Homeboy

Stephen Fairfield's restless spiritual journey brought him to the Fifth Ward, where he found true deliverance while helping to rebuild the neighborhoods

"We don't want them to feel like this is some artifice of the real thing, set up just for people in their circumstances," Fairfield explains. "We want people to have the same dignity as someone buying a house in The Woodlands."

Urban redevelopment projects invariably salute the promise of a renewed "dignity," along with a handful of other concepts that color the purchase of property in worshipful terms. But in a CDC's line of work, dignity is a two-way street. Providing it to communities with so little left is its own reward.

No one epitomizes that bargain better than Steve Fairfield. The only son of prominent suburban developer Al Fairfield, Steve has been around the homebuilding business since he could walk. Like his dad, Steve could be profiting nicely from what now pays him a living wage and little more. Like his father has before him, Steve could be developing large tracts of land in The Woodlands and other upper-middle class suburbs. Or, as his father does today, Steve could be building half-million-dollar, custom-built homes around Lake Conroe, where construction costs are lower, cash flows higher and there exists a supply of qualified homebuyers hankering for a mortgage.

Inner-city development, on the other hand, is a slow, frustrating experience that offers a private builder few rewards. The lots are small and routinely need several thousand dollars worth of refinements before construction can begin. Wretched-looking buildings occupy blocks of land that are tied up in foreclosure or were simply abandoned by the owners. A large majority of inner-city residents are elderly, and many of those who could get out have already gone.

All of this is particularly true in the Fifth Ward, where the median income of the roughly 20,000 residents who remain is about $12,000 a year. And as Clemons noted upon forming the Fifth Ward CRC in 1990, the ward's streets hadn't "seen any new wood in more than 50 years."

A modest goal for the Fifth Ward would have been merely to halt the stagnation. And, in fact, 50 homes in six years is a relatively modest output. But success is not always measured by the tangible result. The houses built by Fairfield and the CRC represent much more than shelter; they are the foundation for the Fifth Ward's future. Close to 140 families have applied for mortgage assistance from the CRC, in the hope that, sometime soon, houses will be built for them. More significantly, many Fifth Ward natives, who share a powerful emotional attachment to their community but can't bring themselves to return, are now making lifetime investments.

Patrick McDaniel grew up in the Fifth Ward, and many of his relatives are still there. But when the 31-year-old McDaniel wanted to buy a house for his fiancee and young son, he started looking in places like Sugar Land and even Hempstead. Visiting his mother one day, he noticed some new construction had begun near the Hester House, an important center of community activity in the Fifth Ward. When he checked into it, he found out that a local community development corporation was building new homes in Fifth Ward that would sell for less than a ten-year-old house in the suburbs.

McDaniel, who works for the city of Houston, says affordability was an incentive, but he "fell in love" with the idea of living in the Fifth Ward again when he realized that homes like his -- a 1,500-square-foot, two-story model with three bedrooms and a long front porch -- were popping up all over.

"I'm pretty sure a lot of people are going to want to come back," McDaniel says. "If they take the time to drive through here and see the progress, they'll come back. I'm glad to come back. I got roots here."

Ava doesn't have her roots in the Fifth Ward, but she has been planning for the day when she can plant and nurture new ones for her children. Ava's kids don't know why their mother is working so much overtime, other than that she has promised to get them out of the place they are living.

In a few months, Ava will load her kids into the car and drive to the Fifth Ward. She won't tell them that she has bought a brand-new four-bedroom home until they arrive at the corner of Evella and Wipprecht, where the two-story house is rising.

"I'll have everything moved, all new furniture," she says quietly. "I'll blindfold 'em and drive up .... There won't be anything old in there, except our bodies."

Steve Fairfield's first visit to the Fifth Ward was in 1988, when he joined a Habitat for Humanity project building ranch homes on a nice-sized piece of donated land off Waco Street. Fairfield had only recently left his father's business, and had agreed to plat and subdivide the land for Habitat.

With construction under way, Fairfield took a job with the city's housing and community development department. The official title eludes him, but basically Fairfield was a "lone ranger, throwing things together." Among his responsibilities was an emergency housing-repair program. He also explored the potential for private-public partnerships, even though the city of Houston had just returned several million in federal community development dollars it had failed to spend.

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