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This is an excerpt from “Mayor’s Desk: 20 Conversations with Local Leaders Solving Global Problems.” It is published here with permission from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
As the world confronted unprecedented challenges over the last several years, from the accelerating climate crisis to the all-consuming COVID pandemic, I had the opportunity to interview 20 mayors from around the globe. The conversations — newly collected in a recently published book, Mayor’s Desk — reveal different approaches to making cities more sustainable, equitable, and well-functioning. But what struck me most was that these innovative leaders, using ingenuity and grit to instigate and nurture change, are part of a cohort of earnest problem-solvers, whether at the helm of postindustrial cities struggling to attract new residents or rapidly growing tech hubs.
This new generation of leaders includes Randall Woodfin, who was the youngest mayor to take office in Birmingham, Alabama, in more than a century when he was elected in 2017 at age 36. Reelected in 2021, Woodfin has made revitalization of the city’s 99 neighborhoods his top priority, along with fostering a climate of economic opportunity and leveraging public-private partnerships.
In a city battered by population and manufacturing losses, Woodfin has directed COVID relief funding to critical needs like affordable housing, infrastructure, and blight removal, while securing additional federal funds to support the revitalization of three neighborhoods on the city’s west side. In this 2022 conversation, which is also available as a Land Matters podcast, Woodfin shared his insights on neighborhood revitalization, community investment, climate change, and universal income.
Anthony Flint: How do you think your vision for urban revitalization played into the large number of first-time voters who’ve turned out for you?
Randall Woodfin: My vision for urban revitalization — which, on the ground, I call neighborhood revitalization — played a significant role in not just the usual voters coming out to the polls to support me, but new voters as well. I think they chose me because I listen to them more than I talk. Many residents have felt, “Listen, I’ve had these problems next to my home, to the right or to the left of me, for years, and they’ve been ignored. My calls have gone unanswered. Services have not been rendered. I want a change.” I made neighborhood revitalization a priority because that’s the priority of the citizens I wanted to serve.
Flint: With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan Act bringing unparalleled amounts of funding to state and local governments, what are your plans to distribute that money efficiently and get the greatest leverage?
Woodfin: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really supercharge infrastructure upgrades and investments we need to make in our city and community. This type of money probably hasn’t been on the ground since the New Deal. When you think about that, there’s an opportunity for the city of Birmingham’s citizens and communities to win.
We set up a unified command system to receive these funds. In one hand, in my left hand, the city of Birmingham is an entitlement city and we’ll receive direct funds. In my right hand, we have to be aggressive and go after competitive grants for shovel-ready projects.
With our Stimulus Command Center, we partner not only with our city council, but also with our transportation agency. We have an inland port, so we partner with Birmingham Port. We also partner with our airport and our water works department. All of these agencies are public agencies that happen to serve the same citizens I’m responsible for serving. For us, a collective approach to all these infrastructure resources is the best way. We have an opportunity with this funding not only to supercharge our economic identity but to make real investments in the infrastructure that our citizens use every day.
In July 2023, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, right, came to Birmingham to announce that the city would receive a $50 million neighborhood revitalization grant. Woodfin joined Fudge, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, and Dontrelle Young-Foster, president and CEO of Birmingham Housing Authority, for the event. (Photo Courtesy City of Birmingham)
Flint: What in your view are the key elements of neighborhood revitalization and community investment that truly pay off for legacy cities?
Woodfin: This is how I explain everything that happens from a neighborhood revitalization standpoint: I first share the problem through a story. The city of Birmingham is fortunate to be made up of 23 communities in 99 neighborhoods. Consider going to a particular neighborhood in a particular block. You have a mother in a single-family household where she is the responsible breadwinner and owner. She has a child or grandchild that stays with her. She walks out onto her front porch. She looks to her right, and there’s an abandoned, dilapidated house that’s been there for years that needs to be torn down. She looks to her left, and there’s an empty lot next to her. When she walks out to that sidewalk, she’s afraid for her child or her grandchild to play or ride a bicycle on that sidewalk because it’s not bikeable. That street, when she pulls out from the driveway, hasn’t been paved in years. The neighborhood park she wants to walk her child or grandchild down to hasn’t had upgraded, adequate playground equipment in some time. She’s ready to walk her child or grandchild home because it’s getting dark, but the streetlights don’t work. Then she’s ready to feed her child or grandchild, but they live in a food desert. These are the things we are attempting to solve.
One is blight removal, getting rid of that dilapidated structure to the right of her. We need to go vertical with more single-family homes that are affordable and market rate, so we don’t have “snaggletooth” neighborhoods where you remove blight, but then have a house, empty lot, house, empty lot, empty lot.
That child — we have to invest in that sidewalk so they can play safely or just take a walk. We have to pave more streets. We have to have adequate playground equipment. We have to partner with our power company to get more LED lights in that neighborhood, so people feel safe. We have to invest in healthy food options so our citizens can have a better quality of life. These are the things related to neighborhood revitalization that I frame and address to make sure people want to live in these places.
Flint: What are your top priorities in addressing climate change? How does Birmingham feel the impacts of global warming, and what can be done about it?
Woodfin: Climate change is real. We’re not near the coast and so we don’t feel the impact right away that other cities do, like Mobile would in the state of Alabama. However, when certain weather events happen on the coast in Alabama, they do have an impact on the city of Birmingham. We also have the issue of tornadoes, which are increasing over the years; they affect a city like Birmingham that sits in a bowl in the valley.
The 35th Avenue Superfund site, shown in 1972, encompasses three neighborhoods in North Birmingham heavily polluted by coal, asphalt, and steel plants. The Environmental Protection Agency has remediated 650 properties to date, removing 90,000 tons of contaminated soil. (Photo by LeRoy Woodson / EPA/National Archives)
From a national standpoint, Birmingham has joined other cities as it relates to the Paris Agreement, but this conversation on climate change can’t be held in the isolation of a city. Unfortunately, the city of Birmingham doesn’t have home rule, and having the conversations with our governor — about the importance of the state of Alabama actually championing this issue and joining calls of, “We need to make more noise and be more intentional and aggressive about climate change”— has been a struggle.
Flint: What about your efforts to create safe, affordable housing, including a land bank?
Woodfin: I look at it as a toolbox. Within this toolbox, you have various tools to address housing. At the height of Birmingham’s population, in the late 60s [and] early 70s, there were about 340,000 residents. Now we’re down to 206,000 residents within our city limits. You can imagine the cost and burden that’s had on our housing stock. And when you add to that the homes that pass from one generation to the next and are not necessarily being taken care of, we’ve had a considerable amount of blight.
Like other cities across the nation, Birmingham has a land bank. This land bank was created prior to my administration, but we’ve attempted to make it more efficient. We’re driving that efficiency not just by looking toward those who can buy land in bulk, but also by empowering the next-door neighbor, or the neighborhood, or the church that’s on the ground within that neighborhood, to be able to participate in purchasing the lot next door. This helps to make sure, again, that we can get rid of these snaggletooth blocks or snaggletooth neighborhoods and go vertical with single-family homes.
We’re also acknowledging that in urban cores, it’s hard to get private developers to the table. With some of our ARPA funds, we’ve been setting aside money to offset some of these developer costs to support not only affordable, but market-rate housing within our city limits. We want to make sure our citizens have a seat at the table, and that they feel empowered — that there’s a path for them if they want to have a home.
Flint: Finally, tell us a little bit about your belief in guaranteed income, which has been offered to single mothers in a pilot program. You’ve joined several other mayors in this effort. How does that reflect your approach to governing this midsize postindustrial city?
Woodfin: The city of Birmingham is fortunate to be a part of a pilot program that offers guaranteed income for single-mother families in our city. This income is $375 a month over a 12-month period — no strings attached, no requirements on how they can spend the money. (Editor’s note: Since this interview took place, Embrace Mothers, the guaranteed income program, has ended. Learn more about the pilot outcomes here and here.)
Every city in this nation has its own story, its own character, its own set of unique challenges. At the same time, we all share similar fates and have similar issues. The city of Birmingham has its fair share of poverty. We don’t just have poverty, we have concentrated poverty, and guaranteed income is another tool within that toolbox for reducing poverty. Over 60% of Birmingham’s households are led by single women. That is not something I’m bragging about. That is a fundamental fact. A lot of these single mothers struggle.
I think we all would agree, no one can live off $375 a month. If you had this $375 additional funding in your pocket or your homes, would that help your household? Does that help keep food on the table? Does it help keep your utilities paid? Does it help keep clothing on your children’s backs and shoes on their feet? Does it help you get from point A to B to keep your job to provide for your child?
This is why I believe this guaranteed income pilot program will be helpful. We only have 110 slots, so it’s not necessarily the largest amount of people, but I can tell you over 7,000 households applied. The need is there for us to do every single thing we can to provide more opportunities for our families to be able to take care of their families.
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