Homeboy

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

At the time, the Local Initiative Support Corporation, an organization formed by the Ford Foundation to support CDCs with project development, was working with several community-based groups, but had little progress to report. The foundation was threatening to pull the support group out of Houston, and one of the neighborhoods that would lose its help was the Fifth Ward.

With no mechanism available to provide for community housing efforts, Harvey Clemons arranged a meeting with Fairfield, who was still working for the city, and former Habitat for Humanity director Carl Umland. Fairfield explained that the Ford Foundation and the United Way had come up with a pilot program to fund CDCs in five cities. If they put together a proposal that sold Houston's commitment to community-based housing, three inner-city groups would get $150,000 in operating grants over three years.

The proposal was assembled with the help of two other organizations, and in the spring of 1990, the Fifth Ward CRC, the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans (AAMA), and The Metropolitan Organization (TMO), a coalition of community and church-based groups, were chosen to take part in the pilot program.

But the complexities of urban renewal were apparent immediately. It took two years following the first $50,000 grant for the Fifth Ward CRC to complete its first batch of homes. It might have taken longer if not for the $20,000-per-home federal mortgage subsidy for buyers, which the city agreed to allocate as part of accepting the privately funded pilot project.

Unlike the other two community-based groups in the project, the Fifth Ward CRC had an executive director who also happened to be a homebuilder. Under Fairfield's technical guidance, the CRC acted as construction manager and bid out the work to local contractors. The developer's fees and profits, as well as marketing and overhead costs, were not passed on to the buyer, shaving the selling price of a new home by several thousand dollars. Moreover, the homes are presold to buyers who qualify for mortgage-assistance grants, which are used to fund the down payment and closing cost.

Because of the Fifth Ward CRC's success with the pilot program, the corporation has since been able to develop relationships with a handful of banks. It is now operating pretty much like any other business, according to Fairfield. "Ninety percent of what we do now is debt-driven, private funding," he says.

But the typical experience of a new CDC more closely resembles that of the other two participants in the pilot program. Recently, TMO disassembled its CDC, having never built a house. And only lately has AAMA begun work on its first initiative, an 84-unit apartment complex in Magnolia, the first new housing construction in the east-side neighborhood in 30 years.

It's been a similar story for other CDCs, which, lacking the resources and experience to build their own houses, have had to use private, for-profit companies. That adds as much as $10,000 to the cost of a home, which in many cases is enough to disqualify would-be buyers who can't cover the down payment and closing costs.

The Fifth Ward's newest housing model illustrates the distinct advantage offered by nonprofits who build their own homes. According to Fairfield, the new three-bedroom cottage homes cost about $27,000 each to build. They sell for about $36,000, including tax and insurance. Depending on the down payment, the monthly mortgage could be as low as $230 a month, affordable enough for minimum-wage earners. The CRC expects the cottage homes to be a popular alternative to the other 12 models, which sell for about $50,000 to $85,000.

Despite the promise shown by the Fifth Ward CRC and the growing popularity and success of the nonprofit concept elsewhere, Fairfield notes that there is a "schizophrenia" in Houston, a city that fervently believes that the market will provide for every need. But so far, the market has not found a way to perpetuate the building of affordable housing. Only the CDC's have done that.

"Folks want to own the soil beneath their feet," Fairfield explains. "It's what they dream about. But it's not only about ownership, but self-control. Families that live in a single-family home have a lot better chance of surviving."

The congregation of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church was in an especially appreciative spirit, and Harvey Clemons was leading the thanks.mmmmmmmmm "What are we going to be?" Clemons asked about midway through his sermon, chosen one recent week from a continuing series he calls "The True Church, or a Community of Good?"

"If you want to talk about how many buildings we've built, how many houses, how much money we have in the bank, you want to be a community of good."

Seated to the congregation's left, behind Clemons, was Steve Fairfield, his hands folded in his lap. It was an interesting juxtaposition: Clemons, in an exquisitely tailored chocolate-brown double-breasted suit, reinforcing the power of the everlasting glory, while Fairfield, in too-large dark slacks and a tan blazer, soaked up the light like a true servant. Aside from three visiting worshippers, his was the only white face in the building.

"I want to be the True Church," Clemons threw down. "Because every house we build and every business we start cannot supersede the power of the True Church .... It's better to be hungry and go to Heaven, than to be full and headed straight to Hell."

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