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Birmingham legal dept. cracks down on owners of blighted property

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City of Birmingham City Attorney Nicole King stands outside an apartment complex at 700 Graymont Avenue. Earlier this month, her office used the civil court to reach an agreement with the property owner to clean up the complex. (PHOTO BY DANIEL ROTH, CITY OF BIRMINGHAM)
birminghamal.gov

The City of Birmingham Attorney’s Office is using civil court to hold landowners accountable for getting rid of crime and blight associated with nuisance issues. Those who fail to comply could face up to a $50,000 fine.

Already the city’s efforts are already paying off. Earlier this month, Birmingham City Attorney Nicole King reached an agreement with landowners of an apartment complex in the Graymont neighborhood who have had numerous reports of seized drugs, seized weapons, gunshots and loitering. The landowners have agreed to pay a fine and clean up the property. This is just the first of many properties the city will target, according to King.

Alabama has a law known as the Drug Nuisance Abatement Act, which was passed in 1996 to fight community problems such as increased crime, safety and health code violations and failing property values related to illegal drug use, and the sale and the manufacturing of illegal drugs.

About 10 years ago, the city’s legal department took such cases to court under that law. However, the office didn’t have a task force.

This spring, King revamped the program and created the Office of the City Attorney’s Drug and Nuisance Abatement Team, also known as OCA-DNAT, which works through the courts to hold landowners accountable for keeping their properties clean and getting rid of crime and blight associated with nuisance issues.

The task force, which includes city, state and federal officials such as Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith, federal public defender Glennon Threat and criminal defense attorney Tommy Spina, works to provide accountability not just internally but also externally to keep the community engaged and aware of steps that citizens can take to assist OCA-DNAT in its efforts.

“Our legal cases are built by working closely with the Birmingham Police Department, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and the community,’’ King said of those assigned to OCA-DNAT.

In kicking off the initiative this spring, she asked the Birmingham Police Department to identify areas where landlords were not

Birmingham City Attorney Nicole King participates in call with the Drug Nuisance Task Force, an effort she is spearheading to fight crime and blight in the Magic City. (Photo by Daniel Roth, City of Birmingham)

taking care of properties, including apartments. She also sought community input. One of the addresses that kept rising to the top was an apartment complex located at 700 Graymont Avenue.

“There were several cases where law enforcement seized drugs and weapons at the complex. There were also numerous occasions of gunfire and reports of loitering on the premises,’’ King said. “This told me that the property was not being managed correctly.’’

A recent incident involved shots fired and several arrests. King said they did not want anyone to get killed and something else had to be done. So, on April 24, her office filed a motion for a temporary restraining order, among other matters, against the apartment complex owners.

A hearing had been set for May 8. But just before the case was to go to court, the landlords reached an agreement with King. The property owners were fined $5,000 and agreed to work with the city to improve and clean up the property. If the property owners fail to comply, they will be fined an additional $1,000 per violation of the agreement.

“These property owners now want to partner with the city to improve the community,’’ said King. “That is what the OCA-DNAT team is all about: holding one property owner accountable, one at a time.”

The agreement also states that the Graymont Avenue apartment complex owners must:

  • Evict the tenants who have been identified for criminal and drug activity
  • Erect a fence around the property
  • Post “No Loitering” and “No Trespassing”
  • Install surveillance cameras
  • Place a property manager on the premises and give the Office of the City Attorney the property owner’s contact info. Install lighting on the side of the apartment complex in the alleyways and parking lot
  • Keep the property clean

King got the idea for the task force and using the courts after listening to a local radio host interview Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin earlier this year about the mayor’s crime-fighting and neighborhood revitalization efforts.

While the city already has different programs to address crime and building stronger communities, King wondered what she could do to assist the mayor. By the end of the night of hearing Woodfin on the show, she had an idea: use the civil court in Jefferson County as a vehicle to help eliminate blight and drug nuisance properties in the community.

Woodfin applauded the actions of King and OCA-DNAT, saying the goal is to reach all 99 neighborhoods in Birmingham. “This is just another way we are working to put people first in fighting crime. I’m proud of what City Attorney King and her team have done, and I look forward to seeing even more develop from this forward-thinking approach.’’

To report a problem property, send an email to Problemproperty@birmingahmal.gov or call the task force during weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 205-254-2369. 

The Law Explained

Under Alabama’s Drug-Related Nuisance Abatement law, the City of Birmingham’s Office of the City Attorney can file abatement actions in court. These actions are based on information from law enforcement and residents. The cases are set for civil court in Jefferson County, where a judge hears testimony from police officers and residents about drug-related crimes at the problem property and how these conditions have hurt the neighborhood and its residents.

If the judge finds that the owner of the property has allowed or maintained a drug-related nuisance, the court can order the property owner to pay a civil penalty up to $1,000 a day for each day the nuisance exists, pay a fine to the city, which can range from $500 to $50,000, plus attorney fees. The court can also order that the property owners stop the nuisance activity, make certain repairs or improvements and may even order the contents or the property be sold. If a structure is beyond repair or improvement, the court may order demolition.

Updated at 1:40 p.m. on 5/19/2020 to correct cutline and clarify the department holding landowner’s accountable.