City Cracks Down on Residential Code Violations

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A demolition crew tears down this Norwood home after years of neglect.  The city wants residents to repair homes and avoid years of neglect.
A demolition crew tears down this Norwood home after years of neglect. The city wants residents to repair homes and avoid years of neglect.

Sherrel Wheeler Stewart,WBHM Public Radio

Birmingham has a housing problem. Many of the homes – about 42 percent of them – are in need of major repairs, and others are awaiting demolition by the city. Now city officials are cracking down on building code violations.

The city has been issuing citations in recent weeks, warning some residents to fix up their homes or face fines. The city recently ran ads in a local weekly newspaper to make residents aware of the crackdown.

Inspectors can hit homeowners with fines for rickety stairs or peeling exterior paint. The same goes for inoperable cars parked in a yard. And if the grass is too tall, residents are required to mow it.

Nigel Roberts, director of the city’s community development department, says it’s all part of neighborhood revitalization. “How do we change the neighborhoods if we don’t hold people accountable?” he says.

But in Norwood, several residents at a recent neighborhood meeting were angry. They say the citations cause problems both for individual homeowners and people who buy homes hoping to rehabilitate and resell them. They also question why the city is focusing on their neighborhood, with some speculating that Norwood’s location at the edge of the central business district makes it attractive to developers.

Roberts says he is aware of the concerns. “People say, ‘we want our neighborhoods revitalized,’ but when we start enforcing the code, they say, ‘what are you doing?’”

The Question of Cost

Pam Johnson, who is disabled and on a fixed income, recently received two citations for her white, two-story home on Norwood Boulevard.

“They say I need a roof on my porch. But if I’ve got choice between a roof on my porch and keeping my lights on, what do you think I’m going to do?” Johnson says.

She’s applying for assistance through a city program that has set aside $1.1 million for home repairs in historic neighborhoods. Under the program, residents can apply for a forgivable loan of up to $35,000.

Roberts says more money may be available in the future. “We want to help people maintain their homes, especially the elderly and disabled who are having trouble,” Roberts says.

Norwood Neighborhood Association President Tom Creger and his partner own eight homes in Norwood, most in various stages of renovation. One of his houses on 32nd Avenue North received a citation from the city last month. The steps need replacing, it needs a paint job and the burglar bars are “non-compliant,” he says.

Creger and his partner bought the house for $50,000 a few years ago. The new roof and other repairs have boosted their investment to $90,000. It’s still not ready to sell.

“It will sit empty until we’re pretty sure we can at least break even on it,” Creger says. “Painting the house is not going make much of a difference.” But he says he’ll do it because he’s responsible for his property.

What Happens If I Don’t Maintain My Home

The city say those who fail to make repairs or at least make reasonable progress will be fined. If those fines go unpaid, residents could also wind up in court, Roberts says.

“We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that,” Roberts says. “The mayor has a goal of revitalizing all 99 neighborhoods, and this is part of it.”