The city of Mobile has been tackling the issue of blight for years, and City Council President Levon Manzie believes it’s time to take on the issue of affordable housing with the same vigor.
It is this desire that pushed Manzie to create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Affordable Housing. Made up of residents and community leaders appointed by councilors and including Mobile Housing Board Executive Director Michael Pierce and Senior Director of Community Development James Roberts as non-voting members, the commission is set to get to work shortly with a goal of expanding affordable housing options in Mobile.
“I want to see us expend as much resources yearly as we expend tearing down houses. I want to see us expend that much or more refurbishing houses,” Manzie said. “I hope that’s the conclusion that’s achieved from the commission.”
In addition to the reduction of blight, the city has seen an explosion of more high-end real estate options, especially in Manzie’s District 2. From downtown condominiums to riverside apartment buildings, the availability of market-rate housing stock has only grown in the last six years, Manzie said.
“Now I think it’s important and incumbent upon us to make certain that the affordable housing sector is strong and viable. As I look at other cities, [they] are intentional in placing funding — in carving out funding — to make sure the affordable housing market thrives,” he said. “So, I would like this panel to look at the avenues which other cities have flourished in, that market, and see what strategies might be applicable here. That’s, of course, in conjunction with the work [Roberts] and his Department of [Housing and] Community Development are already doing.”
The city understands the need for more affordable housing, but Roberts said the issue isn’t with housing stock itself — it’s with making the housing stock the city already has safe, clean and affordable.
Roberts is working with developers now to renovate housing stock along the Michigan Avenue Corridor in anticipation of residents from several Mobile Housing Board (MHB) properties needing to move in the next few years.
Manzie said a plan to renovate single-family homes into affordable housing, like the plan for Michigan Avenue, is the right way to approach the idea.
“I think it will lead to increased pride in those who live in the houses. It leads to the strengthening of communities,” he said. “I would envision where we’ve torn down apartment-style apartment complexes that we come back with single family to the degree that’s allowable.”
MHB has already announced plans to relocate residents from R.V. Taylor Plaza, Thomas James Place and Boykin Tower to allow for the board to undertake the demolition process on those three properties. The board has already torn down Roger Williams Homes and the city recently announced a contract to demolish the long-abandoned Josephine Allen Homes. That would eliminate some of the oldest public housing stock in the city, but would also leave Mobile with a need for more.
“If I had been able to plan it, those properties would not have been vacated without a plan being in place,” Manzie said.
While those complexes still stand and the residents still live there, Manzie said it’s all the more important to start making a plan for the future.
“We need to be making plans now so we know five to 10 years from now what might be the plan,” he said. “So, I think we need to be proactive, which is what I hope the recommendations of this commission will give us … I’m hopeful it will give us some strategies and a plan that we can implement now, so there can be a better transition than has commonly taken place.”
However, a hurdle exists for leaders who would like to see those moved from affordable housing stay in nearby neighborhoods. A Supreme Court ruling has forced the Alabama Housing Finance Authority, and authorities in other states tasked with the distribution of tax credits for the construction of affordable housing, to look to more affluent areas of town to prevent putting new properties in areas where the poverty rate is higher. For Mobile, that means more affordable housing is being pushed to West Mobile.
“While it might have been well intentioned, the impact it’s having is tipping the scales, in my opinion, because the need isn’t necessarily where those developments are being built; the need is in the inner cities,” Manzie said. “That’s where the need is. I’m hopeful that, legislatively, maybe that issue could be mitigated, because it is having an impact.
“It’s having an impact where persons who have for most of their lives lived and worked and shopped and worshipped. And now because of where the new housing stock availability is, [they are] having to move out to West Mobile,” he continued.
The commission is close to having its first meeting, Manzie said. All of the councilors have made their appointments and the commission is waiting on the appointment of two residents who currently live in public housing, he said.
“I’m waiting on some final yeses in that regard and then we will start off strong,” Manzie said.
From there, the commission will hold regular meetings and update the council on its progress.
“There are certain built-in deadlines and reporting dates, but as they cross milestones, the expectation is they will let us know,” he said. “They’ll meet more frequently in the beginning and then less frequently as they make formal presentations.”
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