Don't believe everything you hear about the real estate freeze. As the subjects of this feature demonstrate, there are many reasons to buy and sell property, and they're not all about the money. The historic homes and neighborhoods of Memphis help to make our city an aesthetically distinctive place while providing crucial components of local identity. Working with those structures means more than making a living for some Memphians — it offers outlets for artistic expression, community rehabilitation, and personal redemption.
Just don't call it "flipping." >>>
"I don't like the term 'flipping,'" says Suzanne Henley, a Midtowner who has beautified, then sold homes around her neighborhood on and off for nine years. "It's a legal, real estate problem that has a pejorative connotation to a lot of people who work on houses. The term smacks of trying to put one over on people quickly," she adds.
Henley explains that "flippers," real estate agents, and appraisers have colluded to fix prices on homes. Those who've been caught end up in prison. Funny, you don't see that side of it on A&E's popular cable series Flip This House.
The proliferation of house-flipping TV shows hasn't helped the public perception of her profession either, Henley says. "I've never really been concerned about how much a house has made," she explains. "Each house has been this incredible challenge and adventure. The idea of fitting in salvaged architectural pieces and yet creating open, free-flowing space — the combination of those two elements — is why I do this. The idea of creating something new out of something that wasn't there is strong. All of the homes that I've worked in are hundred-year-old homes."
On top of the challenges inherent in reshaping old homes, Henley derives satisfaction from the long-term effects her projects have on their surroundings. "Most of the houses I've done are the first on their block to be fixed up — which is wonderful afterwards for the neighborhood, and not so good for sales," she explains. "I'm the worst poster child for this as a business venture."
Henley came to the profession late in life when she felt the need for a little fixing up of her own. From the front step of her eighth project, a Queen Anne on York Avenue, she looks back at that beginning. "I was director of development at the Memphis College of Art, working hard full-time. My brother died, my mother died, and my last child left home. A giant light bulb went off — I was 57 then, I'm 65 today — and I thought, 'If I'm ever going to be my own person, this is the time.' Plus I think there was some creative urge after all of the deaths and empty-nest feelings — to create something in that place," Henley recalls.
She undertook her first home renovation project in 1999 at an address on Lee Place, just north of Overton Square. Over time and through trial and error, she assembled a reliable and skilled crew led by veteran carpenter Clyde Macklin. "My family was gone, and these guys have become family, though I've fired my share of cokeheads and crackheads and thieves," Henley laments.
She's also learned a thing or two about public relations. "We get comments from neighbors that we take into consideration. Here they get to vote on things," Henley explains, gesturing toward her current renovation house. "At one point I had 20 color samples taped to the exterior, and people would come and initial the one they liked. The guys always vote on what color to use as well."
The interior, however, is all Henley's vision. "She tells us what she wants to do to a house," Macklin says, standing in a sunny bedroom, once a cramped kitchen in Henley's current project. "We go through and estimate the cost and value of it, and tell her what can and can't be done."
"And then I say to do it all anyway," quips Henley, adding to the conversation from the next room.
Henley's vision of a project and the work of her crew completely converts home space, turning a utility room into a kitchen, a bathroom into a bedroom, closets where there were none. They knock down walls, expand doorways, or move windows, even if just a few feet, to make the vision real. Destruction is only the first part. They might tear a chimney down and build a fireplace from the bricks. "You have to pray to the spirit of the hundred-year-old house — the laws of physics can be charmed to a certain extent. You hope that the bones can support the changes," Henley muses.
The changes might include a recessed frame in a wall to hang a plasma-screen TV — something the original builders didn't account for in 1911.
"Most projects take around four months but it varies according to the size of the house," Macklin says, adding that construction materials also figure in to the timeline. "A 2x4 now isn't really a 2x4, so if you're working on an old house [from back when a 2x4 was two inches by four inches] you have to buy a larger piece of lumber and reduce it. They skimp on everything today, so it makes it challenging."
Another challenge? Today's precarious market, which makes Henley question the future of her business. "I've never lost money, but on several houses I've not made as much as I've wanted to," she explains.
But while economic challenges are ever-present, it's the creative challenges that keep Henley motivated. Thankfully, for Henley, her crew, and the areas in which she works, those creative challenges are recession proof.
Avery bridges doesn't fit the "flipper" image any better than Henley does. The soft-spoken young man explains his own home renovation philosophy as he stands in the middle of Oxford Avenue in Binghamton the morning after Christmas: "I do construction as ministry."
Raised a Southern Baptist in south Louisiana, Bridges explains that the South-ern Baptist churches thriving today are located outside the city, and away from neighborhoods like Binghamton. "I say that with shame — this is where the church needs to be," Bridges says.
To fill what he sees as the absence of the church, Bridges fixes up homes in Binghamton for people called to do ministry in the neighborhood. "I wouldn't speculate on these houses without someone that I could covenant with," Bridges says. To Bridges, the slumlord is the enemy. He believes in what he describes as a careful gentrification of Binghamton, a neighborhood he's worked in for several years.
"I first heard about Binghamton in 2004," he explains, while volunteering with Service Over Self (SOS), a Christian community- development organization that repairs and renovates homes in the neighborhood. "We were doing a cleanup that day, and the SOS director at that time, Robert Montague, asked me to become a construction manager that summer. I started here as a volunteer, and I've worked here the past three summers, which got me initiated in the neighborhood. It became clear to me about a year ago that the Lord really wanted us to stay here and make a difference."
Bridges has three projects on Oxford Avenue between Bingham and Collins Streets at various stages from concept to complete. "I learned about the property at 2596 Oxford Avenue which became my first project," he says. "This corridor from Collins to Hollywood and Sam Cooper to Poplar is where the greatest improvement in housing conditions has happened in this neighborhood. There's 20 years' worth of work that I'm standing on the shoulders of," he adds, crediting SOS and the Binghamton Development Corporation.
Bridges operates his business on the equity of his home. His clients have included a teacher at the new Brewster Elementary School, SOS personnel, and other outsiders committed to Binghamton. "I work for people who want to come in to this neighborhood from the outside to do ministry work," he says. "They care about the neighborhood first, and want a nice house second. I know people for years before I do any work for them."
His calling, as Bridges sees it, involves transforming communities from the inside of homes out to the streets. "If all anyone in a neighborhood ever sees is people being misogynistic toward women, or not dealing with conflict rightly, then they're bound to repeat that behavior. This neighborhood needs whole families to come and demonstrate righteousness," he says.
Bridges hopes that the transformation process will increase equity throughout the neighborhood. "When I turn a $20,000 house into an $80,000 house, that $40,000 next door can become an $80,000 house as well, and I won't have touched it," he says.
Raising home values makes it difficult on what he calls neighborhood detriments — pimps, pushers, and slumlords. "If those are the people that I've run off, then that's good work," he says. "That's necessary to make a neighborhood sustainable. I want to build a haven for people who are great neighbors."
Bridges feels that he's in it alone now that the Binghamton Development Corporation has shifted its efforts on improving the eastern section of the neighborhood. "They feel there's a greater need right now over there. I think they're content to let the market forces take hold here [in west Binghamton] and that's where I come in."
The danger with those market forces is that the citizens whom Bridges is called to help could be priced out of their community. Thus, the concept of careful gentrification. While the idea of a flood of young middle-class professionals buying into Binghamton sounds unlikely now, the same may have been said of Cooper-Young 30 years ago.
Bridges plans to involve current community members in the process. "Over time as I build relationships with the neighbors," he explains, "I try to convince them that the neighborhood is changing and that it would be in their best interest to own their own home in order to benefit from the change. Gentrification is somewhat inevitable, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I care about this neighborhood."
Careful gentrification includes plans for renters as well as owners. "My biggest fear is for a good neighbor to be priced out and have to leave because their rent is doubling from the increasing property values," Bridges says. "I want to provide rental properties here and not just single-family homes. There should be a healthy balance of renters and owners in a community, but Binghamton doesn't need it to the degree it has it now. That mix is so overwhelmed by rentals right now that it's a detriment to the community."
Bridges says it's critical that others understand his motives for fixing up Binghamton. In short — he's more than a flipper. "If people don't know the investments I make in the community they might think I was profiteering off of well-intentioned people," he says. "I want to remove that perception, and the way to do it is to be involved in the community." M