Communities around the Southeast are employing various strategies to reduce blight in target neighborhoods. A previous article looked at how Dallas is using community prosecution; this article turns to Birmingham’s strategy to fight urban blight. A critical step in addressing a blighted property is determining ownership, which may include a number of parties with some claim to a property. Convoluted ownership and clouded titles often make it difficult for government authorities and prospective investors to take remedial action on properties. Informal paths to homeownership that more commonly occur in rural, low-income, African-American, Latino, and immigrant populations often result in an imperfect title at initial acquisition and no legal documentation for cleanly passing the property on to heirs, according to research by Heather K. Way, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. Tax delinquency and code violation liens can cloud property titles and may occur because of heirship issues—heirs may not know about a property or do not want the responsibility of inheriting a property with limited or no value.
Sixteen percent of properties in Birmingham are in some stage of tax delinquency. Phil Amthor, a staff member in the city’s community development department, believes that most problem tax delinquencies are due to a lack of estate planning.
To begin a title-clearing process in Alabama, a property must have five years of delinquent taxes. Next, a tax deed is acquired, then a “quiet title action” is filed in circuit court. All due process notice and timing requirements must be followed before either the original owner pays off the delinquent taxes or another buyer takes possession of a cleared title.
To address the tax delinquency issue, Birmingham incorporated a land bank authority in the summer of 2014. “Land bank” is a bit of a misnomer, in this case; rather than holding properties for any length of time, the authority’s objective is to acquire tax delinquent properties and efficiently gain marketable, insurable titles to attract reinvestment by new owners. While the procedures for acting as a conduit in this way are still being finalized, the city has an ambitious goal of clearing titles and remarketing 1,400 properties by the end of 2016. The land bank must follow the same quiet title action as does anyone who acquires title from the state Department of Revenue. However, the authority has the unique statutory ability to combine an unlimited number of properties into a single case, which should create efficiencies and economies of scale with the courts, the Department of Revenue, and title insurance companies.
The land bank is part of Mayor William Bell’s larger blight-fighting initiative, RISE, which stands for Remove blight, Increase value, Strengthen neighborhoods, and Empower residents. The RISE program will be rolled out gradually across eight geographic target areas. The land bank is intended to be a resource for residents from any area of the city with an interest in a property, whether or not the RISE program is available in that neighborhood. Neighborhood meetings have been held around Birmingham to notify residents about the process and the long-term goals for RISE.
Part of the empowerment piece of RISE is a campaign called Preserving the Wealth of Our Communities. In this campaign, the city has partnered with Legal Services of Alabama to enable baby boomers to pass on wealth to their heirs securely. The nonprofit holds educational workshops about estate planning across the city. Further, the organization provides free will and trust preparation for families below certain income levels. In this way, the RISE initiative’s approach on the heirship challenge is twofold: 1) mitigating the current clouded title issues through policy and processes and 2) remedying issues associated with property transfer among its residents.
For more perspectives on tackling neighborhood blight, see the discussion paper "Blight Remediation in the Southeast: Local Approaches to Design and Implementation."
By Shelley Price, former intern in the Atlanta Fed's community and economic development group