The Birmingham City Council appointed two new members to the Birmingham Land Bank Authority’s board of directors during Tuesday’s meeting, but not before councilors repeated their oft-stated beliefs that the organization should make greater strides toward autonomy from the city.
Jason Eppenger and Marshall Anderson were appointed to the board for terms expiring Oct. 2, 2021, and Aug. 19, 2022, respectively. Eppenger is the Alabama Market President for Citizens Trust Bank, and last month he was named a key influencer in the national financial sector by The Business Journals. He will replace Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who previously held the seat.
Anderson is an architect and partner at Design Initiative, LLC. He was first appointed to the Land Bank Authority’s board of directors in 2014 by then-Mayor William Bell; this will be his second term.
The council voted in August to appoint James “Rob” Burton IV and Bradley P. Green to the board.
The Birmingham Land Bank Authority was created in 2014 to acquire and sell abandoned, tax-delinquent properties, with the stated goal of reducing community blight and stabilizing neighborhoods. Those who purchase the properties are required to provide a plan for what they will do with the lot — and there are provisions in the deed to make sure they follow through on those plans.
Though the BLBA is ostensibly an independent public corporation, it receives its funding primarily from the City of Birmingham — including $600,000 approved by the council last month. Though Woodfin leaving the board is a step toward independence from the city, several councilors expressed dismay over the the authority’s lack of financial sustainability.
“They need to be separate from the city,” said District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt. “It’d take me probably two months to get it up and running and self-sustaining … . Let it go on its own instead of trying to control it. Let it do what it needs to do. … Otherwise, if it’s not, I’m going to enter a resolution that we dissolve it, because it’s not working.”
District 2 Councilor Hunter Williams questioned BLBA administrator Eric Fancher on what steps could be taken toward that autonomy. He was interrupted by Woodfin’s chief of staff, Cedric D. Sparks.
“I wouldn’t want to put Mr. Fancher on the spot,” Sparks said. “That’s a heavy lift.” The answer to Williams’ question, he said, would need to result from conversations between the BLBA and city officials.
Williams responded that Sparks’ answer was “disappointing.”
The BLBA recently raised its base purchase price — the lowest amount for which reclaimed lots can be purchased from the Land Bank — from $3,500 to $5,000. In a statement, the BLBA said the initial price “has meant that the BLBA would sell each parcel at a loss” — which could lead to up to a $420,000 deficit for the Land Bank.
Sewer liens, title insurance issues and the volume of applications received has been the largest obstacle for the BLBA, the statement said.
“Unfortunately, the BLBA had no choice, with its current funding, but to increase the purchase to eliminate the deficit in each transaction,” it continued. “The board of directors and staff of the BLBA are working to establish the land bank as a self-sustaining entity. … In order to reach this goal, we cannot continue to operate at a deficit.”
Some councilors, including Hoyt and District 1 Councilor Lashunda Scales, relayed complaints from citizens about the price hike.
“There are people … that are purchasing property for one amount, and then receiving letters from the city containing another amount,” Scales said. “I’m sure that all of us want the city to be in the best light … . We need to use some sort of investigative authority we have as a council to make sure these things are actually happening or not happening. We have a funded mandate. We actually as a city put money into this Land Bank Authority and we want it to be effective.”
“It seems as though we’re three years into this, and we’re at the same impasse we were three years ago,” she said.