(Note: The topic of housing can be a very touchy one. I strongly favor diverse neighborhoods with people of all kinds living, working, and playing together. Any policy or planning should treat equal opportunity as paramount.)
My family and I have lived in Hoover’s Loch Ridge community for over 15 years. I drive through these neighborhoods daily, but I’ve lived in the area since I was 10 years old so these places are very familiar to me. Ours is an older community in Hoover just off of Rocky Ridge, so the need to maintain our older neighborhoods is near and dear.
There are two large areas to address when it comes to the future of these older neighborhoods.
First, we have to address the situations where people allow their houses to fall into disrepair. Sometimes these require aggressive action by the city to ensure standards of safety and habitability are maintained. In other cases there may be people who have, through no fault of their own, lost the ability to maintain their home.
In the first case, many people I’ve spoken with have indicated that our ordinances are inadequate for addressing situations of simple neglect. It is difficult and in some cases impossible for the city to take action without significant citizen involvement. It would be pretty straightforward to revamp these ordinances and policies and that’s something we should do immediately.
In the second case, we should help people who want to maintain their homes but have a legitimate reason for being unable to do so. Many cities have implemented charitable programs, partnerships and foundations to assist those (particularly elderly) who are unable to address some of the issues. Cities such as Dallas, New Orleans, have volunteer and funding programs to help people maintain their homes. Of course those are big cities, but we’re not a small city. We should have a big vision when it comes to helping people.
(I’m particularly fond of the idea of helping Hoover’s seniors maintain their homes. They built this community and we should help them take pride in it.)
The second big task is addressing the natural lifecycle of a neighborhood. Neighborhoods last much longer than the families who live there. And as those chapters come to an end, we must ensure new chapters are waiting to be written. When people move out and there is little demand for the house, it has a severe effect on our older neighborhoods. Unfortunately, those of us who live there have occasionally seen this first hand.
So the most important question in the life cycle of a neighborhood is “who will want to live here next?”.
The answer to this question is problematic when there are thousands of homes being built to more contemporary standards, in areas with more capital investment, and with newer stores and necessities nearby. How do we keep our older neighborhoods attractive?
A key strategy for this is to maintain a stable, consistent, world class school system. Young families are an important “who’s next”, and we are in a very competitive environment. We have to start cooperating with our schools again. If additional capital or operational funding is required, we should step up. There are many stories of Alabama cities working together with their city school system. Ours should be the best story.
Many books have been written about what makes people want to live somewhere, but to me the easiest answer is to simply look at what developers do and follow suit. Developers are smart, and they know what it takes to make neighborhoods attractive. Things like:
- Walkable/bikeable communities
- Small Parks and gathering areas
- Access to organized activities such as sports and arts
- Specialized public attractions (Dog parks, swimming pools)
- Access to schools, grocery stores, and other day-to-day resources.
So what can be done in these areas?
Many of our older neighborhoods are walkable/bikeable by their very nature. Plus they have a nostalgic charm that make walking them fun. It’s something that newer neighborhoods can’t compete with.
But in some cases, great neighborhoods are ‘roped in’ by busy roads, rivers, creeks, and other barriers. You can feel trapped and isolated. A big improvement would be to create a plan to allow access between neighborhoods that dramatically reduces the risk of getting squished-like-grape by an SUV. Some of these particulars would be expensive and time consuming, but that’s why plans exist.
Some of our older neighborhoods are very close to schools. What if we could implement a plan to ensure that they have direct, walk-able, bike-able access to their local elementary school? That would be a huge factor for many prospective new owners, and there are Federal dollars set aside to make these kinds of things happen.
If you know where to find them, there are actually many small parks, gathering areas, and specialized activities in our older neighborhoods. The city has done a pretty good job of putting these in place and making them good. A walkable/bikeable neighborhood plan in these areas would greatly magnify the positive effect on all the neighborhoods.
Access to day-to-day retail is very important for both livability and property values. Studies show the kinds of stores you put in place matter and some may have negative impact. Specialty stores can have a very positive effect (some say it’s a symptom, others say it’s a cause.) As a retail powerhouse, Hoover does a really good job at attracting some of these stores, and that effort should continue.
Anecdotally, during the 2008 downturn, the Lorna and Rocky Ridge area went from having 4 nearby grocery stores to 1. There was a palpable disconnected feeling during this time. Hard economic times don’t leave many options, but maintaining access to day-to-day retail should be priority.
This post could go on-and-on..but I think the point is clear. When it comes to older neighborhoods, we need to:
- Make the process striaghtforward for the city to address problem houses when there is a legitimate requirement
- Establish programs and partnerships to help those in need maintain their homes
- Upgrade infrastructure and amenities to more closely match new neighborhoods
- Ensure there is an even distribution of parks, and larger entertainment venues
Most importantly, this effort should be part of a community driven plan— with specifications, budgeting, timetables, ordinances, and follow up. It’s not enough to just have some good ideas, vote on them and move on. This should be part of a community vision that is executed on a on-going basis for the long term.
We can do this, Hoover! Vote on August 23rd!