“It looks like a haunted house.”
That’s how Dr. Mike Rehm described the vacant home at 1268 Belle Chene Drive, which has been a nuisance for neighbors since at least 2008.
“You just worry from a safety standpoint,” he said. “I was concerned in October with Halloween, with kids going in there.”
Rehm said deterioration of the house began several years ago as, in his words, a “tarp-on-the-roof kind of thing.” It really became a source of concern when “things began growing through the tarp” and the structure beneath it began “caving in.”
“I’m sure there are all kinds of wild animals in there,” he said. “It’s a public health concern.”
Rehm said the property at 1268 is really the only eyesore in the neighborhood.
“There are homes that go up for sale and go up for rent that go without occupants for a while, but nothing like that,” he said. “There have been empty houses — some for several months at a time — but [owners] kept them up. I’ve never seen anything like this. You can kind of watch it crumble.”
Rehm, who lives two doors down from the house, also said he’s concerned about the impact the structure might have on his own home’s value, which happens to be his wife’s childhood home.
“You want your neighborhood to look nice,” he said. “I think it does enhance the property value.”
The Mobile City Council took action a week ago to declare the Belle Chene Drive property a nuisance, but according to a record of service-request orders from the city’s property maintenance department, complaints about the house date back seven years.
The first, logged by the city’s 311 system on Nov. 5, 2008, described the house as “occupied” and “dilapidated.” In what appears to be a series of complaints filed nearly five years later, the house was described as “occupied” while having “high grass and weeds,” as well as “trash, garbage, litter, junked cars and no utilities.” Shortly after, the homeowners were issued a code enforcement citation.
The property received complaints again several times in 2014 and 2015, before the council eventually took action last week.
It’s a similar story in other parts of the city, like 506 English St., where the council recently declared a structure a nuisance. Neighbors said they were concerned about the structure because it had openings that let in the elements, even though the grass looked freshly mowed. In the yards there were signs from the city, urging an owner to come forward.
According to Joan Dunlap, executive director of the city’s Bloomberg Innovation Team, well-maintained homes within a radius of 150 feet from some of the most extreme cases of blight may lose an average of $6,000 to $7,000 in property value. Across Mobile, she said, blight results in about $83 million in lost value, highlighting the need for the I-Team, a group of professionals paid for with a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant and tasked with creating a blight eradication plan for the city.
An imperfect system
Late last year, Mayor Sandy Stimpson announced Mobile had received a $1.6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies —one of 12 nationwide — to hire the I-Team to tackle the problem, a process he said has been effective in other cities. In March of this year, Stimpson appointed Dunlap as executive director and one of her first orders of business was to review and improve the service request order (SRO) system.
Under the old SRO system, a resident would call in a property maintenance complaint to the 311 call center, which assigned SRO numbers to verified complaints. Previously it was a very reactive system, Dunlap said, which left a lot to be desired because there’s “no loop back to resolution.”
“Sometimes what you get is, it turns into a work order system,” she said. “It wasn’t designed to be that way.”
Although the 311 system is a valuable tool, Dunlap said, it wasn’t fully implemented. Instead of being reactive, she said, the I-Team sought to make the system more proactive.
“This is the point of the Bloomberg grant, to get in there and get deep enough to figure out where the process breaks down because you can’t fix it with the duct taping that has been going on over many, many years,” she said. “It has actually complicated the process instead of streamlining the process.”
One of the first changes for employees in the property maintenance department was scrapping what were referred to as “neighborhood sweeps,” infrequent and informal surveys of property conditions performed at the request of councilors, Dunlap said.
“So, you get a snapshot that has a certain expiration date to it, because when you go survey it and things could have changed, conditions may have changed or someone may have sold the home,” she said. “We decided to scrap that and give them some more tools.”
Those tools include cell phone upgrades, which allow for the use of Instagram to photograph and geotag properties in a more accurate, data-driven survey.
“Instagram was a good training tool,” Dunlap said. “It allowed them to see for the first time what the problem was.”
Hundreds of properties were documented on the city’s private Instagram account before property maintenance employees were switched to a new application created by the city’s Geographic Information System department, Dunlap said.
What is blight?
With the help of the new application, the department can conduct more formal and consistent surveys of individual properties. So far, it has revealed 1,260 of the most extreme cases of blighted structures in the city.
Dunlap said a property is scored on specific criteria, including whether it is vacant or abandoned and whether it is dilapidated or has structural issues. For example, Dunlap said holes in the roof or windows or a sagging foundation would result in a lower score. Other criteria record whether the property is secured or open to vagrants and animals.
Dunlap said with the new app they are able to go beyond a simple “windshield survey,” which is typically employed by other planners. While staff are not allowed to set foot on private property, they are able to more thoroughly record a property’s condition.
“We got out of our cars and walked around, walked the streets. If we could get a visual from the back we did that,” Dunlap said. “You can get more information if you just stick around long enough to do that … We were able to capture the worst of the worst.”
To highlight the difference, Dunlap mentioned a home with a collapsing porch. Under normal surveys graded on a scale from A to D, any compromised structural integrity would grade the house in poor condition, or a D.
“It’s awful looking, but if you fix that porch, there’s nothing wrong with the integrity of the house,” she said. “It’s that type of thing that’s going to rate a poor because of the visual.”
In addition to the citywide survey, the I-Team, along with city code enforcement staff, conducted a more detailed survey within the city’s two designated blight zones of the Texas Hill and Bottoms neighborhoods. In addition to structural integrity, the score also accounts for the condition of the façade, holes in the roofs and sagging foundations, Dunlap said.
Next, the blight “task force,” comprising members of the planning department, architectural engineering department, code enforcement, Historic Development Commission and others, review the properties to determine the next step. There is also a review committee meeting on Fridays to discuss properties that score in between demolition and stabilization.
Tentatively, Dunlap said test results in both those neighborhoods indicate it’s very difficult to have a property score for demolition. Of the 121 homes surveyed in both of the designated blight areas, only a total of 14 homes were found to be unsuitable for stabilization.
Councilman Levon Manzie, who represents the Texas Hill area, said he was aware and supportive of the I-Team’s progress. He called Texas Hill a “historic community in need of some assistance.”
“It’s a transparent process,” Manzie said. “We’re working together.”
He was dismissive about concerns of gentrification, noting at this point the I-Team isn’t focused on neighborhood redevelopment as much as improvement.
“We’re not in the business of city-sponsored gentrification, but we want to make communities better,” Manzie said.
Dunlap agreed, adding that the emphasis is on improving the neighborhoods and recapturing what they used to look like.
Another problem the I-Team is studying is resolving ownership issues the city faces in combating blight. According to Dunlap, 80 percent of the homes on the blight list are not owner occupied. Of those, 80 percent are owned by individuals while 20 percent are owned by entities.
“We found a lot of what you’d expect, bad-acting landlord kind of stuff,” Dunlap said.
Surprisingly, several blighted homes appear to be owned by churches.
“They’re not necessarily bad acting,” she said. “Let’s say an old lady dies and leaves her property to the church, thinking, ‘I’ve left you the most important piece of my own personal wealth.’ Now, it’s fallen down and it’s property of the church.”
Nevertheless, Dunlap said the ownership investigation can be painstaking. In the 80 percent owned by individuals, family breakdowns caused by death or flight leave the ownership ambiguous. Commonly, houses in the target communities have been bequeathed orally, Dunlap said.
“There’s no clear title and no track record in the court system or the title system,” she said. “The registered owner is dead and it’s never been updated. It’s a very common situation.”
Before the I-Team’s grant expires in 2017, Dunlap said it intends to recommend an administrative process of resolution including such measures as mediation and a timetable.
“We’re still preparing a lot of these solutions,” Dunlap said. “We have a good idea of what they’re going to look like, but we haven’t tested them out, and we have to bring people along from all over the city that are going to be implementing these.”
In the meantime, the I-Team is preparing for its first public presentation, tentatively scheduled in January. Among other things, it will include a mapping element with a detailed catalogue of neighborhood properties.
“It’s going to have recommendations,” Dunlap said of the public presentation. “It will still need to be fully implemented.”
While the new scoring system is being tested, it has not generated any citations or notifications, Dunlap said. Homes recently declared nuisances by the City Council and scheduled for demolition have been scrutinized under the old system.
She also suggested recommending the council officially designate more target areas beyond Texas Hill and the Campground. Council President Gina Gregory seemed optimistic about the suggestion.
“I am certain councilmembers will want to help designate blighted areas in their districts,” Gregory wrote in an email message last week. “Joan and the I-Team are doing a good job of stepping up our efforts to identify blighted properties and begin the process of finding owners to make repairs or demolishing the structures.”