Photo | Shane Rice
On a gloomy morning, Larry Thomas sat on the front porch of a house his daughter owns near the intersection of North Ann and Congress streets. Just a block away, vehicles hummed down a busy thoroughfare.
While he was there to do work on the home himself, Thomas lamented the fact the city hasn’t done more to help fight the blight surrounding him in the Campground area. Three homes at the intersection have boarded-up windows and doors, with collapsing porches. Homeless people use them as temporary living quarters, Thomas said.
“It makes it unsafe,” he said.
Thomas’ main concern is a scenario where people staying inside the houses were to light candles due to a lack of electricity and inadvertently start a fire. He said he wants the city to be more proactive in tearing down structures that remain open to the public.
“If a fire gets started, all of this is at risk,” he said.
Kitty corner to where Thomas was sitting on N. Ann Street sat a vacant house with all the windows and doors boarded up, except in back where a doorway was open to the elements. Behind the structure, grass and weeds had grown up and trash had collected nearby. Next door to Thomas were two boarded-up houses, highlighting many of his concerns.
Efforts on blight
Mayor Sandy Stimpson has made blight eradication a priority of his administration. In 2015, the city was awarded a $1.6 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to look into the issue throughout the city. First using Instagram and later GIS technology, the Innovation Team documented all of the blight in the city, using a scoring system based on several factors, including: whether or not a property was abandoned or had certain structural deficiencies.
With help from the I-team, the city has worked to declare more properties public nuisances, which forces owners to pay to have the them secured or demolished, helping to rid neighborhoods of blight.
Despite this work, many areas like Campground, the Bottom, Dauphin Island Parkway and others remain riddled with properties like the one Thomas described, which can have a negative impact on property values and make crime harder to stop.
In a previous Lagniappe story, Joan Dunlap, the I-Team’s original executive director, said a severely blighted structure can cause the value of a property within 150 feet of it to decline, on average, by $6,000 to $7,000. That means throughout Mobile, blight results in about $83 million in lost value. The Bottom is also in what the I-team has designated a “blight zone.”
Since its initial push to locate blighted properties and its work to loosen state law restrictions to make declaring a public nuisance a bit easier, not much has been publicized about the I-team.
In addition, the team’s grant funding was set to expire during the current municipal budget cycle. Because of this, members of the Mobile City Council voted last year to cut the I-team’s funding. The issue became one in a series of disagreements in a power struggle between Stimpson and the council.
While a dedicated line item for the I-team no longer exists, Stimpson has moved each of its members under different departments within the city’s structure, and has therefore been able to continue to pay for its services.
In a phone interview, Stimpson said the administration was still in the process of transitioning the I-team personnel and its ideas into other city departments. With other departments, focused on the blight issue at large, Stimpson said the I-team has been working to simplify the permitting process through the Build Mobile department.
Using the I-team scoring system, the city has conducted annual blight surveys to keep an accurate count of the properties that fall under that description. The numbers of blighted properties have declined, according to Stimpson’s office. The 2017 survey found 1,474 properties in the city were blighted by definition. In 2018, the number dropped to 1,188, city spokesman George Talbot said.
“People get discouraged and we understand that, but you can see progress,” he said.
The I-team’s work to cut through legal red tape has made the process of fixing, or demolishing blighted structures easier, Stimpson said. While previously, legal issues would’ve made the process take eight or nine years, the process can now take eight or nine months, he said.
Although the city is dealing with blighted property more quickly, there are properties still falling into disrepair, Stimpson said.
“There are houses that were not identified as blight … two years ago, that are blighted today,” he said. “Even as we eradicate more … we still have some coming into the pipeline.”
Council Vice President Levon Manzie, who represents the Bottom and Campground areas, said he has been working with Jamie Roberts and the city’s Community Development group on initiatives to improve the quality of life for residents there.
One of those initiatives involves painting the exterior of homes to help neighborhoods look nicer. Manzie said the city has already conducted two iterations of the program and a third is on the way for those neighborhoods. In all, he said, the city has painted 14 or 15 homes to date.
A common complaint among entities dealing with blight eradication is the issue of wills. Without a will, the property of a deceased individual could be left, legally, to a number of heirs. The properties fall into disrepair and anyone interested in helping the property could be taking on a legal headache.
Manzie said the city has worked with Legal Aid of Alabama on an initiative to help property owners write wills to prevent the backlog of so-called “heir properties” from happening.
“This helps to make sure owners have clear titles to a property,” he said. “Without this, there is no expedient way to sell property to an investor or owner.”
It’s also incumbent upon owners to keep properties up, Manzie said.
“We need those who own property to maintain the property,” he said. “We need them to make sure the yards are mowed and make sure the property doesn’t fall into disrepair.”
Jaquitta Green, owner of Northside Check Exchange on St. Stephens Road and board member of Commonwealth National Bank, agreed with Manzie, but said outreach about taking pride in the neighborhoods needed to start in area middle schools.
“We need to help teach pride in our communities, whether it’s a place where you live, work or play,” she said. “Government can’t do everything.”
However, Green does believe the city could do more to combat blight, vacant buildings and litter in Toulminville and other areas, especially along St. Stephens Road.
Green said the appearance of a neighborhood due to blight or other factors, can have an impact on business there. She said the look and reputation of areas along St. Stephens Road negatively impacts her business.
“A lot of times we’re the last choice,” Green said. “Everyone wants to be around things that are clean and neat.”
While the city’s response to blight and urban decay may still be a concern for some, addressing crime in some of the underserved parts of the community has been a focus of the Mobile Police Department for some time.
That is especially true in the Campground and the Bottom. Since 2014, MPD has conducted several lengthy investigations in those areas targeting drug activity, gambling or prostitution. In that time, MPD has also begun partnering with city attorneys to seize and demolish “nuisance properties” know for criminal activity.
Working with outside organizations like Housing First and the MLK Avenue Redevelopment Corporation, the city has also been able to replace homes that were a recurring problem for law enforcement officers with affordable housing options to bring in new residents.
“Using temporary restraining orders has allowed us to take possession of these properties, many of which were eyesores or were known for criminal activity,” Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste said. “Then working with these partners has allowed new people to move in, which has helped us keep down some of the criminal element and revitalize the community. These are people who are actively engaged not just in the neighborhood, but also in the school system.”
That was the approach used to address a notorious drug house police say operated at 1076 State St. in the Campground area for decades. Describing it as an “open air drug market,” police documented 650 drug transactions at the property during a five-month investigation in 2015.
After civil process, the house on the property was eventually demolished. Today, the property is owned by Family Promise of Coastal Alabama, and it houses a new, single-family residence used as transitional housing for homeless families as they work to find a permanent place to live.
The city similarly took control of a former “skin house” — named for a type of card gambling — located at 1303 Juniper Street following a 2014 operation the police dubbed “Bottoms Up.” In all, 24 arrests were made at the house, and police seized dozens of bottles of liquor, drug paraphernalia and illegal gambling equipment.
Like many homes seized through civil action, both of those properties were in disrepair while they were being used for criminal activity. Battiste said crime and blight often overlap, and that’s why the city works with MPD to address both issues simultaneously whenever possible.
The Campground is also where MPD first unveiled “Second Chance Or Else” (SCORE) — a unique program that offered a handful of non-violent drug offenders a chance to avoid criminal charges if they agreed to participate in fatherhood courses, drug counseling and job training.
After four years, Battiste believes MPD’s approach to addressing crime in these communities is having an impact. However, he said more still needs to be done to revitalize them economically.
“The crime rates in those areas over the last four years have gone down,” Battiste said. “But now what we’re trying to promote is more economic growth to get people moving into the area and populating it with homeowners and individuals that can help the community revitalize.”
As Battiste mentioned, there does appear to have been a decrease in crime in the Campground and Bottom areas since MPD began aggressively targeting those areas in 2014. However, both neighborhoods are located in MPD’s third precinct, which continues to be one of the most active for local police.
The number of reported homicides, rapes, assaults, larceny and vehicle thefts in the third precinct all increased in 2017. Of the 50 murders MPD investigated in Mobile that same year, 19 occurred within the third precinct. Full crime statistics for 2018 are expected to be released in April.
However, MPD told Lagniappe in advance that the third precinct investigated 83 robberies, 281 aggravated assaults, 1,903 incidents of larceny and 10 homicides throughout 2018.
In the past, MPD has faced some criticism for its “hot spot” policing efforts, especially when they’ve focused on areas that — like the Campground and the Bottom — are predominantly African-American. However, Battiste said most residents in those areas have welcomed MPD’s efforts to address crimes in their community because they’re the ones most affected by it.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Battiste said MPD has made conscious efforts to make officers patrolling those areas feel more like a part of those community and less like an outside force. He added that it’s become increasingly important for officers to be approachable.
“What we try to do is make sure officers patrolling those areas are engaging with the people — people who see things we may not see, that gives them a platform to share that with law enforcement in a discrete manner,” he said. “There’s still some with criminal behavior, and they don’t welcome us as much, but the law abiding appreciate that. There is a sense of value in being able to sit out on your porch and feel comfortable and safe at home.”
Dauphin Island Parkway
The city could and should do more to help improve the lives of those living along one of Mobile’s busiest corridors, Riverside Drive resident William Tippins said. He’s even written a manifesto, of sorts, on the issues plaguing his neighborhood and others in the area.
Tippins complained the city has not used enough resources to fight crime or blight in the neighborhoods along DIP and has left residents there to fend for themselves in many cases. During a windshield tour of the area, Tippins pointed out trash that hadn’t been picked up and burned-out buildings secured with plywood and blue tarps.
Debi Foster, executive director of the Peninsula of Mobile group, said blight is one of the area’s biggest problems. However, while Tippins said the issues have only gotten worse, Foster believes there has been some positive movement since Stimpson became mayor.
“The minute you came off the interstate onto DIP, the first thing you saw were abandoned buildings,” Foster said. “There were four of them. Last year, three were torn down, thanks to the city.”
In terms of abandoned buildings, one area of concern for Foster is a gas station on the corner of Old Military Road. The lengthy legal process involved in ridding the area of that particular gas station, highlights some of the challenges faced by groups taking on the blight fight.
“I know the process is long and arduous, but we all live in America for a reason,” she said. “I wouldn’t want the city trampling on my property and telling me what I’ve got to do. Do I think the laws are swayed toward the property owner? Yes, but we’re in Alabama, which is a property rights state.”
The issue of blight in the area, or even the issue of run-down homes makes reinvestment tough, Foster said, but groups like Peninsula of Mobile and others are trying to spur reinvestment by changing the perception.
An aging population, living in older houses in the area is also a problem, Foster said. Like in other areas of the city, the existence of heir properties makes it tough to invest in new homes.
While many of the issues facing the parkway are similar to those facing some of the other, older Mobile neighborhoods, like heir properties, Foster said the area’s relatively late annexation into the city also created its own problems. Things not allowed by city ordinance were grandfathered in when the area became part of the city in the 1940s, Foster said.
“There is a bunch of stuff down here that we should’ve never had,” she said. “We have gas stations next to houses because the uses were established long, long ago.”
Like Tippins, Former FBI agent and Mobile native Yvette Young sprung to action after a shooting that took place outside her grandmother’s former house along the DIP corridor.
Young said her 84-year-old mother called her in Birmingham when she heard the shots about a block away. Young, who had moved away from Mobile in 1984, was compelled to do something about the issues facing the parkway.
“When your 80-something-year-old mother calls you because of something like that, it’s very disturbing,” Young said. “I started with texts to friends I had in the area and that turned into an email chain and then a Facebook group.”
Young started the #RevitalizeDIP group to deal not only with the issue of crime, but to look at a number of factors, including blight.
“We took interest in the number of abandoned homes left to heirs, or because of foreclosures, or storm damage where the homeowners were either underinsured, or had no insurance,” she said. “My concern is the blight.”
Like Foster, Young acknowledged the aging population and is working on what she calls an “activism piece” aimed at getting those residents and others more involved in reporting issues within the neighborhood. She is pressing those residents to call, or email their councilman and Stimpson, as well as to continue to call the city’s 3-1-1 service to complain about issues.
In addition to working to combat blight, Young wants to work with other neighborhood advocacy groups, as well as with the Mobile Urban Growers to help bring a community garden to the area. The garden and other initiatives will take some buy in from the community, Young said.
“The volunteer aspect is the hardest part of getting something done,” she said. “If everyone donated one day … we could accomplish so much.”
Jason Johnson contributed to this report
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