How an abandoned structure gets demolished in Birmingham
By Cody Owens
“It appears to me that the mayor is a man of his word,” Councilor Steven Hoyt said, a few days after a derelict home in his district was demolished.
He cited Mayor Randall Woodfin’s promise to focus more attention on Birmingham neighborhoods that are struggling to combat blight. For Hoyt, he believes this is what the community is worried about: when there are structures that have sat abandoned for years, not only does it affect property values, but it also raises the level of crime in the community.
“What I’ve personally ran into with my own eyes was a lot of what you see behind me: dilapidated homes that are beyond repair,” Mayor Randall Woodfin said, gesturing to a home that was in the process of being demolished behind him, less than a block away from Rickwood Field.
It marked the first home demolition under the Woodfin administration.
After talking to the neighbors throughout various communities, he said they all want the same thing, and that’s “to feel safe on their front porch and front yard” and to feel like their property values were protected.
Even before the current administration took office, steps had been made to allow the city to combat blight and help repurpose abandoned homes throughout all of Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods.
On May 6, 2014, the city council passed a resolution that allowed the creation of the Birmingham Land Bank Authority, five years after Governor Robert Bentley had signed the state law which allowed for such entities. That 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.
By the first quarter of 2017, the BLBA had put over 400 properties back into use, translating to roughly $44,000 in annual tax revenue, according to city records. There are over 900 parcels that are in some stage of review.
“But not all properties are able to be saved and put back to use,” Hoyt explained. “Some of these homes are worth saving but if they’re beyond repair, then I think this is the only alternative we have. The second phase of demotion is to create an aggressive housing initiative where the goal is to repopulate an area, where we go back in and revitalize.”
The Condemnation and Demolition Process
Let’s say there’s an abandoned home across the street; the windows have all been broken, the roof is caved in and the beauty of the home has long been forgotten. How can someone begin the process of having that home condemned and demolished so the neighborhood can take proper steps toward revitalization?
For a property to be eligible for condemnation and demolition it must be declared a nuisance by the city and in order for this process to begin, the structure must be vacant. Dilapidated homes that are occupied are dealt with through the Housing Authority Birmingham District.
You’ve grown concerned with the hazard posed by the derelict home across the street. It’s unsecured and people come and go as they please. To begin the process of demolition, you must first call 311 to report the property so the city can send out an inspector who will then conduct a field survey.
An inspector will go into the house and to determine if the structure meets the requirements to be “tagged” by the city. If a structure poses a threat to public health — for instance if it has obvious structural damage, is unsecured (thus posing a fire hazard), the roof is collapsed and the façade has crumbled — it will be slated for demolition. Also, if over 70 percent of the structure has sustained fire damage it will be eligible for demolition.
According to Andre Bittas, director of the Planning, Engineering, and Permits Department, there are, on average, about 200 properties that are added to the city’s demolition list every year. On any given week, there are over 700 structures that are going through the condemnation process and around 350 that are ready for demolition.
That run-down home across the street gets tagged. The inspector then logs the property into the system, accompanied by a write-up and photos detailing the condition (i.e. age, number of stories, foundation, type of framing, structural issues etc.).
Because these homes are located on private property, having the city come in and just take a wrecking ball to the home would be a major violation of the owners’ rights. “We can’t just go in and tear it down without going through the legal process,” Bittas said. “The first thing we have to do is conduct a title search to find and contact whoever has the title to it, has a lien on it. It could be banks or mortgage companies. We do that title search with an outside firm. After we get that back we’ll know who owns the property. It could be one, 10, 100 different people.”
Typically the title search takes a few days once the city submits a new “batch” of properties, usually 15 or 20. Once it’s made clear who the owner (or owners) are, the city will then send what Bittas calls a “30-day letter” that notifies them that their home has been tagged a nuisance property and if they do not take corrective action within 30 days, the city will proceed with formal condemnation.
While Bittas didn’t want to put a number on it, he says owners do sometimes take action to repair a home once they receive a notice. “Sometimes they say they just inherited it, or they’re trying to get some money to fix it,” Bittas said. “They have the right to apply for a condemnation repair permit that will allow them to make repairs.”
Within this time frame, typically the structure must see at least a 50 percent improvement, but the Planning and Engineering Department will grant 30-day extensions if an earnest effort if being put forth. A repair permit can be voided if no significant improvements are being made.
If there is no response to the “30-day letter” the home is then placed on the City Council agenda, which can be found almost weekly, labelled as consent items — a mechanism used to streamline routine city business such as demolitions, vehicle towing and weed abatement.
“We had about 10 or 15 of them today,” Bittas said on Tuesday, after a recent Birmingham City Council Meeting. “What we do is send out ‘15-day letters’ saying the council has formally condemned the property and you have 15 days to get your belongings out.”
The city does not automatically own the property once a home is demolished. A demolition lien is placed on the property based on the value of work that was performed in order to bring the structure down; typically, Bittas said, demolition costs between $4,000 and $7,000, depending on whether or not there is asbestos, the size of the home and other variables.
“A lot of the time, nothing happens with the property. People don’t sell them, they don’t try and come in for a building permit or things like that — very few do,” Bittas explained. The city then files the lien with the circuit court so if there is a transfer of the property, the city can recoup the expenses for demolition.
If the property has been tax delinquent for five years or more, and it’s otherwise eligible, it will be sent to the Birmingham Land Bank Authority.
Keeping up with the number of homes that are in need of demolition can be a big job. So in order to meet the demand, the city keeps four contractors on retainer who operate in geographic quadrants (Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, Southwest). Those contracts are bided out each year. Bittas said, “We do it in quadrants because we don’t want one contractor to get the bid for the whole city and they can’t keep up.”
Watch the video below to see the full conversation with Planning, Engineering and Permits Director Andre Bittas: