The first time Freddie Benford turns the engine over, the faded blue 1967 Dodge Coronet 440 sputters. There’s a dog-eared Bible and some old prescription bags on the dash, and a colony of COVID masks hangs from the transmission lever.
Benford turns the key again. Still nothing. On the third try the old car comes to life, purring at first. Then Benford gives it some gas, and it roars. He smiles. “She’ll burn rubber from here to Chattanooga,” he says. “Rebuilt the engine myself. You could drive to California and back on one quart of oil.”
The Coronet was Benford’s first car. His dad paid $150 for it in 1977, and Benford inherited it back when his father passed away. “It’s sentimental,” he says. “Real sentimental.”
Benford and his wife Clarice Ramey live in a modest white brick ranch home in East Nashville’s Rosebank neighborhood, along the western edge of the Shelby Bottoms Greenway. He’s an auto parts salesman; she works in child care. Benford tells me their ages — he’s 62, she’s 70 — then grins. “I have always appreciated an older woman,” he says.
The couple bought their home in 1997. It’s a pretty plot of land, with a sun-drenched, gently sloped front yard and a backyard lined with trees. The house itself looks well lived-in. There’s some peeling paint and a rusty, photogenic pair of old lawn chairs out front. The house is busy, so the driveway is often lined with cars as the couple’s friends and family come and go. It’s certainly not an eyesore. The grass is well-trimmed. There’s no visible trash. No furniture on the lawn. No debris.
From the street, or even the front yard, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why, according to Benford, inspectors from the Metro Codes Department have visited the couple more than 50 times. Or why, he says, they’ve racked up $3,500 in fines. Or why in 2016, just a few years after the couple finally paid off their mortgage, the city put a lien on their home — one that remains in place today.
According to the city, the first problem is the small fishing boat the couple has parked on a trailer in their front yard. That apparently isn’t allowed. Neither are the cars of friends and relatives who sometimes park off the driveway, slightly on the lawn.
But to get to the main problem, I have to take the couple’s long driveway up to the house and enter the backyard to find the carport that extends out from the home. Benford spends a lot of time under the carport. He works on the Coronet here. He tinkers at his workbench and listens to the radio. On the blistering June day I visit, it isn’t hard to see why he likes it. The trees provide shade, rustle up a nice breeze, and bathe the area in dappled light. As we talk, the couple’s lab mix Bella patrols a T-shaped patch of grass.
“See that mini fridge over there? He wrote me up for that,” Benford says, referring to the Codes inspector. “I never heard of something so dumb. A man can’t have a mini fridge in his own garage?”
Benford sighs, rolls his eyes, and continues. “He wrote me up for having tools out here. Said you can’t have tools that aren’t put away. He said I can’t have the work bench. Once I was drinking a can of soda when he came over. He told me to put it away. You believe that? I’m a grown man, and you’re telling me to put away my soda. Everything you see out here, they told me I can’t have.”
Benford’s hardly a hoarder. At worst, you could say the carport has some clutter. There are a few chairs, some tools, a grill and a couple empty kerosene tanks. In 2018, his wife suffered a fall in the shower, hit her head, and sustained injuries that required brain surgery and a long convalescence. Benford himself recently had knee surgery. So there’s also a walker, a cane and assorted medical devices.
The structure is enclosed by the house on one side. The other three sides are open. And that, apparently, is the problem. “If that was an enclosed garage, it wouldn’t be an issue,” says Jamie Hollin, the couple’s attorney. “But they can’t afford to build a garage. So the city won’t leave them alone.” The carport isn’t visible from any public space, and as far as I could tell, the surrounding neighbors would have to strain to see it.
Benford says he and Ramey are the only Black couple in the neighborhood, and for the most part, that hasn’t been a problem. “We get along with everybody,” he says. “Everyone is friendly.”
But Benford says the first complaint that put the couple on the city’s radar came from a white neighbor in 2003. “That lady would ask me to come help her move things, or fix something,” Benford says. “She’d ask for rides to and from the bus stop. Come to find out she was reporting us to the city the entire time.”
Those reports attracted the attention of a particular Codes inspector, who then became a thorn in the couple’s side for nearly two decades. “At first he’d only come around when she called in a complaint,” Benford says. “But then he just started showing up on his own. He’d just come into the backyard and start telling me to put things away. Neighbors told me he’d sometimes park in their driveway and watch us with binoculars.”
The Coronet also became an issue. Nashville prohibits residents from keeping inoperable or unregistered vehicles on residential properties unless they’re stored in an enclosed garage. Paradoxically, the city also forbids residents from making major repairs on their own vehicles — again, unless it’s done in an enclosed garage. For Benford, that means when the Coronet has broken down over the years, his only legal option is to have it towed to a garage and pay someone else to fix it, even though he has the skills to fix it himself. According to Benford, the same Codes inspector has repeatedly shown up at his home over the years solely to demand that Benford prove that the car is operable. “I lost count of how many times he made me do that,” Benford says. “More than 20.”
“It’s just outrageous and demeaning,” says Hollin. “You’re going to come out and make this man start his car for you on command? You’re going to put a lien on this couple’s home over an old car? Some chairs in a carport? A goddamn refrigerator?”
Benford says he wasn’t aware of the lien until Hollin told him last year. “I can’t sell my house until we pay those fines,” Benford says. “How are you going to put a lien on somebody’s home without even telling them?”
“They just don’t care,” Hollin says. “These folks have lived here for 25 years. Hell, Freddie’s lived in Nashville all his life. They work hard. Finally pay off their house. And they have to put up with this bullshit because of nosy neighbors, some petty tyrant inspector, and a bunch of oblivious Metro officials. It just makes me mad.”
Over the past three years, the Metro Codes Department has fielded more than 95,000 complaints. Some complaints concern unkempt vacant lots, abandoned buildings that pose a fire hazard, dumped garbage or cars abandoned in alleyways. Others are requests for the city to remove old signs or debris. But browse the content of the complaints themselves — they’re all conveniently posted and plotted on the city’s “Nashview” site — and you’ll see a lot of complaints from residents about “eyesores,” tall grass, unregistered vehicles, cars parked on grass or houses in need of new paint or siding. You’ll see a lot of neighbors reporting neighbors.
Upon receiving a complaint, the Codes office is then supposed to send an inspector out to investigate. If a property owner doesn’t address the violations in a timely manner, the city can issue a warrant to appear in Environmental Court. Failure to appear in court can result in a fine or incarceration. If the fines accumulate or the problem isn’t fixed, the city can request a lien, or even ask for jail time.
“Think about who a system like this targets, and who it benefits,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in New York. “Poor people don’t typically call Codes on their neighbors, because poor people don’t trust the legal system. The people who benefit from complaint-driven systems are people for whom the legal system already works perfectly. Wealthy people. White people. Developers. And they usually use it as a weapon against people who don’t have the means to fight back”
Tennessee in general is among the worst states in the country when it comes to predatory fines and fees. Environmental courts, which exist only in Davidson and Shelby counties, can add another layer of harassment. Nashville and its leaders also have strong incentives to keep the system as it is. “Want to know who benefits most from gentrification?” Hollin asks. “It ain’t developers or landlords. It’s the city of Nashville. For all the talk about affordable housing you hear from the Metro Council, remember that every time a poor family has to sell their house and move out of a ‘desirable’ neighborhood, what happens? A bigger house goes up. The property value goes up. And the city gets more tax revenue.”
Critics like Hollin and Weiss point to two fundamental problems with how Nashville enforces property standards: The laws themselves are vague, and they’re driven by anonymous complaints.
As for vagueness, Codes inspectors often tell the people they cite that they’re only enforcing the law — that they aren’t given the discretion to overlook even petty violations. That isn’t quite true. There’s no provision that prohibits Freddie Benford’s mini-fridge, for example, or his soda can, or the tools he keeps under his carport. But there is a prohibition on “open storage,” and that gives inspectors wide discretion to cite anything in a yard they or a neighbor might find unsightly.
“They told me I was in violation of open storage because I had more cushions on my porch than I had chairs,” says Claire, an East Nashville resident who asked to not be identified by her real name. (Several sources for this article said they feared retaliation from the city or Codes, and requested anonymity.) “I had a shovel leaning against the house. He ordered me to put that away. My husband had cut some 2-by-4s into blocks for my kids to play with. The inspector called it ‘construction debris.’ Because one neighbor complained about our yard, it was like he was looking for as many violations as he could.”
“I had a tenant, a couple, who loved garden gnomes,” says Burt, a builder and landlord whose properties include affordable housing. “They had dozens of them. The neighbors hated the gnomes and called Codes. But I told the city that this is art. You may hate it, you may think it’s ugly, but it’s art, and there’s no code prohibiting it. They backed off the gnomes, but then started citing them for all sorts of ticky-tack violations until they had to move.”
One former city official with experience in Codes enforcement, who also asked not to be named, said the laws are vague enough that inspectors could easily find violations at every home in the city, including his own and those of other Codes inspectors.
“Code enforcement is inherently adversarial,” says Bill Maurer, a litigator with the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm. “It doesn’t need to be, but it almost always is. It operates on a presumption of guilt. You must have done something wrong, or your neighbor wouldn’t have complained.”
Another problem: The system is primarily driven by anonymous complaints. Anyone can call in a complaint to the 311 hotline or send one through the city’s website. In 2018, Metro even put out a video that included instructions on how to report violations.
“I’d compare it to anti-loitering laws,” says Weiss. “You have these vague laws that are wildly open to interpretation, that essentially make everyone a potential criminal. But then you have this added component where everyday people become the enforcers, with no accountability for false reporting. So everyone is a potential criminal, but the only people actually criminalized are those who happen to have neighbors who don’t like them.”
In response to an email query, Bill Penn, Metro assistant director of property standards, wrote that because some complainants may fear retaliation, “the codes department would not be in favor of doing away with anonymous complaints.”
Helpfully, the city posts all Codes complaints going back three years on its Metro Hub site. The site also plots those complaints on an interactive map. So when I first embarked on this story, I reached out to a few economist acquaintances to see if one of them might be interested in analyzing the data. I was referred to Alexander Taylor, a Ph.D. student and economics lecturer at George Mason University. Taylor agreed to cross-reference Codes complaints data with Census data and figures from the Davidson County Assessor of Property. What he found was striking. While the average Nashville ZIP code generates about six Codes complaints per 100 residents, in gentrifying ZIP codes the figure nearly doubles — to 11. (Economists have specific criteria a ZIP code must meet to qualify as “gentrifying.”)
Next, Taylor looked at data from the assessor’s office to control for the type of property (single family, multi-family, business, etc.), and its condition (excellent, dilapidated, etc.). He found that homes in gentrifying ZIP codes are about 50 percent more likely to have a Codes complaint than homes of a similar value and condition in non-gentrifying ZIP codes.
Taylor then looked at home values in the two Nashville ZIP codes that produced the most Codes complaints over the past three years. In my own 37206 ZIP code — which includes fast-gentrifying neighborhoods Edgefield, Lockeland Springs and Shelby Bottoms — homes assessed at less than $200,000 had 120 percent more complaints on average than homes valued higher than $500,000. In the 37208 ZIP code — which includes Germantown and the historically Black neighborhoods of Salemtown, Osage and North Nashville — the lower-value homes had about 70 percent more complaints than the more expensive homes.
Taylor also found a clear racial disparity: For every 10 percent increase in a Nashville ZIP code’s Black population, the number of Codes complaints increases by 50 percent.
“These numbers don’t surprise me, but I’m glad someone did the work,” Weiss says. “It shows that low-income people tend not to call Codes on other low-income people, and few people call Codes on wealthy people. It’s usually newer, wealthier residents calling codes on older, poorer people who have lived in these neighborhoods for years.”
‘Your Cost of Compliance Is Not My Problem’
Back in the fall I was working from home when a Davidson County sheriff’s deputy knocked on our door. When I answered, he seemed almost embarrassed. “I hate doing this,” he said. He then handed me a warrant to appear in Environmental Court. “I walked around your property, and I don’t really see why they’re going after you. You must have really pissed somebody off.”
Over the preceding six months or so, we had received two citations from Codes for overgrown vegetation. But the notices don’t specify where on your property the violations actually are. (I’d later learn that inspectors do take photos, they just don’t send them to you.) After the first notice, I found a few ground-cover vines had crept onto a public sidewalk, so I trimmed them back. After the second notice, I walked around and saw a few vines had also crept over our back fence. I trimmed those too. But what the city was pursuing us for would turn out to be a much bigger problem.
Our property includes two steep gradations running in two directions. Consequently, we’re constantly battling erosion. The property also sits a few feet below the road at a fairly busy intersection. A storm runoff pipe feeds directly into our front yard, so every time it rains, our yard is flushed with streetwater, which then washes down the length of the property along the west-east gradient. Street runoff is typically full of chemicals and other street gunk, which makes it more difficult to get grass to grow, which only exacerbates the erosion. The other gradient, and the one behind the warrant, is a steep slope on the south side of our backyard. Google Street View photos of the property from well before we moved in show the slope has always been teeming with wild growth, often overtaking the public sidewalk.
When we moved in, we put up a 6-foot privacy fence, which has kept the growth contained. I regularly spray and hack away at the growth to keep it well inside the fence. There have been a few occasions when some plants might have crept over parts of the fence or onto the sidewalk. Vines can grow quickly. But we’ve substantially improved the aesthetics of the property.
Admittedly, inside the fence, the slope could at times be a bit wild, particularly toward the end of the summer. My wife and I sometimes joked about the mini Jurassic Park in our backyard. Landscapers told us our only real option is terracing, which would cost $30,000 or more. But the vegetation on the slope wasn’t visible from any public space, and it didn’t bother us much. So we decided to leave it alone.
Our problems began when a row of townhouses went up on the vacant lot behind us. The closest had a direct view into our backyard. When I read the warrant, it became clear that the house behind us was the source of the complaint — and that the city wasn’t targeting us for a few plants, it was targeting us for the entire slope. That afternoon I called the Codes office and left a message. I hoped, probably foolishly, that once I explained all of this to them, they’d see we were in a difficult situation and would back down. That isn’t what happened.
When Tad Dominiak, the inspector assigned to our case, called me back, the conversation did not go well. Dominiak told me every plant on the slope longer than 12 inches would need to be removed. He threatened me with a fine of $50 per day, per weed, if we didn’t comply. When I told Dominiak that removing all of the vegetation would cause massive erosion, he suggested terracing. We had looked into that, I told him, and it would cost tens of thousands of dollars. He responded, “Your cost of compliance is not my problem.”
‘It’s a Sham’
As Jamie Hollin recounts the first time he visited Davidson County Environmental Court, his face flushes red. He speaks slowly at first, but picks up volume and momentum with each syllable. “I was stunned and appalled,” he says. “And frankly, to call it a court gives it way too much credit. It’s a sham. A joke. A predatory body. Here’s the common denominator among the people I saw in that room: poor, Black and elderly. Ninety-five percent of them didn’t have a lawyer. And their rights were being trampled.”
Hollin, 47, was born in Memphis to “dirt-poor” parents (his phrase). He moved out at 17 and put himself through college at the University of Tennessee. He then moved to Davidson County and worked part time while attending Nashville School of Law. He’s lived in Nashville ever since, forging a career of bulldog legal activism that’s put him squarely in the headlines for some touchstone city controversies.
Hollin is whip-smart, tenacious and unapologetically profane. He almost seems to invite you to underestimate or stereotype him, if only so he can prove you wrong. Poke around the Scene’s or The Tennessean’s archives, for example, and you’ll find that this gadfly with a syrupy drawl, ever-present stubble and boot-strap background — whose Twitter avatar was, until recently, a photo of him clutching a catfish — once made national news with an expletive-filled rant against the state’s infamous 2011 “Don’t Say Gay” bill (while serving on the Metro Council, no less). Hollin also led the effort to pass an LGBTQ anti-discrimination bill, and fought the city’s police union to establish a Community Oversight Board for the Metro Nashville Police Department.
Environmental Court is Hollin’s latest battle. He wants it abolished. In the spring, as we chatted from his one-room law office above the Shoppes on Fatherland, he succinctly explained why. “I’m a child of poverty,” he said. “When you fuck with poor people, it pisses me off.”
Hollin’s first exposure to the court was in 2015. He was representing a friend who operated a short-term rental property. Hollin was so upset at what he saw that he returned to the court over ensuing months just to observe. On one morning in 2016, he’d had enough. He stood up in the back of the court.
“I yelled out that I was an attorney, and if anyone in that room had a case pending, I’d represent them for free.” Over the following week, Hollin says he got over 60 cases dismissed.
In addition to property standards, the Environmental Court adjudicates a wide range of complaints, from dog-related infractions (including leash violations, excessive barking, and bites or attacks) to noise and other nuisances and short-term rentals. The court occupies a curious space in the legal system, straddling the boundary between civil and criminal law.
Braden Boucek, director of litigation at the conservative Southeastern Legal Foundation, says this is by design. “In a civil court, there’s no punitive component,” he says. “At worst, a court can award damages against you. But no one is injured because they don’t like the look of your house or your yard. So Environmental Court gives the city regulators [a] punitive component.”
The Metro Council could certainly pass a law making unmowed grass or peeling paint a criminal offense, though it would probably be unpopular. But if it did, it would need to afford those people basic due-process rights. The Tennessee Constitution guarantees those protections for anyone accused of an offense punishable by more than $50.
“The Environmental Court brings the functional equivalent of the punitive powers of a criminal court into a civil context, but without the accompanying rights the criminal justice system is required to afford the accused,” Boucek says.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the court imposes fines right at $50. Boucek and Hollin both believe that if anyone were to challenge the $50 per day threat, the city would likely lose. “That’s just bullshit,” Hollin says. “It’s the same violation. You haven’t broken the law again just because the sun set and rose again on the same patch of unmowed grass.”
The Tennessee legislature established countywide environmental courts in 1991. The initial legislation authorized counties of more than 600,000 people to set up a special docket under general sessions courts solely to hear codes complaints.
At around that time the city was in the midst of a big urban-planning push. Tennessean archives are rife with stories about how the Metro Beautification Bureau was handing out fines — and liens — for overgrown grass, trash and other eyesores. At first, the bureau and the Environmental Court focused mostly on vacant lots with absentee owners, but both then moved to occupied homes. By the mid-1990s, city officials were lamenting that the court wasn’t punitive enough. One Metro councilmember complained about the court’s low “conviction rate.”
Here again, while the initial complaints about the lack of punitiveness focused on practices like trash dumping and slumlords, the court’s new powers were inevitably directed at vulnerable people, such as those experiencing homelessness. On at least two occasions, religious leaders were brought to the court for attempting to set up homeless shelters. And in 2010, The Tennessean’s “Action Line” columnist lamented that the court had been ineffective at clearing homeless people from a vacant lot whose presence was “troubling” to patrons of a nearby shopping mall.
By 2001, the number of Codes cases had grown to the point that the General Sessions judge who oversaw them couldn’t keep up. She created a new position, a “referee,” to take over the docket. Her first appointment was a former Metro police officer and prosecutor who would hear cases once a week, more if necessary, and was paid $25,000 per year.
The referee is not a judge, and the Environmental Court itself is more administrative than legal. The ambiguousness of it all gave city officials what they wanted — the ability to plow through stacks of cases relatively quickly. But that comes at the expense of due process for the people the city targets.
“They’ve created an unelected official out of whole cloth who gets to rule on cases that affect these people’s lives and livelihoods in profound ways,” Hollin says. “He has the power to fine you. He has the power to throw your ass in jail. And he’s not accountable to the public.”
About a year after he got that first batch of cases dismissed, Hollin struck blood again. In 2017, he was representing another short-term rental owner. As Airbnbs have proliferated throughout the city, they’ve increasingly occupied more of the Environmental Court docket.
“I was sitting there waiting for my client’s case, watching a Metro attorney argue complaints against other short-term rental owners,” Hollin says. “I thought, ‘I wonder if that city attorney has an Airbnb herself? Because that would be a huge conflict of interest.’ “
Hollin checked the Airbnb site. His hunch was correct. But there was more. City regulations require short-term rental owners to post their permits on sites like Airbnb and Vrbo. Hollin’s clients had been fined or cited for failing to do so. The city attorney had failed to post her own permit.
“At that point, I figured I might as well check the referee too,” Hollin says. Sure enough, then-referee Jim Todd also operated a short-term rental. And he too had failed to post his permit. Both later resigned.
In the Interest of Justice
“The priority in the Environmental Court is efficiency, not due process,” says Maurer. “They don’t adhere to the rules of evidence. They don’t pay much attention to rights. The goal is to resolve as many cases as possible, as quickly as possible. That’s a big problem because you’re dealing with people’s most important and cherished possession — their homes.”
Maurer and the Institute for Justice currently represent two Memphis residents who lost their homes because of Environmental Court decisions. In both cases, the residents couldn’t afford to make repairs after a storm damaged their homes. The city bulldozed one house. It evicted IJ’s other client, an elderly woman, and put her possessions on the street. It then auctioned off her home. Both people are now homeless.
“The environmental courts don’t record their hearings,” Maurer says. “They don’t preserve evidence. So sure, you can appeal a decision. But you can only appeal based on what’s in the record. And for most of these cases, there is no record. It’s just a series of orders.”
Another of Hollin’s cases, which unfolded as I was reporting this story, particularly highlights the court’s inattention to due process. Hollin’s client rents out her home under an owner-occupied short-term rental permit. But the city says his client doesn’t actually live at the house, so the rentals are illegal. Hollin says it’s the only house his client owns. She often isn’t at home because she travels for work. Moreover, he points out, when the city later cited her for a separate offense of failing to fix a storm-damaged fence, it served her, in person, at the very address where it claimed she wasn’t living.
Because Environmental Court hearings aren’t recorded, Hollin hired his own court reporter to create a record. When the Codes inspector testified, Hollin noticed he was referring to a folder stuffed with documents, some of which the city would later submit as evidence. Hollin objected, arguing that he hadn’t been given copies of any of those documents, as the city was required to do under the rules of procedure. According to the transcript, the referee had to look up the rule.
“Any lawyer in this state knows that you have to turn over exhibits before trial,” Hollin says. “You shouldn’t have to look that up.” After conceding that Hollin was right on that rule, referee Renard Hirsch then cited a different rule, which he said allowed him to disregard the disclosure requirement if doing so would be “in the interest of justice.” He overruled Hollin’s objection, apparently deciding it would be in the interest of justice to exempt the city from its disclosure requirements. Later, Hollin attempted to introduce evidence that the city had served the warrant for the broken fence to his client at the very address where the city claimed she didn’t live. The city objected, and the referee refused to allow it into evidence.
“They treated my client this way despite the fact that she had an attorney,” Hollin says. “And the only reason she can now appeal is because I hired my own court reporter to create a record of this bullshit. Imagine how they treat the people who have to represent themselves.”
When Hollin tried to appeal, the first hearing fell on a day when he’d be out of town for his son’s baseball tournament. So he asked to reschedule. The city objected, and General Sessions Judge Allegra Walker sided with the city. So Hollin sent an intern to sit in and take notes on the hearing. Shortly after the session began, a court officer kicked Hollin’s intern out of the courtroom.
Hollin was furious. “Court proceedings are open to the public,” he says. “Anyone can sit in. That was clearly an attack on me directed through my intern. It is inexcusable.”
The current referee, Hirsch, is a commercial and bankruptcy lawyer who was appointed in 2017. According to Hollin, Hirsch is paid $50,000 per year to hear Codes cases, plus health insurance, a pension, a parking space and subscriptions to legal services. Hirsch says he does not receive benefits. He hears cases one or two days per week.
Hirsch’s approach to the position has been especially irksome to Hollin. “The previous referees at least understood that these are administrative hearings,” he says. “They wore business attire. Hirsch came in on the first day wearing a robe and hoisting a gavel.” Now agitated again, Hollin adopts a scolding tone. “You are not a judge. You do not preside over a real court. You are a part-time administrator who helps the city harass poor people for parking on their own grass.”
‘Large spider infestations’
Our first date in Environmental Court came in December 2021. Because the warrant emphatically threatened jail time for failing to be in court when our case was called, I made sure to verify the time, address and courtroom number a few days in advance.
But that would prove difficult. While the warrant instructed me to appear in court on a Tuesday, the website for Environmental Court said the docket was only held on Wednesdays. The warrant also cautioned that due to the pandemic, the time, date and location of Environmental Court could change on short notice. It provided a web address, advising me to check within 24 hours of my court date to confirm where and when I was to appear. When I checked the address, I received a 404 error. I wasn’t able to finally confirm the date, time and location until I called the clerk’s office on the morning of the hearing.
When we got to court, the scene was similar to what Hollin described. The gallery was mostly older people. About half of them were Black. At one point Hirsch called the name of one disheveled-looking man sitting behind us. When the man stood up, Hirsch asked what efforts he had made to address an apparent multitude of violations. The man answered that he had taken care of everything but the peeling paint, but at the moment, he just didn’t have the money to repaint his house.
Hirsch replied, “Well what do you think we should do about that?” The man answered, “Maybe just dismiss the complaint?”
Hirsch, the city attorneys and the Codes inspectors all laughed, apparently thinking the man had made a joke. The man wasn’t laughing. And with good reason. According to HomeAdvisor, the cost of repainting a 1,500-square-foot home ranges from $750 to $4,000. Homes in poorer condition tend to fall on the higher end, because they require more preparation.
When our case came up, Tad Dominiak met with us in a side room. I had printed out some photos and documents to make our case. None of it mattered. Dominiak showed us the photos of our slope he had taken (clearly from our neighbor’s property), and reiterated that every violating weed would need to be removed or he’d recommend the daily fine. “That’s what we do,” he told us. “We regulate the standard of living on a property so that it’s not helter-skelter.”
I told Dominiak we had since consulted with two more landscapers, both of whom suggested we trim the large shrubs and vines, but leave the ground vines to stop erosion. Both said the dominant vine on the slope was wintercreeper, which they actually recommended planting on similar slopes. But the Codes section pertaining to weeds is vague. It reads: “All premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds in excess of twelve inches.” That presumably includes plants 12 inches high, but it isn’t clear if it would also include plants 12 inches long. So I asked Dominiak if the plan the landscapers had suggested to us would be OK. He refused to offer any guidance, except to say that whatever we did should be “appropriate in this neighborhood.” We would need to spend the money to execute a plan first, he said. Then he’d tell us if we were in compliance.
Dominiak also showed us the four complaints that had been filed against us. They were comically exaggerated. One referred to a “tree log” that was “rotting” on our “unkempt property.” This was a branch that had fallen during a storm. That complaint also mentioned “out of control vegetation” that required “bi-weekly trimming” to prevent it from intruding on our neighbor’s property. Another claimed our excessive vegetation had “overtaken” sidewalks, was “causing property damage to neighbors,” and complained of “rodents and vermin” living amid the vegetation, along with “large spider infestations” that were “causing concern to neighbors.”
Because of the 6-foot fence that surrounds our property, there’d be no way to know if our slope was housing colonies of “vermin” without trespassing. One would also think we’d have seen all these vermin. We hadn’t.
When I spoke to him, our neighbor denied any knowledge of the complaints, but he did say our slope had been the subject of discussion in the neighborhood. I told him I was sorry to hear he’d had to pay someone to trim the vines, and offered to reimburse him if he had receipts. (His was the only property any vines could have encroached upon.) He said he didn’t know anything about that. He also said the townhouses had an HOA, and it was possible that the president of the HOA had filed the complaints.
But then he said something revealing. There’s a small park across the street from us. The previous year, a homeless man who lived out of his car with his dog had begun parking there. The man was harmless. My neighbor told me, approvingly, that his HOA president had repeatedly reported the homeless man to the city, and got him removed from the park.
Lighting Up Codes
There is at least one good argument for a codes-enforcement system driven by anonymous complaints. That argument is that it helps underserved neighborhoods. It allows members of those communities who may be apprehensive about reaching out to city officials using their own names to draw attention to vacant lots, absentee landlords and other genuine public-safety hazards.
But this isn’t how complaints-driven systems play out in practice. On the ground, it tends to be the residents of those very communities who are hit hardest. “The city ends up prioritizing aesthetic complaints from people with status and influence over genuine threats to public safety,” says Weiss. “That’s because those are the people who trust the system enough to use it.”
Browse the Facebook groups for city neighborhoods, and you’ll also see speculation that builders and developers have weaponized codes departments to target low-income holdouts in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. They call in a series of complaints, the theory goes, then swoop in with a lowball offer.
Because complaints are anonymous, it’s almost impossible to prove who filed them. But in 2019, Nashville’s Fox affiliate WZTV ran a series of reports alleging that developers have been weaponizing codes to target properties they want to acquire. Two reports focused on Evelyn Suggs, a beloved, then-94-year-old Black landlord in North Nashville. Suggs told the station several of her properties had recently been hit with a rash of Codes complaints. Shortly after, developers began contacting her with offers to buy those properties. Some made reference to her battles with Codes. Other local residents, including Freddie Benford, have similar stories.
It’s possible that these developers simply scoured the complaints and court records available online to find property owners with fines, then made offers to those owners. But Burt, the local builder, says he’s witnessed it firsthand. “It absolutely happens,” he says. “I’d go so far as to say it’s common. I’ve personally heard developers boast about ‘lighting up Codes’ on a property they want to buy.”
Advocates like Weiss and Maurer say this is common in other places. “It’s just eminent domain by another name,” Maurer says. “Instead of officially declaring a property blighted and handing it over to a developer, you just hit it with codes complaints until the owner is overwhelmed.”
Many of Nashville’s Codes complaints come from Metro councilmembers themselves, often after they’ve been contacted by neighborhood associations. Not surprisingly, the Codes office gives these complaints top priority.
That likely happens in other cities, too. But there’s a quirk in Nashville city government that makes it especially problematic here: Nashville has one of the largest city councils in the country, with 40 members. Only New York and Chicago have more. But New York and Chicago are of course much larger cities. New York has one council representative for every 167,000 residents; Chicago, one for every 54,000. In Nashville, it’s one for every 17,000. This means in Nashville, it takes comparatively fewer votes to get elected. Looking at the 2019 Metro Council election results, for example, about 30 of the 35 district races could have been won with around 1,500 votes. And that means endorsements and support from HOAs or neighborhood associations carry a lot more weight.
“HOAs and neighborhood groups tend to be most concerned about aesthetics and property values,” says Weiss. “So you’re giving power to groups who target people whose homes are seen as eyesores, or who they think make the neighborhood less desirable.”
“I served on the Metro Council,” Hollin says. “And I can tell you that the number one source of Codes complaints is the Metro Council.”
By the mid-2010s, some Metro councilmembers began to complain that the Codes office hadn’t kept up with the city’s growth. In 2016, a Metro-commissioned report concluded that the Codes office was understaffed, and had especially been unable to keep up with the surge in short-term rentals.
In response, Codes and the Environmental Court seem to have stepped up enforcement of those rentals. Short-term rental owners have more resources to defend themselves than someone like Freddie Benford does. But the owners targeted tend to be people with one or two properties, not large developers. And like low-income residents with “unkempt” properties, short-term rentals aren’t popular with groups who wield political power, like neighborhood associations.
The 2016 study also reflects the biases of the city officials who commissioned it. It was written from the perspective of aggrieved neighbors, not the targets of those neighbors’ complaints. Consequently, the report treats due process for those hit with citations not as a right that should be afforded to anyone facing punishment, but as a burden and frustration for complaining neighbors.
The report also never considers the countering allegation that the Codes office has been weaponized against low-income people, nor does it consider that its recommendation that the city hire more inspectors could exacerbate the problem.
The Warm and Fuzzy
In the end, my wife and I decided to have all the vegetation removed from our slope. It would be expensive, but the threatened $50-per-day-per-weed fine, applied retroactively, would have been considerably worse. We were given a three-month extension to get it done.
After getting estimates in the $10,000 to $15,000 range, we finally found a landscaper who quoted us a little over $5,000. The guy we hired told us the wide range was due to high demand for landscaping during the pandemic, along with an influx of people from the coasts used to paying exorbitant prices for landscaping. He also said he’d had other clients struggling to comply with Codes, and in those cases he’s tried to charge just enough to pay his workers and cover his costs.
Once the job was done, I called Dominiak to ask him to inspect the slope and tell us if we were in compliance. I also hoped to avoid another appearance in Environmental Court.
It was a bizarre conversation. “So you want me to give you a warm and fuzzy?” Dominiak asked. I asked him to repeat himself. I had not misheard him, so I asked what he meant by a “warm and fuzzy.” He replied, with ample condescension, “That’s when I tell you everything is OK, and you did everything right, and you have nothing to worry about.”
I never got my warm and fuzzy. In fact, I never heard from Dominiak again. Instead, I had to go to Environmental Court in March to learn if the thousands of dollars we spent had brought us into compliance. It had, but Hirsch then told me I’d need to pay another $134 in court costs.
“When they rule against you but waive the fine, they stack the deck so there’s no incentive to challenge their authority,” Hollin says. “You lost, but you only had to pay $140. If you then appeal to General Sessions court and lose, the judge could punish you by reimposing the $50-per-day fine. If she’s really mad at you, she could make it retroactive. It’s a strong incentive for you to shut up and pay the fees that keep the court operating, even if you did nothing wrong.”
Who Is Nashville For?
I’ve gone back and forth over how much of our own story to include in this article. We clearly aren’t the people who typically get caught up in these fights, and while the money we’ve had to pay to come into compliance put a significant dent in our savings, it won’t bankrupt us or force us to sell our home. We don’t need sympathy, and we certainly aren’t in the predicament of more typical targets like Freddie Benford. And while I’ve written about predatory municipal courts and fines and fees in other cities, it’s hard not to worry that writing about our own battles might put a target on our backs.
But in the end, I concluded that there’s some value in publishing a firsthand account of what it’s like to get caught up in all of this. And in talking with other people who have battled Codes, I found some camaraderie. Claire, the East Nashville woman who was told to put her cushions and kids’ blocks away, had also dealt with Dominiak.
“Oh my God, that man!” she says. “A neighbor had complained about my kids’ toys in our yard. He treated me like I was a bad parent! He just kept scolding me because my kids didn’t clean up their toys. Then he mentioned something called the ‘Clean Up Song.’ He told me it was a song I should sing to get my kids to pick up. Then he sang it for me. He actually sang it for me. I just about lost it.”
“You feel a little betrayed, to be honest,” says Susan, who says a neighbor has called Codes on her for everything from an accusation that someone was living in the RV in her garage (Codes confirmed that no one was living there) to her husband repairing his truck in her driveway. “I’m your neighbor. If I’m doing something you don’t like, knock on my door. Talk to me.”
Over email, Penn writes that he can’t respond to to specific cases. But he does defend Dominiak. “Mr. Dominiak is a former military service member, having served in both the Marines and Air Force,” writes Penn. “He is a no nonsense, straight to the point type of person.” Penn adds that the phrase “warm and fuzzy” is military lingo, and wasn’t intended to be condescending. Penn concludes, “Mr. Dominiak has gone above the call to assist many individuals he has come in contact with.”
Feeling outcast is a common sentiment among Codes targets, including my wife and me. You feel a bit like a pariah, like you’re a scourge on the neighborhood. It changes how you feel about your neighbors, your place in the community, your relationship with the city. On some level, the Codes issue is just another debate about who Nashville is for, about who gets to have a stake in how the city grows and evolves.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to Black people who had Codes called on them by white people with Black Lives Matter signs in their yards,” says Hollin. “It would be comical if it weren’t so damaging.”
I moved here in 2010, fell in love with the city, and persuaded my now-wife to move from New York in 2015. We’ve wrestled with our own contribution to the neighborhood’s gentrification. But while we’ve had problems with neighbors over the years, we’d never considered reporting someone to the city. The problem with anonymous complaint-driven Codes enforcement is that it puts the shape and direction of the city in the hands of people who do.
“It’s funny — people move to this neighborhood because it has a reputation for being interesting and eclectic,” says Jim, an East Nashvillian who was reported by a neighbor for participating in the “no-mow May” campaign to leave lawns uncut to facilitate pollinators. “But once they get here, they start reporting people because they don’t like the look of their property. They want everything to look the same.”
“For many people, it isn’t about not wanting to comply with city codes,” says Maurer. “It’s about living in a home that isn’t up to code, or being homeless. If cities were truly interested in fixing violations instead of just harassing the poor, they’d work with people to help them come into compliance. They’d offer suggestions, perhaps even provide some aid. The revealing thing is that they don’t. They start with citations and get more punitive from there.”
Safe and attractive
There are some delicious ironies to the conclusion of our story. After we cleared the vegetation from the slope, the erosion came fast and furious, just as the landscapers had predicted. A few weeks later, I saw the neighbor we suspected had reported us talking to a city official in front of our house. He’d later confirm to me that he’d recently complained to the city about an increase in storm runoff from our property, which had been flooding his yard.
I’ve since attempted to stop the erosion by anchoring cement blocks into the slope and turning them into beds with trees and decorative plants. Hauling cement blocks and 35-pound bags of mulch up a steep slope is a laborious process, and I have no idea if it will work. But while it’s still been expensive — about $4,000 so far — it’s nowhere near what we’d have to pay a landscaper for terracing.
Then, a couple months ago, I noticed that the quickening erosion had begun to expose the roots of a towering elm tree that grows diagonally out of the slope. I consulted with an arborist, who told us that in five years or so, the tree will pose a threat to our home and two others. By forcing us to fix a dubious problem, the city had created a genuine safety hazard. Taking down the tree will cost another $4,000 to $6,000.
Several months ago, when I needed Tad Dominiak to give us our warm and fuzzy, I Googled him to find his contact information. The second search result was a tweet from Nashville Mayor John Cooper.
“Folks like Tad Dominiak, who works with Metro Codes, are working behind the scenes to keep our neighborhoods safe and attractive,” Cooper wrote. “I’m grateful for hardworking employees like Tad.”