Blight is eating American cities. Here’s how Mobile, Alabama, stopped it


Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Jeff Carter was used to seeing the decaying properties that dotted the city. The ’60s hit the town hard, and between the closing of the Brookley Air Force Base in 1969 and the white flight that dominated the era, large swaths of the city were left vacant or fell into disrepair. “Mobile has a history of its most valuable export being its children,” Carter tells me. “I’m the only guy who’s never left.”

Carter started working as an EMT when he was 19, and always saw the makeup of the city as a story of haves vs. have-nots, an intractable problem that everyone learned to live with. He had been one of the only white students in a large all-black magnet school (“When I tell people where I went to high school they think I’m joking,” he tells me) which he says gave him a different perspective on life in Mobile. Carter mentions this as a footnote, but when I arrived in Mobile for Carter to take me on a tour of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods, I began to understand that this was an integral part of Mobile’s story. The city was the beating heart of the segregated south, and though time has passed, the markers of segregation are everywhere. The most stark example: The city hosts two Mardi Gras celebrations, one for black Mobilians and one for white Mobilians.

Jeff Carter stands in front of an abandoned home on Pritchard Avenue. Carter was the previous director of the “I-Team” and worked to identify and assess the condition of vacant and abandoned properties throughout the city. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

Until recently Carter ran the city’s innovation team–a group of not-your-usual government employees including a landscape architect, a dreadlocked anthropologist, and an industrial designer with a man bun. (“They call us The Breakfast Club,” Carter says. “I’m the Basket Case.”) The innovation team, funded by a Bloomberg grant, was established with the primary purpose of working on Mobile’s blighted neighborhoods. The story I’d heard, the one that brought me to Mobile, was that the team had not only dramatically reduced the number of blighted properties in the city, but had also managed to alter a state law, allowing the city to take ownership of properties, repair and sell them. Innovation teams are known for rolling out new ways for cities to function, for building apps or designing websites, but a small team changing the constitution is unheard of. I wanted to meet the people who did this, and I wanted to see the blight.

Mattie Lofton stands in front of an unoccupied home on Texas Street near downtown Mobile. A native of The Bottom neighborhood, Lofton currently serves as Municipal Enforcement Officer 1 and works with the Community Reinvestment Team to identify and renovate vacant and abandoned properties throughout the city. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

The next morning I stood in the middle of a cracked and weedy street with Carter and Mattie Lofton, one of the city’s code enforcers, as they chatted with Tony Burke about the state of his house. We were standing in The Bottom, one of the neighborhoods where the blight is inescapable, looking at a wooden shotgun house resting on cinder blocks, with patched over holes dotting the outside. This was not one of the blighted houses. It was occupied by someone who, when he could scrape together money for repairs, fixed up what he could. Burke also took care of the vacant lots next to the house. Lots that used to be houses, but that were now scraggly fields.

“High grass and weeds, high grass and weeds,” Lofton repeats, sweeping her arm toward the empty lot. “They tear down the buildings and all they leave us with is high grass and weeds.”

The four of us swiveled our heads to take in what 360 degrees of blight looks like. “We’re an old city with a lot of old,” Carter had told me as we drove toward The Bottom. But I hadn’t thought about what kind of old. Mobile’s first slave ship docked in 1721. The nation’s last slave ship, the Clotilda, also docked in Mobile, over 50 years after the slave trade was banned. The descendants of the Clotilda slaves still live in Mobile‘s Africatown neighborhood, another blighted area. The Bottom is not sadness, but layer upon layer of the country’s history, and layer upon layer of a city’s changing relationship with the people who inhabit the land.

“This is a street here.” Lofton gestures toward something that definitely did not look like a street. It looked like a mossy, creepy tangled mess of brown and green overgrowth. “This is probably 10 or 15 years of growth.”

“How does something stop being a street?” I ask.

She shrugs, and says the city had stopped maintaining it. Old people had died, young people had moved away, houses grew dilapidated and in accordance with the city’s old band-aid approach to blight, the houses had been torn down. Got a dangerous house? Send in a bulldozer, remove the house, problem solved!

Abandoned houses and overgrown lawns line Edwards Street in the historic Africatown neighborhood. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

Lofton grew up in this neighborhood, but like everyone else she also moved away. Overseas at first, with her military husband, and then eventually they made their way back home to Mobile, but they wouldn’t return to The Bottom. They live outside the city, in a neighborhood that isn’t full of blank spaces and blight. She’s worked in code enforcement for 18 years, and is on a first name basis with Carter, who she knows to be the person in the city responsible for fixing things.

One reason Lofton lives outside the city is that there is limited middle-class housing in Mobile. Most of the people I met during my time in Mobile–people who are deeply invested in the city, whose love for the place comes even comes through in lengthy PowerPoint presentations on land banking–cannot find a house in Mobile that fits their budget. If you want to buy a bright white columned plantation-style house that looks like a cross between a bank and Tennessee Williams’s ancestral home, and you have over a million dollars to spend, Mobile is your place. And if you want to buy a three-room shotgun house for under $100,000, Mobile is also your place. But if you fall anywhere between those to poles, as many two-income families do–the median amount people spend on a house in the United States is $223,000–you are out of luck. The story of blight in Mobile is the story of the rich and poor in America, of unregulated real estate, and of centuries of inequality. But in Mobile, a small team figured out how to change the narrative.

Robert Pruitt (40) cuts grass on his family’s property in the historic Africatown district. No one is living in the house, but Pruitt maintains the lawn out of respect for the neigborhood. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

***

What is blight? To non-city-obsessed folk a blighted property is one we might walk by, shake our heads and think: Someone should do something about that. The house on the corner of my block in Brooklyn is one of these. It was mildly habitable when we first moved on to the block. The people who lived there kept pigeons on the roof. I saw them up there sometimes, tending to the birds. Eight years later, the pigeons are gone, the windows of the house taped over with tinfoil, tufts of insulation peek out through cracks in the walls. The city has put up a sticker declaring the house unsafe and ordering the residents to leave, but sometimes I see a light on at night. Until I began reporting this story I didn’t have a word for the house other than sadness.

Once you start talking to people who are obsessed with cities–urban planners, government workers, elected officials–you hear the word blight a lot. To the people who work to keep cities humming, who worry over them as though they are sentient beings, blight is not just a rotting tooth that needs to be pulled. It is a harbinger of a neighborhood that may slide from a place where families live and people plant hydrangeas into an Escape from New York-like hellscape. Blocks with blighted or abandoned properties are more likely to attract crime, violence, and have elevated lead levels and lower property values.

The absolute meaning of blight is vague. A 2015 report for Keep America Beautiful (PDF) found “the one constant in the history of blight is its highly contested and malleable nature.” Blight is graffiti. Blight is abandoned properties. Blight is litter. Blight is a row of dilapidated houses. Blight is drug dealers. Blight is prostitution. Whatever the definition, blight is always the outward sign of a city’s inner dysfunction. A broken policy, a broken community, a broken economic system. Blight is the thing that makes a city unappealing to live in and, at its worst, dangerous. And for as long as the word has been applied to cities, there have been well-meaning theories on how to fix it. Tear it all down. Plant more hydrangeas. Send in the police. Don’t send in the police. Keep America (and all of its cities) Beautiful. In an era when revitalization seems to be everywhere–abandoned rail lines are now parks! Abandoned factories are now sleek lofts! Abandoned malls are now Whole Foods! Blight is what happens when people get left behind. Blighted and vacant properties across the country have increased by 50% over the last 15 years.

No state is unscathed. Blight legislation is now on the books in all 50 states, though it often looks like bans against shoring up windows with plywood as opposed to truly meaningful measures. But today’s blight is also a map of where the nation is thriving and where it is suffering. The sunbelt has the lowest blight rate. People are moving in, not away, from cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. Or they are moving where the jobs are and the quality of life is manageable, so-called “magnet cities” like Seattle or Austin. The cumulative effect of this migration means that there are abandoned, blighted properties clustered across Appalachia, the south, and the midwest, with a sprinkling of blight throughout the northeast. Blight settles in smaller cities, rural areas, the places in the country where you are not surprised to learn that the population is shrinking. Youngstown, Ohio. Springfield, Massachusetts. Huntington, West Virginia.

If blight in Mobile is the story of the haves and the have-nots, it is merely one example in a larger story writ large across the map of the United States. In today’s economy there are clear winners and losers. The winners get reclaimed rail lines. The losers get high grass and weeds. Unless someone decides to do something about it.

***

Sandy Stimpson does not look like the poster child for progressive housing policies. He is tall and lanky, with wispy gray hair, and as I listened to him speak I understood that I was hearing a different kind of accent than I’d heard from other Mobilians. His words come out in a patrician drawl that called to mind an era of summer suits and made me feel overly self-conscious about the harsh, clipped vowels my mouth produced. Stimpson made his money in the logging business, but after decades of watching Mobile deteriorate, he decided to run for mayor.

Mayor Sandy Stimpson sits on the stoop of an unoccupied home on Charles Street that is slated for renovation through the city’s community reinvestment program. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

For eight years the city had been governed by Sam Jones, Mobile’s first black mayor. The general consensus was that a white candidate couldn’t win the black vote, and a black candidate couldn’t win the white vote. Given Mobile’s demographics–50% black and 46% white–no one expected Stimpson, a friend and church compatriot of Jeff Sessions, to have a chance.

But Stimpson did something no other white mayoral candidate had done in a long time, or perhaps ever. He visited The Bottom. And Africatown. He walked the streets and he talked about fixing things up, restoring Mobile to the vibrant city it used to be before the Air Force base and the shipyard shuttered. To the surprise of white Mobilians, black Mobilians liked him. They believed him. Stimpson is now one year into his second term.

Shortly after Stimpson was elected, he took his own blight tour, visiting a neighborhood with a house that he says has served as open-air drug market on and off for 40 years. He began knocking on doors and greeting residents. Hearing the commotion, an elderly woman in an electric wheelchair came out of her house. The woman told him she’d never seen a mayor in the neighborhood, and begged him to come back. She nodded in the direction of the drug house, telling him that “bad people” lived there.

“I walked off heartbroken, realizing she was a prisoner in her own house in our own city,” Stimpson tells me. “It was two months before we got enough information to go seize that house, but she had died the week before we went back.”

The experience shook Stimpson, and got him thinking about blight. It’s also not hard to think about blight in Stimpson’s office. He’s on the 10th floor of the modern city hall building perched at the edge of Mobile’s deep water port. Out one window are all of the things that make Mobile–and the rest of the country–go. Huge container ships chugging in and out of the port drop raw goods for manufacturing planes and other goods. A freight train glides in a silent line along the water’s edge, taking the containers out onto the land. And later in the day, I will drive by an Airbus jet, freshly painted with the JetBlue logo, looming just a few feet from the road. Planes are assembled here, and then flown into the sky on a runway in the middle of town, headed toward their first commercial flight. The view out that window is very Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, with every possible form of transportation represented. It is a view of progress and industry and a reminder that deep water ports are still special things that matter, even in our age of hyper-technology.

Out the other window in Stimpson’s office is the town of Mobile, pretty buildings up close, then smaller and more run-down buildings farther out. “See the big tall one, the six-story one?” Stimpson points as my eyes attempt to locate the building. It comes into focus: a beautiful old . . . mansion? Church? Merchant’s house? Boarded up now, and right in front of the mayor’s window. “I’m looking at blight,” Stimpson says, “and thinking, why can’t that be fixed?”

The question of why can’t that be fixed soon materialized into the innovation team’s unofficial mantra, but with a question this massive it was hard to know where to begin. At one of team meetings, someone pointed out that a good place to start would be to count the blighted buildings. This is a traditional starting point for many projects in the private sector. Before you can solve a thing you need to understand just how big the thing you are solving is. But cities often lack the numbers and data the private sector takes for granted. Mobile had never done a blight count. The team had heard estimates of blighted properties ranging from 5,000 to 25,000 structures, and they went back and forth on how they could count everything quickly, cheaply, and electronically. Which is how they found themselves, a few days later, using Instagram to catalog and map Mobile’s blight.

Jeff Carter thought it was a stupid idea. So did the code enforcers he enlisted to help with the count, but with little else to go on they all shrugged their shoulders and did it anyway. Once the team had completed the count, though, they were surprised by the results. In a town of about 200,000 residents and 57,000 residential buildings, only 1,256 were blighted. This number felt wrong, because everyone knew the blight was everywhere. How could it be that so few blighted structures were giving so many Mobilians the feeling that the town was decaying around them?

Terrance Smith stands in front of an unoccupied home on Texas Street near downtown Mobile. Smith is the director of the “I-Team” and works to identify and assess the condition of vacant and abandoned properties throughout the city. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

After puzzling over the number, the team found themselves talking more and more about who was affected by the blight: People who live near it, who walk by in fear every morning and every evening, who are afraid to let their children play near it. And homes that are close to blight are more likely to become blighted themselves.

“Blight is a cancer,” Stimpson tells me. “If you don’t get rid of blight it just keeps spreading and keeps spreading and keeps spreading. It will kill a neighborhood. It will absolutely kill it.” He’d seen it happen. So had the rest of the innovation team, all of whom had grown up in the area. They’d also lived through earlier attempts to deal with blight. A previous administration had responded to residents’ safety concerns by installing speed bump, as though speeding cars and abandoned properties could all be lumped together into a category of “dangerous stuff” and treated equally. The speed bumps cost 20 grand a piece, but the city poured them anyway, often in front of houses that were disintegrating.

The team didn’t want to make the same mistake. So they decided to create a “blight zone,” which included every residential property within 150 feet of a blighted home in the count. When they reran the numbers, they discovered that 22% of homes fell within a blight zone. With a hard blight count and an explanation for why the blight felt so all-encompassing, the next question was why there were so many blighted properties in the first place.

The first stop was the city’s tedious Blight Task Force meetings, where city officials convened to make decisions on what to do with blighted properties: tear them down, fine the owners, or ignore them. But because Mobile is a small place with family histories that extend generations, the task force meetings often involved deliberations over properties that people were personally connected to. One person would suggest a house needed to be demolished, and someone else would say, “No, Mr. Jones owns that and we can just call his family.” Mobile is also rich in historic housing stock, which added the complicating factor of determining whether a house qualified as a historic property. In what sounds like a government simulation of the third ring of hell, Jeff says that “everybody’s opinion just kept being reiterated over and over again and no decisions were being made.” In general, people wanted to save buildings. But the city couldn’t save every building. So as a result buildings got stuck in a cycle of endless debate.

(L to R) Terrence Smith, David Daughenbaugh, Gary Jackson, Mattie Lofton, Jamey Roberts, Mayor Sandy Stimpson, Beverly Reed, and Baxter Bishop stand in front of a newly built home at 1004 Texas Street. The community reinvestment team works to identify vacant and abandoned properties, assess their current condition, and renovate eligible properties to ready them for new occupants. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

What the blight task force was missing, Carter’s team realized, was a rubric for making decisions. So they created a blight index. Instead of allowing code enforcers out in the field to score properties based on their personal opinion of whether something fit the definition of blight, they would now check off “yes” or “no.” Each answer had a different weight, invisible to the code enforcers. Once the code enforcement team began using the blight index, the task force meetings became radically more productive. The task force no longer needed to debate whether a property was blighted. Either it was or it wasn’t.

With the blight index in place, a new sticking point began to emerge: the legal system. The only way the city knew about a blighted property was if a resident called into 311 to complain. That call would then trigger an inspection. If the property failed the inspection, the city would begin mailing violation notices to houses that were often abandoned. Court dates would come and go–only 27% of people with fines bothered to show up to court–fines would pile up, and ultimately the house would be slated for demolition. The entire process could take decades and left neighborhoods like The Bottom scarred with high grass, weeds, and entire stretches of blocks filled with abandoned yards and no homes. But the city had no other recourse beyond sending out notices and piling on fines.

Several unoccupied houses on Clinton Street have health and safety notices posted on their exteriors. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

The city officials the team talked to recommended making the fines higher or writing tickets faster. Maybe they could scare people into taking care of their homes. More band-aid solutions that wouldn’t do much beyond annoy citizens and prove that government is a waste of space. The innovation team realized they needed to change the system itself. The first step was to work with the city council to pass an ordinance allowing the city to change the meaning of a code violation. Instead of issuing fines, the city would now issue stickers informing property owners that they had 20 days to fix their property or the city would do it for them, and then place a lien on their property for the cost of the repairs.

“This was a pretty big shift for the city,” Carter says. “Everybody in the government plaza really liked the Old Testament justice of punishing these bad guys that are making our neighborhoods bad. But the truth is, they weren’t really punishing bad guys. They were just aggravating little old ladies and people who couldn’t, not people who wouldn’t.”

Along with the new ordinance, the team created bright pink hexagonal code violation stickers, written in easy-to-understand language, to grab people’s attention. The hot pink stickers also signaled to neighbors that the city was no longer letting the property languish. They were on it. Together with the city’s newfound ability to secure properties without involving the owner, stickers worked. Of the homeowners who were fined with the new stickers, 80% fixed the violation.

With more properties being repaired by owners, Carter’s team took another look at the remaining houses. Some of them were inhabitable, but others weren’t so bad. In reviewing the blight index data, the team discovered that only about 15% of homes scored for demolition. Which meant the others could be saved, restored, and in the best of possible outcomes, new owners could move in and the house could continue to be a home, rather than an abandoned property. Now the team found themselves facing another set of questions: If these homes weren’t in such terrible shape, why didn’t anyone live in them? Where was everyone?

***
Blight and real estate are inextricably linked. As a report on vacant properties by the Center for Community Progress explains, blight has a way of resolving itself in hot real estate markets. Owners are unlikely to walk away from a property that can easily put a chunk of cash in their pockets. But in cities where the real estate is cheap, the market will not make blight just go away. In these cities, fixing blighted properties requires government and legal intervention.

A dilapidated home on Texas Street sits across from brand-new houses. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

Frank Alexander has spent decades attempting to untangle the layers of legislation that cause blight–or, as Alexander puts it, “vacant and abandoned properties.” Blight, he says, has racist undertones stemming from ’50s-era policies that applied eminent domain to justify grabbing entire chunks of low income African American neighborhoods. Alexander is a cofounder of the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit focused on completely eradicating vacant and abandoned properties. He became interested in blight in the early ’90s after a drive through Atlanta with former President Jimmy Carter. Carter pointed to rows of blighted properties just a half mile from the state house and asked why they couldn’t fixed up as affordable housing. “I’ll try to figure it out, Mr. President,” Alexander replied.

What Alexander found led him into a career focused on fixing the laws that allow blight to exist. Often blighted properties are caught in a web of obsolete laws meant to favor tax collection, written long before people moved around the country looking for places to pop open their laptops, hopping from gig to gig, city to city. Property taxes have been around since the Revolutionary War, but Alexander says things changed significantly in the early 1980s, after the Supreme Court issued a ruling stating that if property taxes hadn’t been paid on a property, the government must notify everyone who might have an interest in the property. Most municipalities found that impossible to comply with, which in turn made selling the properties difficult.

A newly built property at 1008 Texas Street near downtown Mobile. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

And ultimately, the people began to suffer from properties they couldn’t sell were the people who had very little to begin with. While wealthy people began to have fun flipping houses and picking up summer homes like Monopoly properties, others tried to figure out what to do with properties that were worthless.

“The poor are always left behind,” Alexander says. “The poor are the ones who are displaced, the poor are the ones who are the victims of the broken legal system. The wealthy can use their own power to protect their own neighborhoods, create their own community.” The poor, Alexander tells me, are the ones who need changes to the legal system to ensure cities are empowered in ways that protect vulnerable communities rather than displacing them.

But it’s not only a broken legal system that’s creating blight. Alexander also sees blight as one more side effect of a society that is eager to buy things and then toss them aside for something newer and shinier. It’s what happens when people get too used to always having the latest iPhone, the most on-trend shoes, or, as a car rental agent once said when trying to sell me on an upgrade, “L.A.’s hottest car.” Blighted properties, Alexander says, “are the litter of a consumption society. Our society has made it so easy for someone to own a piece of property, run it into the ground financially, and physically, and then walk away from it. It’s simply time we stopped littering.”

***

A few people in Mobile smiled and told me, before I met Keri Coumanis, that she was a “house-hugger.” Keri was, until recently, one of the assistant city attorneys in Mobile. She grew up in an old home in town and watched her parents meticulously renovate it over the course of her childhood. In addition to a law degree, she also holds a degree in historic preservation planning; she became an attorney for the sole purpose of saving houses and neighborhoods. Once the innovation team started digging into the legal issues at the root of the blight, they quickly joined forces with Keri, who had already been working on the legal end of Mobile’s blight problem for years. While the new ordinance was helpful, Keri knew that to really tackle blight they would need to stare down Alabama’s beast of a constitution.

The 1901 constitution is the longest in the world. It was written for the stated purpose of codifying white supremacy, and due to its restrictive nature and racist language, has been amended over 800 times since. Alabama is a property rights state, which derives from the rural state’s desire to protect farmers and property owners, combined with a visceral distrust of government. What this means for the city of Mobile is that when a property falls into disrepair, it is very, very, very hard for the city to take ownership of the property.

Several unoccupied houses on Clinton Street have health and safety notices posted on their exteriors. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

In order for the city to do anything at all to a blighted property, the city first has to show that they made a concerted effort to reach every single owner. In some cities this might be a trivial step. But in Alabama, if a property owner dies without a will, the property ownership is automatically divided equally among the surviving heirs. And because Mobile “has a lot of old” some houses have been passed down through generations and are now equally owned by over a hundred people.

“This is the estate of Willie Maye Creighton,” Coumanis says, pulling up a picture of a crumbling house on her desktop. “The people walked away from this property in 1972. When I started working on the title, I identified 120 owners.”

In order for the city to do anything at all to a blighted property, the city first has to show that they made a concerted effort to reach every single owner. So Keri spends a lot of her day on Ancestry.com figuring out who might own a property, and then searching online for them. When she contacts them, lots of people entertain fantasies of returning to Mobile some day.

“One woman who lives in L.A. owns a Zagat-rated soul food restaurant that sells red beans and rice for $22 a plate,” Keri tells me. “I was like, ‘You’re not going to come back to Mobile and sell red beans and rice for $22 a plate.’”

So instead people let the houses slowly fall back into the earth. Keri tells me everyone uses the same phrase to explain what happened to their house: We just let it go. Owners often don’t know what the houses look like after decades of neglect, hot summers, and hurricanes. With the ordinance change, the city could at least start repairing houses, but what the innovation team really wanted to do was get people into the properties. Row upon row of repaired but empty houses does not make a neighborhood. The ultimate goal was to get the houses back on the market. But in order to do that the city needed to take ownership of the property–people serving fancy red beans and rice weren’t going to be bothered with selling the family home back in Mobile for $5,000. And many properties couldn’t be sold at all in their current state. In Alabama, if someone buys an a property with tax liens against it, it takes six years before the title becomes clear. Without a clear title, the new property owner can’t get a mortgage. Which means that when it comes to low-value properties, it is easier to just let the property fall to pieces than to sell it.

Due to Alabama’s restrictive property laws, a property needed to be tax delinquent before the city could lay claim to it. But in a sick twist of bureaucracy, owners typically paid their taxes, because property taxes are so low that writing a $50 check to the city of Mobile each year felt like a fair price for keeping the family homestead going. They would pay the taxes, but they wouldn’t come back to Mobile and they wouldn’t sell the homes. And this is why no one lived in these homes. They were stuck in a tangle of outdated laws, shifting housing prices, and nostalgia.

Mobile Neighborhood Renewal Program signs are posted on an empty lot on Edwards Street in the Africatown neighborhood. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

Last year, prompted in large part by the Mobile innovation team’s work, the Alabama state house passed HB430, which allows cities to use municipal liens, rather than tax delinquency, to claim ownership of a property. Rather than triggering a bunch of fines and notices, the city can now take active measures to bring a property in front of a judge, who can then hand over a property with a clear title to the city. They city can then, in turn, put the property back on the market. The funds from the sale then go to paying any back fines or money spent shoring up the house to ensure it is safe for occupancy. And finally, the city can get new people into formerly blighted houses. Mobile can build homes and neighborhoods instead of high grass and weeds.

Passing a bill that removes property rights from residents and places them in the hands of government sounds like an exercise in futility in a state as deep red as Alabama. But the innovation team’s work had at least opened up the possibility of having a conversation about a bill with hints of socialism and a base note of big government. It helped that the rest of the state was also suffering from a plague of blighted properties. When Rep. Barbara Drummond introduced the bill into the statehouse, there was almost no pushback.

“My entire delegation voted for it overwhelmingly because they’re in the same boat that I’m in,” Drummond explains. “No one wants to live in a city or community with that type of blight. Though we live in a state with those property rights, there’s a cost to others when government keeps their hands off of things. If your property is blighted and mine next door is in good condition and I’ve been very responsible, it brings down all of the property values. All over I see value in making neighborhoods stronger.”

A newly built house at 1076 State Street. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

The first cases affected by the property law are just now making their way through the system, but all of the other work the team has done is already showing up in the blight zone and blight index numbers. In four years Mobile has reduced the number of blighted homes by 45%, from 1,625 properties to 891. The restored homes have freshly mown lawns, sunny paint jobs, and porches pleading for rocking chairs. They are small but tidy properties, the kind of place a young couple might swoon over on House Hunters (assuming they could forgo a bonus room or a man cave). The city has also dramatically increased their ability to manage the blight workload. With the new system in place, and no additional staff hired, the code enforcement team completed 103% more inspections than they had previously.

“Mobile is known as the city of perpetual potential,” Jeff tells me as we wound through downtown back to my hotel. Mobilians are aware of their city’s position in the nation. One developer I met with told me he was sick of having to say “thank god for Mississippi,” the state that keeps Alabama from being at the absolute bottom of the pile. Just once, could Alabama rank a little higher? The bottom mentality is everywhere. The things residents take for granted in most metropolitan areas don’t exist in Mobile. I was warned there was no Starbucks for my morning coffee anywhere near my downtown hotel. It took me a minute to realize this wasn’t an exhortation to shop local but a lament. Multiple people asked me how I got from the airport to my hotel.

“Uber?” I responded.

Newly built homes at 462 and 464 George Street are flanked by abandoned and unoccupied buildings. [Photo: William Widmer/Redux Pictures for Fast Company]

“That’s right you did!” They smiled proudly. Uber is fairly new. The mayor brought the ride-sharing service to town three years ago, the first city in Alabama to do so. He also brought duck boat tours, which was how I found myself wrapping up the Mobile blight tour with a trip into Mobile Harbor on an amphibious vehicle blasting Bon Jovi. (Why Bon Jovi? I don’t know.) The duck boat operator asked how many people on the boat were from out of town, and one or two hands shot up. Everyone else was a local, there to experience the thrill of a duck boat ride in their own town. The duck boat wasn’t able to venture very far into the water because Mobile is a working port, but we did glimpse a half-built battleship before lumbering back on land. There are other bright spots of potential on Mobile’s horizon, too. Carnival Cruise Lines is new in town. A kayak launch is slated to be built in The Bottom, right behind Tony Burke’s house, where there used to be a road.

This is the story of how one city reduced blight, but it is also the story of what happens when cities think differently about how to solve their problems, when politicians are willing to embrace policies that might not line up with the party line, when city workers look beyond band-aid solutions. It is the story of how cities can do good things for their residents, and how people can work across the city to unravel knotty problems that are centuries in the making. While the crafters of the Alabama constitution wrote the document as a giant middle finger to the rest of the nation, to the government, and to any elected official who might ever try to wield power, Mobile’s modern-day residents have discovered that they need government’s help. They perhaps don’t want to be left alone as much as Mobilians did a century ago. They see their perpetual potential, and dream of the day when Starbucks comes to downtown.

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