Over the last few years, Mobile residents have watched as older public housing units have been torn down and few have been built back. Despite this, the city enjoys a housing surplus, but many of those structures are not safe, secure or affordable.
In 1970 Mobile had 61,488 total housing units for its 190,026 residents, according to information provided by the city. In 2010, the last year an official census was taken, the city had 89,127 housing units for 195,111 residents. This is a surplus of 15.4 percent, Senior Director of Housing and Urban Development James Roberts said.
“The 2010 numbers showed the city basically had a stagnant population since the 1970s, but people kept building houses,” he said. “A good surplus would be 3 to 5 percent, so it accounts for people moving around in the city and people moving from outside the city.”
To remedy the surplus, the city has worked with the state legislature to make removing blight easier, which Roberts said is important.
“Clearly units need to go away or you are going to be out of equilibrium with supply and demand and it depresses values when you do that,” he said.
Since 2015, the city has introduced a number of initiatives to remedy blight, including a junk vehicle ordinance, a “leaving a legacy program,” a critical repair grant program, a volunteer paint program and a non-profit capacity building program.
In the last 12 months, the city has painted 20 houses, has assisted with completing 187 wills through a partnership with Legal Services of Alabama, has towed 65 junk vehicles and resolved 1,007 reports related to junk vehicles, Roberts said.
In addition, the city has helped secure 81 houses and has demolished 133 during this same amount of time. Twenty-two blighted units have been restored and 16 of those were either historic or in a historic district.
Mobile is one of the only cities in the country to have surveyed and indexed all of its blight, Roberts said. The number of blighted residential structures has been reduced from 1,625 to 890. Initially, Roberts said the city was demolishing a lot of its blight, but with the worst structures now gone, teams are focused more on rehabbing the structures that remain, in order to make them liveable.
“So, the first two years it was heavy demo; maybe 80 percent demo, 20 percent secure,” he said. “This last year it was half and half. Next year, it might flip to where we are doing more secures. It’s a zero to 100 score. We’ve gotten rid of all the 70s, 80s and 90s and this point. We’re down to 60s.”
In addition to getting rid of blight, Roberts is working with developers to use funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to fix up houses and move people into them.
“There’s not a shortage of housing because we have too many houses,” he said. “There’s a shortage of decent housing — that’s liveable, sanity, safe, affordable, all that.”
The city has also helped to construct four new single-family homes and has provided eight micro-loans to small businesses.
Like it suggests, the city’s critical repair grant program allows homeowners up to $10,000 to make a major repair to the roof, HVAC system or plumbing. The money comes from HUD and is restricted to those owners living on less than 80 percent of the area’s average annual income, Roberts said. The non-profit capacity building program helps to educate non-profit organizers on what a non-profit should be doing, helping them to stay on mission and help to set up its board correctly, Roberts said.
The city has been able to do all this without displacing anyone, which is a growing fear among some councilors. Roberts said the city doesn’t demolish a home someone is living in. If crews find someone living in a structure that is about to be demolished, they stop work immediately.
We’ve actually been somewhat successful in getting family members involved to get people moved out of stuff … ,” Roberts said. “The bottom line is they’re living in something they shouldn’t be living in anyway, so we’re trying to get family members involved and almost do a social work side at the same time and not demo anything if someone is living in it.”
In a few cases, Roberts said some residents refuse to move due to an attachment to a home and there’s “not much the city can do” in those scenarios.
As for displacement, it’s becoming a bigger issue statewide because of a U.S. Supreme Court case that blocked states from putting new public housing in more economically distressed neighborhoods, Roberts said.
Because of the mandate, the Alabama Housing Finance Authority (AHFA) awards more tax-credit points to complexes proposed in West Mobile than to those proposed east of Interstate 65. Conversely, Roberts said his department is focused only on areas east of I-65.
“Every city I’ve talked to … we’ve all been against it and there’s no good way around it because AHFA won’t listen to us,” he said.
Mobile Housing Board Executive Director Michael Pierce said he believes there is a shortage of affordable housing, but like Roberts believes the authority can help connect developers with the funding needed to provide the city with more.
Mobile City Council President Levon Manzie wants to help improve the housing situation as well. He has called for the formation of an affordable housing commission that would include residents from all seven districts as well as Roberts and Pierce serving as non-voting, ex-officio members.
The commission would be slanted toward neighborhoods east of I-65 with Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4 being represented by two nominees each and Districts 5, 6 and 7 having one each. Manzie wants to assign the creation of the commission to a committee to allow councilors to “masage it” and work out “something all of us could buy into,” he said.
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