It’s one of those changes that may go unnoticed unless you stop and look closer, but Mobile’s three-year-old Neighborhood Renewal Program, in partnership with a handful of federal programs and private investors, has realized an appreciable list of accomplishments toward its ultimate goal of scrubbing blight from historic residential neighborhoods and returning abandoned and delinquent properties to the tax roll.
The debut of the “Delaware Double” on April 9 — a prefabricated creole cottage-style duplex on Delaware Street — represented the latest visible milestone in a program intended to restore those neighborhoods, street by street and block by block, to their original character and vibrancy.
“The two target neighborhoods have always been the Bottom, where we have a significant amount of investment with the MLK Avenue Redevelopment Corporation, and South Oakleigh/Texas Hill,” said Assistant City Attorney Keri Coumanis, who pursues much of the legal legwork required to implement the program. “In both areas, we set up acquisitions and acquired almost as much tax sales as were available.”
The program is possible through Quiet Title Action, a legal process allowing for the conveyance of a marketable title on a tax-delinquent or abandoned property, free and clear of any outstanding liens, to a new owner. The program was initiated by the administration of former Mayor Sam Jones, but has taken a new direction under Sandy Stimpson, Coumanis explained.
“When we began we were testing the legal waters of expedited quiet title action,” she said. “But the Jones administration was not willing to take it on unless we had a ready and willing buyer. When the Stimpson administration took office, we decided to expand its reach, and include speculative properties where we had ongoing investment.”
So far, Coumanis reported, “the city has successfully purchased tax deeds (for) 67 parcels. Of those, three were redeemed from the City once the quiet title action was initiated. Of the remaining 64 parcels, the completed quiet title actions include 22 properties that have been sold, three properties that have been transferred within the city for use for municipal purposes (this includes the lot located at 906-08 Delaware), two parcels that are listed with a Realtor, and eight parcels where the legal work is complete but, for one reason or another, we have not yet closed.”
Twenty-nine parcels are in various stages of litigation, but fewer than four are actually pending in circuit court, Coumanis said earlier this month.
“The remainder either need to be filed or are waiting for a particular point in time to be filed. For instance, the city just purchased six parcels that are not yet ready to be filed. Once we purchase the tax deed, we have to identify the interested parties and file a notice in probate court before we can file the quiet title action.”
The double lot on Delaware Street hosting the new creole duplex was subject to such quiet title action. Where there was once an overgrown parcel of property where 70 tires had been discarded over the years, the city received the tax deed on May 2, 2014, and achieved a clear title to the property on Dec. 8.
The City of Mobile’s Executive Director of Community Housing and Development, under Nigel Roberts, said after the title was clear the structure was purchased using HOME Investment Partnership money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Eventually, the property will be sold to a nonprofit partner that will offer the duplex to low income families.
“We typically don’t do modular homes, but wanted to see what we could do to bring a fast and quality product to these properties to assist, at least as one component, to bringing new single family units into some of these neighborhoods,” Roberts said. “Right here in Oakleigh we have a lot of investment in the past four or five years. Partners have been coming in doing homeowner development and redevelopment and we have a strong anti-blight initiative going on throughout the city. On this particular street, there was a lot of blight, so our strategy is to come in and take a block-by-block approach, where we’re obtaining these properties through the NRP as part of a multi-tiered effort where we’re also tackling the crime, tackling the blight and bringing in new housing to provide a comprehensive redevelopment package.”
As the blocks begin to bloom, Roberts said, it is the administration’s intention to also provide employment assistance to residents along with corporate partners and, if the city has the means, to repair the streets and sidewalks.
Still, quiet title action can be tedious, as Coumanis explained in an example regarding a lot on nearby Texas Street.
“The last time it changed hands was 1943, and the last person paying taxes lived in New Orleans’ 9th Ward before Katrina,” she said. “I was able to track down a great aunt (of the taxpayer) in Monroe, La., but the weird thing is, we couldn’t find how she was related to the original property owner. I’m not sure how she got permission to pay tax.”
Coumanis concluded the owner died without children or immediate relatives, and the pending quiet title action was published as a legal ad. When the ad did not receive a response, the action was allowed to proceed.
“I make an extensive amount of effort and we’re required by law to provide due process,” Coumanis said, noting that her research may include but is not limited to, pulling title binders from title companies, independent research on deeds and liens, search engines such as LexisNexis and even websites like Ancestry.com.
“It sort of runs the gamut,” she said.
On Monday, in a partnership with the nonprofit Restore Mobile, Inc., house movers picked up and transported an old but restorable house from 460 Chatham St. to the property at 1009 Texas St. acquired through quiet title action. Tilmon Brown, a member of Restore Mobile Inc.’s board of directors, said the house was one of two on the lot on Chatham Street and the organization plans to restore both, hopefully completing the task within the next six months.
“Our goal is to restore it and make it very nice — we primarily focus on houses in historic neighborhoods — so we have an emphasis on historical accuracy and affordability but the general concept is to try to do as many as we can in one particular location instead of a one-off here and there. Together, it tends to have a much greater impact on a neighborhood. It takes time and as a developer you’d like to go in and do 200 or 300 at a time, but as a nonprofit, it seems we’re making a gradual impact.”