Once upon a time, Neighborhood Housing Services of Birmingham (NHSB) workers rang a bell every time they were able to prevent a client from losing his or her home. But the bell rang so often that this small office eventually had to do away with the bell system altogether.
Now the bell is just a symbol of the past for the NHSB, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building community in the Birmingham area and beyond — one resident at a time.
NHSB began in 1970 with the goal of providing affordable housing for middle to low income people, especially in or near the city. In the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the organization served mainly minority families who had difficulty getting access to housing. Now, NHSB serves a wide variety of people, from newlyweds to families to seniors who find that they can no longer afford mortgage payments once they transition to fixed incomes. They operate in 48 counties in Alabama and even have some cases in Mississippi — working with a staff of seven.
As Amber Courtney, program and office manager, puts it, “Our goal is to empower the community through financial stability. It’s easy to point fingers and say what people aren’t doing. But NHSB believes that if we can give people the tools to be successful, they will be.” To that end, this small staff of a president, a manager and five counselors diligently serves 1,400-1,500 clients per year in several types of community development.
For one, they offer foreclosure mitigation. Courtney says, “We want to keep people in their homes so we try to obtain mortgage modifications.” The group employs several strategies, such as settling with banks for a lower debt amount or offering deed in lieu or cash for keys programs. NHSB has a whopping 85 percent success rate at keeping people in their homes.
This process can take weeks, months, sometimes even years to accomplish. So when their efforts come to fruition, both client and counselor are thrilled. Courtney says she enjoys great gratification when she gets thank you notes from so many satisfied clients. “Other jobs you go in, do your work, and you come home. But the people [at NHSB] really stay with you. It’s like family so it doesn’t feel like work,” she says.
Another service NHSB offers is first time home-buyer education and preparation. Being trained by the county and national organizations such as Neighborhood Works, NHSB counselors teach the community about home inspections, lenders, realtors, the closing process and obtaining homeowner insurance — essentially, the basics of buying a home. They also offer credit counseling, which provides trainees with a certificate to show lenders and improve their chances of getting a loan. Counselors will work with clients to improve their credit and prepare them for the financial responsibility of home ownership, discussing budgeting and building savings.
Support doesn’t stop once clients are in their homes. NHSB also offers post-purchase education, including topics on home maintenance and energy efficiency. Financial and personal independence are part of their plan to help people succeed at home ownership.
One client, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, says, “I was just going to get a one bedroom apartment, and I talked to a lady [who] said, ‘Jimmy, the type of money you’re talking about putting down, you can probably get a house.’ … Jaclyn Olsen [at NHSB] got me a credit report. My credit score was pretty low, but I didn’t know it at the time. She helped me clear up my credit. By the grace of God, I’m in a brand new house.”
Another client who was able to avoid foreclosure by modifying her mortgage says, “I was paying 11-1/2 percent interest when I came and talked with Mr. Battle [of NHSB]. … After talking with him, I knew that things [were] going to work out all right. … Neighborhood Housing Services is one of the better things that you can ever get into because it helps people. Things that you think that you can’t get done, they’ll do it for you. And it’s just a blessing to have met all of the employees and the president.”
These and other NHSB client testimonies are available on Youtube.
NHSB also has programs for those who are unable or unready to purchase homes. The organization has partnered with banks and other organizations and individuals who have donated properties to them. For example, a bank that forecloses on an apartment building may donate the property to NHSB, which will rehab it and either rent the units or sell them at a low price. All their properties are in safe, upcoming neighborhoods, and NHSB even develops the land around their locations, landscaping and planting fruit trees to sustain as well as beautify.
On June 14, NHSB staff and volunteers (including this writer) landscaped an NHSB rental property and planted trees in the empty lot next door. Courtney reports that projects like this one take place throughout developing neighborhoods, whether NHSB owns the property or not. They believe in giving back to the community, making neighborhoods better places to live. Courtney says, “I like to see the transition of neighborhoods and the city itself, because as more neighborhoods develop, the city will be revitalized, too.”
Many organizations partner with NHSB in revitalization projects, including banks like Regions and Wells Fargo. Their efforts are paying off as more and more neighborhoods transition throughout the city. Courtney points to what she calls “impact areas, with organic growth, that will transition in the next couple of years,” such as Woodlawn, Avondale and West End.
NHSB staff receive guidance on these outreach efforts from their governing board. The dozen or so board members represent a variety of viewpoints, including city officials, bankers and residents of neighborhoods throughout the area. These partnerships enhance the effectiveness of the organization, as well as its funding.
The City of Birmingham funds NHSB, as do corporate and private donors and even other nonprofit organizations and foundations. The largest sponsor is Neighborhood Works, an organization that receives federal funding.
NHSB also holds an annual fundraiser called Art in Place of Blight. The event starts at Avondale Park, where NHSB provides large canvases and painting supplies. Some people paint on their own; others have “paint-offs,” such as the rivalry competition between the police and fire departments. Mayor William Bell judges everyone’s art and awards prizes, and then, as the capstone of the day, NHSB gets to the point of the event. The organization posts the artwork on buildings that are overrun with graffiti, in an effort to beautify the structures and draw attention to their condition.
“It really works,” Courtney says, adding that building owners often take the hint and repaint the vandalized walls. Even indirectly, NHSB improves the community.
The Art in Place of Blight event will take place on Saturday September 29. To attend or to get more information on Neighborhood Housing Services of Birmingham, visit nhsbham.org, call (205) 328-4292 or contact Amber Courtney at email@example.com.