“Congratulations Mr. Mayor, you’ve been appointed to the land bank authority,” Birmingham City Council President Johnathan Austin said after the council voted to approve Mayor William Bell’s recommendations to the Birmingham Land Bank Authority (BLBA) — himself included.
On May 6, the city council passed a resolution which allowed the creation of the BLBA. Despite receiving funding from the city, the board is supposed to act as an autonomous entity.
The following week, the council also approved the transfer of $367,987.59 from the Capital Funds budget, appropriating it to the Strategic Land Banking funds.
Last Tuesday, Bell exercised his option to appoint himself to the BLBA, along with Marshall Anderson, a local architect, and Michael German, the director for the Alabama field office of U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The newly formed authority was created to combat the growing number of tax-delinquent, blighted properties in Birmingham. Properties that are more than five years behind on their taxes are eligible to be acquired and repurposed by the BLBA.
Councilor Sheila Tyson, who has strongly supported the implementation of the BLBA, said that now the board has been appointed, the next step is to make sure the board members are on the same page.
“Over the next week, we will be working closely with the mayor and his staff to convene the initial meeting of the board,” Tyson said. “From there, our role will shift to giving the board the support it needs to be successful — including cooperation and funding. Most importantly though, we’ll have to give them our trust.”
Tyson, who heads up the council’s Public Improvements Committee, also mentioned that she was pleased with the selections both parties made for the BLBA.
“I’m very pleased with the progress of the land bank so far, and I think the council and the mayor’s office selected top caliber members to serve on the board. As the land bank authority continues to develop as an agency, my hope is that revitalizing Birmingham’s neighborhoods will be — and remain — its top priority,” Tyson said.
How Bell’s appointment to the BLBA will affect the autonomy of the body is unclear. His office did not respond to questions regarding his position on the board. However, some land bank authority advocates consider his involvement acceptable.
“I don’t really have a problem with the mayor being appointed,” said Zac Henson, who was one of the finalists who interviewed with the Birmingham City Council for a position on the BLBA. Henson is an adjunct professor of anthropology at Auburn University.* “The mayor wouldn’t appoint anyone that didn’t have his interests in mind anyways…so I really don’t see it as an issue.”
However, Henson does take issue with what he calls “the mayor and his allies putting out information that comes across as deceptive.” He said that even before any policies have been written, “both sides” — the mayor’s office and the Birmingham Business Alliance — have already begun to push their policies on the board.
“That is going to be determined once the [BLBA] meet and write policies in a democratic fashion,” Henson said.
Representatives with Tyson’s office said that the date for the first meeting has not been set, but is expected to take place sometime in the next several weeks.
“The first thing the board has to do is convene,” said Marshall Anderson, an architect who was one of Bell’s appointments to the board. “Before we can do anything, we have to be introduced to one another, then we can start to go over and understand the challenges that we are facing. Then we need to establish a framework and structure for how we address those issues,” Anderson said when asked what the first step is for the BLBA.
Those challenges may seem rather daunting as some pockets of Birmingham suffer severely from neglected properties and dilapidated homes. By the city’s estimate, there are about 6,000 tax delinquent properties that are eligible for repurposing.
Anderson, however, remains optimistic about the immediate impact the BLBA can have on distressed neighborhoods. “I’m just feel like I have a responsibility to contribute,” he said. “Small improvements to these communities can have a huge impact.”
*Correction (10:47 a.m., 8/28/14): Copy updated to reflect Dr. Henson’s current job status.