“I was a little bit surprised,” Rev. John Cantelow III said of his recent appointment to the Birmingham Land Bank Authority, which held its inaugural meeting on the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 10.
“I was like, ‘What? The land bank? Again, refresh my memory.’ But I did have some kind of rudimentary knowledge of what it was about,” Cantelow said.
Cantelow, pastor of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, is the most recent appointment to the BLBA after two of the previous appointees resigned before the first meeting was held: Michael German and his brief replacement, Rev. Joseph Reid.
When asked if he was appointed to this position because he had applied previously, Cantelow said, “No, it wasn’t anything like that. I do know that in my church I’ve been talking about being sensitive [and] mindful of what’s been going on in our community.”
Cantelow continued, saying, “Mayor Bell has come there a number of times; he sings in a male chorus typically. Our male chorus has a number of people who sing in it that aren’t members of the church. They sing every fifth Sunday. Four times out of the year. So that may have something to do with it.”
Reid, the pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, says that after accepting Mayor William Bell’s nomination and subsequent appointment to the BLBA, he had second thoughts because he was technically not a resident of Birmingham.
“I don’t think [Bell] realized I had never formally became a citizen of Birmingham — not that that is a requirement one way or another — but actually I think that a person who is in a position like that to talk about vacant lots and things like that, they need to be resident in the city,” Reid said.
Despite having turned in his letter of resignation on his own accord, Reid added, “I’m probably more qualified than anyone on that board. But I certainly think that residency should be a requirement, so that was my decision.”
Reid went on to say that, “I’m happy for the opportunity that Birmingham has to stabilize its tax base. Having a land bank is a wonderful thing for any city.” Reid’s predecessor German could not be reached for comment after several attempts.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Bell did not address the resignations from German or Reid. Rather, he focused on moving the board forward and implementing a strategy to tackle the growing number of blighted properties in Birmingham, something he referred to as a “daunting task.”
The inaugural meeting was attended by six of the seven appointees to the BLBA. Adam Snyder was the only member not in attendance, as he was “out of town,” according to Bell.
Bell began by explaining how liens that are put onto the properties by the city are hardly ever collected. This causes the value of the property to diminish while the cost of acquiring and repurposing the lot becomes increasingly less appealing for developers.
“We collect less than 10 percent of the outstanding liens out there, maybe closer to 5 percent. You have anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of the liens out there that are uncollectable. So it’s not a revenue source, it’s a revenue drain on the city,” Bell said.
Assistant City Attorney Jim Stanley expanded on the mayor’s point, saying, “The liens on the properties begin to far exceed the value of the property. Say you got a vacant lot that’s worth maybe $5,000, and there could be two, three, four, five, 10 times that much in liens on the property. It’s hard to find developers to come in and take control of those properties and spend that type of money they need to clear the title.”
Stanley also mentioned that in Alabama, it often takes up to six years and around $5,000 to clear a title for a single tax-delinquent property. This is where the BLBA can have a significant impact.
“That’s a very ineffective procedure,” Stanley said of the current process in place to acquire these properties. “We have over 10,000 tax delinquent lots within the city of Birmingham. This legislation has a threshold of five years’ tax delinquency before the land bank can take control of this property. The latest count, we had about 4,500 that fall into that category. So that is our initial inventory,” Stanley said.
Bell followed by saying that, “Rather than it being an eyesore for the community and a drainage on city coffers — because, as you know, these abandoned dwellings or buildings, oftentimes we have to go and knock the building down and condemn a property instead of repurposing. Then it just becomes an abandoned overgrown lot.”
The population in Birmingham has been steadily declining since the 1960s according to Matthew Churnock, who gave a presentation at Wednesday’s meeting about the mayor’s RISE program and how the land bank can capitalize on some of the momentum generated by the plans implemented through RISE.
RISE, which stands for Remove blight, Increase values, Strengthen neighborhoods, Empower residents, is a plan put in place by Bell’s office that comes with a $76.3 million price tag. However, that is the total cost to implement to entire “RISE tool-kit”, according to Churnock. The city will be approaching smaller “frameworks” of the plan gradually. The land bank will be a key part of that approach, Churnock noted.
“So in Birmingham, we have a lot built out for a population that resembles that of the 1920s pre-industrialization here,” Churnock said. “Prices decline as population declines.”
According to Churnock, there is a surplus of 32,000 housing units in Birmingham. He noted, however, that these are not necessarily tax-delinquent properties, just units that are not being used. “We’re sitting on about a half-a-billion dollars in real estate assets in Birmingham,” Churnock said.
Stanley said that he is hopeful the BLBA can reconvene and draw up what he said is “the meat” of what the authority can accomplish. “In the coming meeting [there] will be a set of operating policies you can look at, discuss, debate and ultimately adopt to address the land bank’s priorities for disposal of properties. There is a lot of flexibility with how this could happen,” Stanley said.
During the meeting, Heager Hill, one of the Birmingham City Council’s appointees to the BLBA, directed a question to John Colon, the city’s director of the community development department, after some of the more daunting details were discussed at the meeting. “This is going to be a lot of work. Do you have staff in place to move it?” Hill asked.
Despite being an autonomous entity, separate from the city — on May 13, the Birmingham City Council approved a transfer of $367,987.59 from the Capital Funds budget, appropriating it to the Strategic Land Banking funds — Colon responded to Hill’s question by saying the mayor will have his staff help out with the land bank’s workload.
“The mayor has dedicated staff to respond to needs of the board. Jim Stanley is going to head up most of the legal work that’s involved. Of course, with his legal background knowledge of drafting legislation, you can’t find anyone more qualified for that,” Colon said. “And out of the community development department we have staff as well that is going to respond to administrative tasks to do a lot of the research to create strategies and of course following the [RISE] framework plan.”
A date has not been set for the next meeting, although Colon did mention that the BLBA should reconvene in about three weeks. After that, a concrete schedule as well as by-laws and operating procedures should be ironed out.