The Mobile Housing Board (MHB) of Commissioners voted unanimously to remove three complexes from its portfolio at a special called meeting Tuesday.
The move allows MHB leadership to move forward with applications to dispossess Boykin Towers and demolish both R.V. Taylor Plaza and Thomas James Place. The move will impact about 500 residents and more than 1,300 affordable housing units on the city’s south side.
New MHB Executive Director Michael Pierce said the units at R.V. Taylor and Thomas James faced mandatory “conversion” from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) due to a high vacancy rate. Conversion means to remove from public housing stock, which would also prevent MHB from receiving federal funding for the units.
Pierce told commissioners he and others with MHB were able to convince HUD to allow them to apply for dispossession and demolition instead of conversion. The demolition application would provide millions in revenue to the board, Pierce said.
“It equates to $15 million to $20 million over five years versuses zero,” he said. “We were able to gain consensus from the field office, as well as from D.C. … to make our application for demo/dispo.”
MHB leadership later decided to add its senior facility at Boykin Towers to the list due to “challenges,” Pierce said. Those challenges included problems with the only two elevators in the building, he said.
“One has been out of order for about a year and one breaks frequently .… ,” Pierce told commissioners. “It will take a year to replace them.”
The replacement will be expensive, he said, because crews will have to use a crane and the elevator cars will have to be specially fabricated, Pierce said. Instead, residents at Boykin Towers will be relocated.
“The rationale for inclusion of Boykin Towers into this discussion of demolition and dispossession is the cost associated with it,” Pierce said. “It makes sense to move those people out to Central Plaza Towers where we have adequate space.”
While they will be given the option to take a Housing Choice Voucher and can move anywhere within Mobile County, Pierce expects many to relocate to MHB’s other senior facility at Central Plaza Towers.
The affirmative vote on the Boykin Towers plan means staff can begin preparing a dispossession application with HUD. If the application is approved at the federal level, MHB can attempt to sell the 330 acres that surrounds the building, erected in 1983.
Commissioner Tyrone Fenderson Jr. wanted the resolution to clarify that the board would have a say in what happens to the property when and if the application is approved. Pierce and MHB attorney Raymond Bell both told Fenderson it would allow for that as written, but both allowed for the additional language Fenderson felt would ensure it.
Fenderson said finding the “highest and best use” for the property could provide the board with a source of revenue to help “change the lives of the residents.” He added that he wanted to make sure the board had an opportunity to discuss the property’s long-term plans.
Pierce assured Fenderson MHB staff could not move forward with selling any property without first coming to the board.
Thomas James Place, which consists of 796 units and was built in 1943, would be slated for demolition if HUD approves a forthcoming application. R.V. Taylor, which has 450 units and was built in 1967, could suffer the same fate if an application is approved.
If the applications are approved, both complexes would join Roger Williams Homes and Josephine Allen Homes as housing board properties that have been dispossessed and have either been torn down or are slated to be torn down.
The residents in these communities will be given either vouchers, or allowed to move to other housing board properties. The city and the board plan to work together to make affordable housing units available along Michigan Avenue in the next year, which would allow at least some of the residents to stay within close proximity of their neighborhoods.
The Mobile City Council is also looking into the issue of affordable housing. A committee meeting to facilitate the creation of a council-appointed commission on affordable housing will take place at 2 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 19.
Since 2015, the city has introduced a number of initiatives to remedy blight, including a junk vehicle ordinance, a “leaving a legacy program,” a critical repair grant program, a volunteer paint program and a non-profit capacity building program.
In the last 12 months, the city has painted 20 houses, has assisted with completing 187 wills through a partnership with Legal Services of Alabama, has towed 65 junk vehicles and resolved 1,007 reports related to junk vehicles.
In addition, the city has helped secure 81 houses and has demolished 133 during this same amount of time. Twenty-two blighted units have been restored and 16 of those were either historic or in a historic district.
Mobile is one of the only cities in the country to have surveyed and indexed all of its blight, Senior Director of Community Development James Roberts said in a previous interview. The number of blighted residential structures has been reduced from 1,625 to 890. Initially, Roberts said the city was demolishing a lot of its blight, but with the worst structures now gone, teams are focused more on rehabbing the structures that remain, in order to make them liveable.
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