By Melanie Lasoff Levs
One of the pillars of the Purpose Built Communities model for revitalization is mixed-income housing. In most cases, that means new rental housing, but some Purpose Built Communities have found ways to help homeowners in their neighborhoods as well. Over the past two years, the Woodlawn Foundation in Birmingham has run a Homeowner Rehabilitation Program with $500,000 grant from the State of Alabama Attorney General’s Office as part of the National Mortgage Settlement. That funding leveraged an additional $105,000 in contributions from other local foundations, as well as in-kind contributions from The Home Depot. To date, the Woodlawn Foundation has completed repairs to 37 homes at no cost to neighborhood homeowners, as well as hosting workshops on home maintenance and financing.
Finding these homeowners, many of whom had been living in Woodlawn for decades, was an intricate process, says Kelleigh Gamble, Housing Coordinator of Woodlawn Foundation. In 2013, when the two-year grant was awarded, the neighborhood occupancy rate was 50 percent, and about 70 percent of residents rented, he says. Gamble and a seven-person advisory committee of representatives from banks, private sector organizations and corporations searched public records and even knocked on doors to tell homeowners about the program, he adds. Of the 37 renovations Gamble has supervised personally, 35 of the homeowners have been in the neighborhood for more than 10 years.
Juanita and Henry Bargaye bought their three-bedroom, two-bath, 4,000-square foot house in the North Woodlawn section of Birmingham in 2012 knowing it needed work.
“It was nasty from top to bottom,” Juanita says of the house, built in the early 1900s. The walls and floors were crumbling, trash was strewn about, and the roof had holes in it. “People were definitely camping out in here,” she adds.
However, she says, the location — with the airport and interstate a few miles away, and new commercial entities opening — was promising. She later heard from a neighbor that the Woodlawn area was being revitalized, so, Juanita says, the couple determined the house was a good investment.
Scraping by with Henry’s salary ordering supplies for a hospital and Juanita’s as a part-time school custodian, the Bargayes gutted and gradually rebuilt the inside. “But every time we did something [to the house],” Juanita recalls, such as laying copper wiring or adding insulation, “someone would break in and steal something, and we’d have to start over.”
Eventually, they and their eight-year-old granddaughter, whom they are raising, had to move into the upstairs bedrooms to finish the years-long process, Juanita explains. The rotted, broken roof was the last holdout, she says. “I didn’t have the money for the roof at all,” she says. When it rained, “I had buckets in the attic to catch the water.”
Like the Bargayes’ home, many of Woodlawn’s houses were in disrepair, including structural decay, peeling paint, insect or rodent infestations, and broken plumbing and electricity. These low-income families had no way to resolve the problems until they applied for and were assisted by the Foundation, says Gamble. “Anyone can go out and paint somebody’s house,” he says, “but at the end of the day, if they have 12, 13 extension cords plugged in throughout the house for basic electricity…at some point, you have to [make repairs] to address quality of life issues.”
Forty-four homes will ultimately benefit from repairs such as new plumbing and sewers, window caulking, new roofs and insulation, and even low-flow toilet installation, says Gamble. “The conditions of the houses were pretty tough,” he adds. “To be able to come in and give them a hand with some of the work — it’s a feel-good story.”
This past spring, contractors took two weeks to build the Bargayes a new roof. Juanita says she and her husband, who were required to attend at least two of the monthly home maintenance and counseling workshops, have gone more frequently. She agrees the homeowner assistance program is a life-saver for residents on low incomes. “They stepped in at the right time to help me out and give me the means to complete some of things I desired,” she adds. Now, she says, she often advises young couples looking to move to the revitalizing Woodlawn about the benefits of the neighborhood. “I am so thankful.”