the middle of the annual St. Jude Marathon and a much touted football game between ranked teams with Central Florida facing the home team from the University, we had more than forty (40) students and other volunteers ready to hit the doors, almost all of them for the first time.

This was a brand of controlled chaos that seems a footnote to so much of organizing. None of this work is old school with clipboards, pen and paper. The lists are all generated from hours on internet accessible websites and organized into Excel files. These files then populate either a BatchGeo mapping program, like we used in Detroit and Indianapolis, or go straight into Google Maps, which we debuted in Memphis. We used a survey tool developed by Dine’ Butler as an aid for the students to use since they were inexperienced on home visits, but would allow us, if successful, to collect the information so that the organizers could follow up in putting together the ACORN Memphis Home Savers Campaign Committee after the first of the year.

University of Memphis students and volunteers assembling to prepare to hit the field.

The surveys went on-line too, so at the end of the day we could see exactly how many visits had been completed successfully. None of that will substitute for the next day’s briefing, the pictures of families, or the stories, both encouraging and heartbreaking, that we will hear on the doors, or the new things we will learn from listening to people from these companies about their contracts.

There is also no substitute for an exciting – and dramatic — launch of the campaign in a new city. It’s no longer, “Memphis here we come!,” it’s now, “Hello, Memphis, here we are!”

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