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Sacrificial poor

"Sacrificial poor" Continued...

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

Fairfield went to work in the Fifth Ward as part of a Habitat for Humanity project. When Habitat moved on, he stayed, forming a Community Develop-ment Corporation and moving into the neighborhood, where he started CCCC and now lives with his wife and three daughters, ages 3, 6, and 8.

"The earth is not like the Titanic where our mission is simply to get everybody off. We are not building the kingdom of God on earth, but our work is an expression of the power of the gospel renewing creation in feeble way," he told me.

For Fairfield that means overcoming the same challenges to development in crime-ridden poverty pockets that exist elsewhere: buying land, bringing in utilities, and offering feasible mortgage instruments. It also means keeping his ID badge for City Hall handy at all times in the cupholder of his car. He values good relationships with local officials and has his own offices just a few doors away from the office of the Fifth Ward's congresswoman, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. To support IDA matching funds and other programs, he has investors from Wells Fargo and other major banks, from United Way, the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies, the city of Houston, and U.S. government grants. Fairfield believes that churches too could support the IDA matching fund.

Now in his third decade living in the Fifth Ward, one of four historic African-American sectors of Houston settled in 1865, Fairfield has seen the community gradually become more Hispanic, and more recently to become home to refugees from Congo, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Sam Houston built a home on a commanding corner of the Fifth Ward for one of his freed slaves, a white frame house that recently burned. In the 1940s the Fifth Ward was launchpad to blues and gospel greats whose careers took off under Peacock Records label owner, Fifth Ward native Don Robey. Boxer George Foreman was born here, as was longtime congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Crime novelist Walter Mosley grew up here, as did former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.

"It's an oxygen-poor environment for nonprofits," notes Fairfield, who's been around long enough to watch federal housing projects take over only to become high-crime areas and welfare dependency sap a sense of community. He's watched employment in the Fifth Ward rise and fall along with Houston's oil, shipping, and rice industries. Greater Houston considered itself somewhat recession-proof until the Houston brokerage firm of Alan Stanford went into receivership in February, with the SEC filing charges against the Texas businessman over $8 billion in alleged fraud.

With Houston's wealthiest losing their fortunes in the downtown office towers plainly visible to the south, Fairfield is more convinced than ever that escaping the cycle of poverty happens when locals help locals build personal financial skills and acquire assets like homes or businesses that can grow into the future. Evidence of that is in a local tax preparation service started with resources from Covenant, a co-op garden called The Last Organic Outpost that's thriving atop an abandoned Comet Rice site, a new office complex, library, and transit bus hub. As IDAs and other mortgage instruments make home ownership attractive, Fairfield also sees a new enterprising community spirit among people like Delores McGruder-people who he says "know what it is to be poor and so they are both generous and frugal."

Ask McGruder what's the most important thing she's learned and "sacrifice" is her emphatic reply: "You have to give up something to get something." It's a valuable lesson not only for impoverished urban dwellers but homeowners everywhere-empowerment through sacrifice.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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