Across the U.S., countless stories have emerged of state or federal government attempts to roll back progress in cities. For the Bloomberg Philanthropies-funded Innovation Team (i-team) in Mobile, Ala., the opposite is true. Working with state Rep. Barbara Drummond and the Center for Community Progress, they were able to craft and pass statewide legislation. The new law creates a path for cities to resolve blighted properties, places that are vacant and abandoned, which currently account for a full 2 percent of all property in the city, with the final approval of local city council. This partnership comes on the heels of work Mobile’s i-team has already been doing to use Instagram to create the first-ever catalog of blighted properties.
“We have a situation where we have truly abandoned homes with no clear title,” said Jeff Carter, director of the Mobile i-team. “It took three to nine years to resolve these problems. And the property owners in the neighborhood were being unduly affected.” The hope is that with the new law, titles can be cleared in six to nine months. “Every single Mobilian deserves a neighborhood they feel safe in and proud to be a part of,” said Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who charged the i-team to tackle this issue.
The types of blighted properties Carter calls “truly abandoned” have been neglected for years. They are not occupied, notices of violations have been posted, and no one seems to know who the title belongs to. “The city council adopted a new ordinance last year to give 20-days’ notice to property owners in violation of the law to fix the problem. Eighty percent of the properties were remediated by the owners. But 20 percent of the homes are truly abandoned. No one will make a decision about what to do. There is no ‘human’ behind the property,” Carter explained.
Carter noted that a primary goal of this effort is the protection of existing home owners. “This is a Goldilocks situation,” Carter said. “We are trying to do everything we can to protect owners.” The procedure for clearing a title requires a higher level of due process and notice than anything else in Alabama’s state code. Additionally, the law creates a pathway for adjoining property owners to participate in the outcome and rehabilitation of these properties, giving existing home owners greater control of their communities.
To that end, there are “safety valves” built in, such as a requirement that a circuit court judge confirm that everything has been done to reach potential owners. Another provision in the new state law permits participation from anchor home owners in deciding what happens to blighted properties in their neighborhood. The hope is that this will also keep out the next generation of slumlords.
“In 24 months, we’ve gone from not knowing about blight to creating the first ever index and now improving Alabama’s law,” Carter said. “Amid all of the chaos, we’ve found a way to be successful.”