A vote on a memorandum of understanding between the Fuse Project and the Mobile Housing Board (MHB) that could result in the sale of 80 acres of board property to the nonprofit was delayed by at least a month over questions from two of the commissioners.
Commissioner Norman Hill said he wanted to get a better understanding of the nonbinding agreement before he felt comfortable voting on it.
“I’m not in favor of selling property when there are a lot of positions unfilled in our management team,” he said. “I would like to pull it and fully review it because I haven’t looked through the first page.”
The board is currently without an executive director since Akinola Popoola was fired in September after less than a year at the helm. There have been several other high-profile departures since that time, including the board’s comptroller and capital funds director.
The Fuse Project, a five-year-old nonprofit with a mission of “providing the spark for innovation, funding and implementation of projects benefiting children along Alabama’s Gulf Coast,” is looking at property owned by the Mobile Housing Board in the former Orange Grove community to possibly develop mixed-income housing.
Chief Strategy Officer Freddie Stokes cautioned that the memorandum of understanding (MOU) would simply allow the two sides to work toward transferring the property and it was still a long way from a done deal.
“We’re partnering with the Mobile Housing Board to consider buying the property,” he said. “There’s no risk to either party.”
Stokes elaborated that Fuse would work with the philanthropy-based Purpose Built Communities out of Atlanta to develop townhouses and single-family residences for low-income families, as well as families who can afford market-rate housing on a currently empty piece of property owned by the board.
“We want to bring organizations together,” Stokes said. “We don’t want to come in with a cape, but with gloves and shovels and work with the community.”
In addition to the homes, Stokes said there are plans for a possible school building catering to 2- and 3-year-olds to help create a “strong K-12 pipeline” in the area.
“The housing will not work without education,” Stokes emphasized, adding parks and other recreational opportunities would also be part of the community plans.
Housing Board President Kimberly Pettway said MHB doesn’t currently have the resources to develop the property on its own.
“This project is aligned with what we’re trying to do,” she said. “This will help us fill the gap.”
Commissioner Breanne Zarzour recused herself from the discussion because she is a Fuse Project board member. Given her recusal, Zarzour will not have a vote next month when the item reappears on the agenda. As a result, three out of four commissioners will need to vote in the affirmative to pass the MOU.
Those three votes might be hard to come by given that Hill and Commissioner Joyce Freeman both seemed to have issues with the proposal. New Commissioner Tyrone Fenderson would also need to vote and the January meeting was his first.
Stokes said he was surprised that such a “positive” initiative was met with some scrutiny by the board and delayed for a month.
If the MOU is approved and the Fuse Project does purchase the land, the group would then work with Purpose Built Communities to find a developer for the project.
The project is based on philanthropy, Stokes said, and Fuse is planning a capital campaign to raise some of the needed funds for the plan. However, Stokes did not rule out the possibility of Fuse using tax credits or other public funds to complete the project down the line. Fuse Project currently receives no funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Stokes said.
The project also aligns with Fuse’s mission of helping to transform the lives of children, Stokes said.
“We want to help ignite transformational change,” he said. “We’re still going to be doing what we’ve been doing.”
In other business, the board approved a resolution that would establish monthly work sessions before each meeting. It has not yet been announced whether those work sessions would occur the Wednesday before an upcoming meeting or the Monday before.
“It may not be required before every board meeting,” Pettway said. “We’ll hold it as we see fit.”
Freeman, a resident of Central Plaza Towers, mentioned the building’s continuing issue with bedbugs. Despite an inspection, Freeman said residents are still in the dark about what is going to be done about the pests.
“So far we haven’t heard what they’re going to do about the bedbug problem,” she said.
Pettway said Popoola had initially told the board the issue was under control, but that wasn’t the case. Since that time, Pettway said, an inspector has gone through the building looking for bedbugs. Once the inspections are finished and they know what they’re dealing with, they’ll take further steps.
“We’re still addressing them every day,” she said.