For Ivory Prince, the bullet hole in the hood of her 2007 Kia Rio is a reminder of the distance she has traveled in less than two years’ time. The bullet that caused it was fired in revelry, a New Year’s Eve custom in the Pratt City housing project where Prince and her young daughter lived at the time. There, as in other low-income neighborhoods throughout Birmingham and Jefferson County, scores of young men greet the new year by firing their pistols randomly into the air, utterly unmindful of the Newtonian dictum that what goes up must come down — and that what comes down is going to cause some damage somewhere.
“I hadn’t had the car for very long then,” Prince recalls. “I was so proud of it. When I went out the next day and saw that bullet hole, it made me think about where I was living, a place where gunfire was something we heard almost every day, and where I couldn’t walk to the store with my child without running into drug dealers who wanted to know if I wanted to buy something from them.
“Those are hard things to explain to a child. Seeing that bullet hole in my car made me want to work even harder to get myself and her into a better environment.”
As she speaks, Prince, 26, is seated on the sofa in the living room of her new house in Chalkville. After living in three different housing projects over the previous seven years — working two and three jobs while completing her college degree in early childhood education — she graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in May 2013 and, after qualifying for the Habitat for Humanity program, became a homeowner last December.
Next to Prince is 6-year-old Janiya, who is happy to answer questions about her new school, Chalkville Elementary. She readily volunteers that her favorite activities at school are “puzzles and coloring and playing outside,” and that her favorite subjects in the school year just ended were math, reading and learning her ABCs. Her mother says the new school, and the new environment in general, already make a difference in Janiya’s life.
“When we were in Pratt City,” Prince says, “her reading wasn’t that good. She started at Chalkville in January, and by the end of the year, her teacher told me that she was one of the best readers in the class. She has improved so much.”
Making a difference
Location, location, location. That’s the old saw of the real estate industry, highlighting the three most important factors in valuing a particular property and forecasting the success of most business and commercial enterprises. It’s also a decisive factor — some would say the decisive one — in the prevalence and perpetuation of poverty.
“Poverty is an extremely complex issue, and there are many ways to approach it, but housing is the key,” Jennifer Clarke says. Clarke is the chief housing officer for the YWCA of Central Alabama, which provides both transitional and permanent housing for low-income clients, including programs specifically targeting single working mothers, two-parent families and both single and married people who are experiencing homelessness.
“Housing is the thing that holds neighborhoods and families together,” Clarke says. “It affects education, health outcomes and just about every other aspect of life. Kids who don’t get enough sleep because of the surroundings they live in are at a disadvantage in school. Working people who are trying to achieve stability and independence are held back by living in substandard housing. If we want to make Birmingham the best city it can be, we have to do a better job as a community of addressing that.”
As evidence of the difference improved housing options can make, Clarke points to the ongoing revitalization of the Woodlawn area of Birmingham. The YWCA is heavily invested in that effort through its multi-million-dollar YWoodlawn program, which has replaced dilapidated apartments with affordable, income-based housing, including opportunities for home ownership.
YWoodlawn also provides for health, education and employment services. According to Clarke, this holistic approach is helping to maintain and enhance the stability of the community while contributing to its growth as a residential and business location.
“Mixed income is the model that works best, and that’s what we’re trying to build toward in Woodlawn,” Clarke says. “The poverty rate in Woodlawn has fallen from 43 percent to 25 percent, and we don’t think that there has been significant displacement of residents. We’ve kept people there who, while they’re still making very little money, are beginning to see more opportunities open up because of a stabilizing housing environment.”
YWoodlawn also has housing units that are fully accessible for individuals with disabilities, including sight and hearing impairment. That’s an important component, as the difficulties faced by low-income people are compounded when disability is part of the picture as well.
“People who have different disabilities have different needs,” says Josh Whitmire. “People [who] use wheelchairs have certain needs, people who are blind have certain needs; some people have service animals that need to accompany them, and so on. And sometimes landlords have to be educated on ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] guidelines. It can complicate things.”
Himself a wheelchair user due to the congenital developmental disorder spina biffida, Whitmire is a peer advocate with Disability Rights and Resources. The agency assists individuals with disabilities in locating affordable housing or modifying their current homes to better accommodate their needs, and provides training in skills needed for independent living. He says his experience has shown that both the quantity and quality of housing for people with disabilities — and affordable housing in general — remains a daunting proposition.
“I’ve lived in both income-based and fair market rate housing,” says Whitmire, who currently lives in a market-rate apartment in Trussville. “I can tell you firsthand the trouble people have in finding accessible housing. Most of our clients are on extremely limited incomes. Most have to use public transportation. So it’s not as easy as saying, ‘Here’s an apartment,’ and handing them the keys.
“As far as affordable housing in general, there is absolutely not enough of it. There are not enough options, and it needs to be spread out more, to different areas of the community. As it is, people get grouped into certain areas, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. It’s a serious issue and a real challenge.”
“…a bad situation”
Ivory Prince knows all about challenges. Born and raised in Birmingham, she graduated from Parker High School and enrolled at Alabama State University, in Montgomery. Less than a year later, she became pregnant with Janiya, and wondered if her dream of earning a college degree was gone.
For a time, Prince worked three jobs in Birmingham while commuting to Montgomery for Tuesday and Thursday classes at Alabama State. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she unloaded boxes at a local Family Dollar store. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, she worked at the Summit 16 theater complex on U.S. 280. And she worked a weekend temp job setting up and breaking tables for events at the Ross Bridge facilities in Hoover.
“I used to be so tired all the time,” she remembers, smiling ruefully. “And even though my mother was looking after Janiya, I felt like my daughter didn’t really know me. There were times I felt like quitting school, but my mom and my sister encouraged me to stick with it.”
Prince did stick with it, transferring to UAB. She had been fired from her job at Family Dollar when she had difficulty juggling the schedule — an occurrence she now calls “a blessing in disguise,” as soon afterward she received a promotion and a small raise at her job at the movie theater. Still, her housing situation was anything but stable. She lived in three different Birmingham housing projects, each with its own particular set of difficulties.
“I lived at Loveman Village, where there was no central heat and air,” Prince relates. “Then we moved to the Smithfield projects, which had air and heat, but there were roaches everywhere, no matter what I did to try to get rid of them. If you left a room and turned off the light, when you came back and turned it on again, there’d be roaches all over the place. I remember once sitting down and just crying because I was cooking our dinner, and there were roaches falling off the ceiling into the food.
“Another time at Smithfield,” Prince continues, “Janiya was in her room playing, and all of a sudden she just started screaming, ‘Fire! Fire!’ I ran back to her room, and someone had set the dumpster outside her window on fire. The fire department came pretty quickly, but that was just something else on top of all the everyday stuff in the projects.”
From Smithfield, Prince moved to an apartment complex in Pratt City. Though “much nicer” because they had been rebuilt after the April 2011 tornado that struck Jefferson County, there was still frequent gunfire, as well as drug activity and fights that often were visible as she and Janiya walked to their mailbox or sat outside their unit.
“It was just a bad situation,” Prince says flatly.
About two years ago, a friend told Prince about the Habitat for Humanity program. She became determined to qualify for home ownership through Habitat, a process that took her two years. And it’s not an easy process, points out Beth Bradner, vice president for marketing and development for Greater Birmingham Habitat for Humanity, which covers Jefferson, Shelby, Walker and St. Clair counties.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of need,” Bradner acknowledges. “There are lots of individuals and families who can’t make the transition to home ownership because they can’t make a down payment or qualify for a loan. Our ultimate goal is to help make that happen for as many people as possible, but for many people, we first have to help with things like repairing their credit and other things that stand in the way of qualifying them for a loan.”
Like Prince, the majority of applicants to Habitat are single women. Bradner says her office fields approximately 120 contacts per month, but only about 25 percent of those are invited to complete a full application; of that number, she estimates that “probably 60 percent” ultimately qualify for the program. Others are connected to services — primarily through Habitat’s partnership with the United Way of Central Alabama — that can provide them with immediate assistance, and they can reapply to Habitat at any time.
After being accepted into the program, Habitat applicants must account for 300 hours of “sweat equity” — either helping to build their own and/or other Habitat homes or working at the organization’s reduced-price home supply store in Irondale. Applicants can put in all 300 hours themselves, or enlist family, friends, co-workers or church members to do 150 hours. With that done, they are qualified fully for a home loan at zero percent interest.
“So many people, especially women, are stuck in environments where they just don’t feel safe,” Bradner says. “They are in substandard situations that they just can’t seem to get themselves out of. That’s why we’re here. We know that housing is just one component of addressing poverty, so we try to look at each situation comprehensively, and to help everyone we can.”
Investing in people
Another potential tool for addressing the Birmingham area’s tremendous need for affordable housing has been put in place recently, with the establishment of the Alabama Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). Currently, the State of Alabama puts nothing into affordable housing — an area of governmental neglect that, in combination with a shrinking pot of federal housing dollars, makes the need even more acute. Longtime proponents of the AHTF say that once a dedicated revenue source for the fund is established, it will provide a flexible funding source for a wide range of housing-related activities, including construction of new homes and rehabilitation of existing ones, as well as independent adaptive homes for people with disabilities and permanent supportive homes for people with severe challenges — and not a moment too soon.
“If we had a housing trust fund after the tornadoes in 2011, we could have done a lot on the ground immediately,” declares Ashley Kerr, project manager for the Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama. “It’s an innovative program, the most successful model out there for expanding opportunities for quality affordable housing. It will allow us to do things we haven’t been able to do before. Hard working Alabamians shouldn’t be having to choose between paying rent and putting food on the table, and this is a golden opportunity for the state to invest in its people in a meaningful way.”
Statewide, Alabama has a shortage of more than 90,000 affordable homes for low-income people, many of them in the Birmingham area. Having a funding mechanism in place at the state level will provide the opportunity for the city of Birmingham and other municipalities to establish their own housing trust funds to work in conjunction with the AHTF.
That’s according to Jim Fenstermaker. The longtime head of community development for the city of Birmingham, and now a senior consultant with Birmingham-based Kimberly Richard Consulting, Fenstermaker laments the fact that the strategic development of affordable housing options “just has not been a priority” with city government. At one time, he says, the city did do 500-600 home rehabs per year with federal Community Development Block Grant Funds, but today, with the shrinkage of those funds, the number is down to about 200. With no funds to replace those, no comprehensive strategy in place, and poverty in Birmingham on the rise, the approach has been scattershot at best.
“When you’re on a downward spiral, you’re always playing defense, rather than being able to think in terms of the big picture,” Fenstermaker says. “Dealing with problems in the present, you can’t focus on the next generation. That’s where we’ve been stuck, and we just haven’t been able to get out ahead of it. The Housing Trust Fund, matching HTF funds with federal dollars, will allow us to be more proactive and strategic — if we take the opportunity.”
A dream coming true
For Ivory Prince, standing in her backyard in Chalkville, the world now seems full of opportunity. Since earning her degree last year, she has been a K-4 teacher at the Montclair Early Learning Center. She plans to return to UAB in January to begin work on her master’s degree in education, and ultimately intends to fulfill her longtime dream of owning and operating her own daycare center.
Today, rather than seeing a dumpster outside her back window, Prince looks out on neighboring houses with neat green lawns and, beyond those, the rolling hills and ridges of northeast Jefferson County. Last New Year’s Eve, weeks after moving into their new home, she and Janiya heard no gunfire, but rather were treated to the sight of fireworks rising into the sky above those hills.
“I love my house, and I love this neighborhood,” Prince smiles. “I’m excited about the future and what I hope to accomplish for me and my daughter.”
But for all of the distance she has traveled and all of the promise she feels, Prince’s memories of the hardships she has endured and the obstacles she has overcome remain fresh — a source of pride, but a reminder of how thin the line can be between living and merely surviving.
“I have friends who are still in bad situations,” says Prince. “I tell them that their situation doesn’t have to be permanent. I know the day-to-day is hard, but I tell people never to give up. Most people live in the projects because they have to. But the project is no place to stay any longer than you have to. It’s no place to be for life. Learn how to pay bills; learn how to be on your own; do what you have to do to improve yourself and your situation. And then get out of there.”