For four years the city’s capital improvement plan has paid to resurface streets, fix drainage problems and add amenities to parks. Council President Levon Manzie believes the next iteration of the successful program should help fix up private homes in neglected neighborhoods.
Rather than demolishing blighted homes, Manzie is hopeful his council colleagues will agree to expand the CIP program to give grants to homeowners to rehabilitate houses in some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
“I think it’s the next natural evolution of the CIP program,” he said. “We spend a massive amount of resources on resurfacing streets and community amenities and in some instances, our housing stock is in horrible condition.”
In some cases the council’s approval to demolish some of the homes in question moves them from the “blight list” to the “weed lien” list, Manzie said.
“I would love the ability to go into neighborhoods and — similar to facade grants downtown — be able to upgrade the housing stock.”
Manzie believes if the city can invest in these homes and neighborhoods, private investment will follow and uplift the communities in question.
The plan, Manzie said, would work in conjunction with the federal funds the city already gets to do similar things.
“In order to grow the city you have to have infill in our oldest neighborhoods,” he said.
Jamey Roberts, senior director of neighborhood development, and his team use Community Development Block Grants and other U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) money to fix up houses and uplift neighborhoods in the city.
The city uses the money for a variety of programs that do anything from painting the outside of a home to replacing a roof. The programs, like much of HUD fundings, come with income restrictions. Roberts said, on average, a family of four would need to make $49,000 per year or less to qualify for funding.
Roberts said the city has approved eight paint grants so far this year, but due to COVID-19 volunteer painters have “dried up.” Instead, the city is paying contractors to do the work, he said.
The grants that would normally be used to fix roofs, electrical problems, HVAC problems or plumbing have been impacted this year by the pandemic as well, Roberts said. Under normal circumstances, a city inspector would be sent out to assess a need. The city can give up to $10,000 for these grants, Roberts said. On average the cost is around $7,500.
One issue with the federal funds is they run out quickly. In fact, any new application for funding, Roberts said, would have to wait until May for more money to become available.
At issue with Manzie’s proposal, Roberts said, would be state laws prohibiting the use of local tax money for private businesses or properties. There would also be issues with the federal fair housing law.
The proposal could be met with increased scrutiny because elected officials would be making decisions on where to spend the money. However, Manzie is undeterred.
“My heart’s desire is to better our communities and create an environment that will lead to redevelopment,” he said. “I also want to do something to uplift the housing stock.”
Palmer Hamilton, an attorney who helped create a revolving fund for the preservation of homes in the Oakleigh Garden District, said the city and its leaders need to focus on preserving historic homes, which are more easily renovated than more cheaply built homes from the 1940s or 1950s when Mobile’s population was exploding. If not, he said, the city could be even more inundated with homes in disrepair.
“We didn’t want to build cheap houses,” Hamilton said. “There is a surplus of cheap houses. They can’t be fixed up and sold.”
Hamilton said in addition to Oakleigh, he sees potential in the Leinkauf neighborhood, as well as in the neighborhoods south of Oakleigh moving toward the Mobile Downtown Airport.
Hamilton said while giving homeowners the resources to fix issues with their homes directly is a good idea, he said he has some concerns generally when the government gets involved in housing restoration.
“I think in most cases they end up doing less than more,” he said.
In addition, Hamilton said he would be worried about who would be working to rehabilitate the homes. Part of the reason his group is successful, he said, is because they’ve hired an architect who specializes in historic homes.
The revolving fund Hamilton is involved in started with $300,000 and now has about $10 million in funds to work with. The fund has rehabilitated and sold some 22 homes in the neighborhood.
“We tried to not make what we did purely a gentrification process,” he said. “We believed if we were going to make a difference we had to increase the quality of the homes.”
Manzie said his proposal would not touch areas already impacted by a revolving fund.
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