Improving Quality of Life with Data: Blight Elimination in Birmingham

BY BETSY GARDNER • APRIL 19, 2022

What quality of a community do residents deserve? In Birmingham, AL, Mayor Randall L. Woodfin knows that all neighborhoods deserve the very best quality of life and services — and that it’s important to confront bias and look to the data to ensure this quality of life isn’t inequitable. 

One of the key ways that Mayor Woodfin is improving quality of life is by asking residents what they think needs attention and how the city can best support them, something that residents immediately responded to. “Birmingham residents identified blight as a major concern. Blight had become persistent in a number of neighborhoods,” said Ed Fields, senior advisor and chief strategist for the city. The city has 23 communities and 99 neighborhoods and, in part because of foreclosures stemming from the 2008 housing crisis and the Great Recession, vacant and blighted houses plagued the city. 

A life-long Birmingham resident, Mayor Woodfin had first-hand experience seeing blight increase in the city. Upon taking office in 2017, he developed a Strategic Plan that prioritized neighborhood revitalization, and therefore blight removal, as a cornerstone. In 2018, Mayor Woodfin also joined the second cohort of mayors in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative (BHCLI), which emphasizes the importance of data and evidence in decision making. Combining his lived experience with the lessons from BHCLI, Mayor Woodfin was not only able to introduce more data-driven elements into city government but was also primed to spot local government employees who were already implementing data-oriented solutions at the city level. 

With this influence, existing home-grown talent, and the “inclusive, progressive, and data-oriented” experience at BHCLI, Birmingham kicked their city hall data culture into high gear. When city leaders wanted to ensure they achieved their ambitious, first-term blight elimination targets and addressed the concerns raised by residents about blighted buildings, they turned to data to understand where the issues were, how to best direct funding, and to make sure that no area of the city was inequitably treated. Their goal: address the backlog of over 1,000 blighted teardowns that were slated in the queue but had yet to be addressed and removed from neighborhoods — and accomplish this all through an equity lens. 

City departments combined both quantitative data about land use, parcels, and structural conditions, and qualitative information like directly evaluating neighborhoods conditions and talking with residents on the ground. The Department of Planning, Engineering and Permits was a major contributor to what became the Smart Demolition strategy, which took all these data points and created a scoring matrix for prioritizing blight removal. As shown below, the scoring considered everything from land bank eligibility to flooding risk to public safety to find the condemnation value, which ranked the demolition priority of those 1,000-plus properties in the teardown queue. 

Additional data and mapping is available here.

According to Mayor Woodfin, “data is a massive driver for everything we’re doing in the city of Birmingham.” There are two important reasons for prioritizing data-driven decision making. One is that data helps direct limited resources in the most effective way possible; the City Council allocates funding for Smart Demolition blight removal work each year (roughly $3 million), and these dollars stretch further and are more impactful since all spending is informed by data. 

Secondly, the data ensures equity in blight remediation. Inequitable service delivery is, unfortunately, not uncommon and most negatively impacts lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. In Baltimore, another city that struggles with vacant and blighted homes, a review of 311 data led to improvements in service delivery after city leaders uncovered inequitable service responses. In Birmingham, the majority-Black neighborhood of North Titusville has been prioritized based on housing data and long-term concerns about blight, a decision that has deepened community trust, strengthened the neighborhood-city relationship, and demonstrated the city’s commitment to racial equity. And thanks to the data maps, the Smart Demolition work prioritizes critical areas like routes to schools and crime hot spots.

Mayor Woodfin’s data-driven blight remediation work has had very tangible results in the past few years. Not only has the city demolished 1,300 dilapidated houses but the cascading effects from neighborhood revitalization has led to a “renewed focus on new infill housing for the neighborhoods” according to Fields, who also noted that the local neighborhood partners “have seen a number of infrastructure improvements happening throughout the neighborhoods.” Agreed Mayor Woodfin, “we’re starting to accomplish real change within some of our hardest hit neighborhoods.”

And finally, the data-driven improvement work doesn’t end when the blight is eliminated. “We also want to be innovative in the future as the need for demolitions is reduced,” said Fields, “we can look at expanded funding for programs and developments to bring additional affordable housing to Birmingham.” One of the ways that the city is looking toward neighborhood revitalization is through the UAB Grand Challenge, which is a public-private partnership between the University of Alabama Birmingham, the city of Birmingham, and corporate partners with strong commitment and support from UAB president Ray L. Watts.  Focusing on the intersection of public health and the built environment, the group is building out and repairing other neighborhood infrastructure like sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and street lighting. 

“We never take our eye off the ball,” said Fields, and that dedication is clear to residents and non-residents alike — thanks in large part to Birmingham’s revitalization work, it was named one of the top 22 places in the world to visit in 2022 by Conde Nast Traveler. But perhaps most importantly for Mayor Woodfin and his team, they are seeing that there is clear skill and talent growth in the local government workforce, and residents are enjoying a safer and healthier Birmingham.

Topics

About the Author

Betsy Gardner

Betsy Gardner is the editor of Data-Smart City Solutions and the producer of the Data-Smart City Pod. Prior to joining the Ash Center, Betsy worked in a variety of roles in higher education, focusing on deconstructing racial and gender inequality through research, writing, and facilitation. She also researched government spending and transparency at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Betsy holds a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern University, a bachelor’s degree in Art History from Boston University, and a graduate certificate in Digital Storytelling from the Harvard Extension School.