By Bob Blalock
The low rumble of a tractor-trailer’s idling engine punctures the stillness of a late spring night in Homewood. Workmen talk in small groups and make last-minute preparations for the precious cargo on the 18-wheeler’s trailer. Clusters of residents watch the proceedings.
At 10:30 p.m., the driver revs the engine and the truck lurches forward, crawling down Kensington Road on its way out of the Mayfair neighborhood in this Birmingham suburb. Men walking on both sides of the truck shepherd it around mailboxes, under power, phone and cable lines, and past poles and trees and shrubs near the street. One-third of what had been a three-bedroom, 2½-bath, 1,929-square-foot house makes its way to a lot near the Birmingham City Jail, where the house’s three sections will rest until it is ready for reassembly.
Alan and Lisa Engel bought the home earlier this year and donated it to Build Urban Prosperity (UP) Birmingham. Build UP, which launched in 2018 in the community of Ensley in western Birmingham, is a nonprofit that takes a multifaceted approach to ending poverty and building prosperity.
Students entering ninth grade enroll for six years of private school education and earn a high school diploma and a college associate degree. They also receive paid apprenticeships in the real estate and construction sectors to help them learn skilled trades as they refurbish houses that have been moved into their community like the one the Engels donated.
To graduate, students must complete one of three options on what’s known as the Path to the Middle Class: continuing their education at a four-year college or university, accepting a job with one of Build UP’s partners, or creating a small business. When they graduate, each student will own two of the refurbished homes: One to live in and one that will be rental property to earn income and build wealth.
For the Engels, who are building a new home on the lot in Homewood, donating the existing home was a no-brainer.
“(It was an) easy decision. We could pay to demolish the house and send it to a landfill or spend roughly the same dollars on moving the house and have it become a home again for a deserving family,” Alan Engel said. “In addition, once we understood Build UP’s program and the training they are giving these kids, we were sold.”
Mark Martin is Build UP’s dynamic founder and CEO. Hearing the Huntsville native describe what went into creating Build UP, how it works and his ambitious vision for its future sounds like a TED Talk in the making. He is thoughtful and polished, the result of sharing his story many times with parents, potential donors and partners, and the media.
On a recent summer morning, with students building a pergola in the background, he details a 17-year odyssey of teaching and learning, of questioning traditional approaches to education, of others’ good ideas “begged, borrowed and stolen,” and of immersing himself in Ensley in an audacious attempt to turn around residents’ lives.
As with many good ideas, frustration birthed Build UP. That frustration began with Martin’s first teaching job with Teach for America.
“I started teaching first grade in Georgia’s most heavily incarcerated ZIP code,” says Martin, who graduated from the University of Alabama in 2003 with a finance degree. “I saw a lot of issues with children who need the most help because of their home environment, their surrounding environment of the local community being so utterly economically depressed, so underresourced.”
Driving everything was a debilitating poverty that determines the fate of too many poor children.
“Too often, if you are born in a certain ZIP code to a certain set of parents who may not have gotten a quality education and may not have much in their bank account, then your destiny is pretty much defined for you, and we don’t believe that’s right,” Martin says.
The burden of teaching in the midst of poverty is immense, he says. “We put so much weight on a teacher’s shoulders to be all these things to children and it’s just too much, so we burn out a lot of really quality teachers who would love to make careers of this but they just can’t do 60 to 70 hours a week.”
After a stint in post-Katrina New Orleans, where he co-founded and served as director of Langston Hughes Academy, Martin hoped a doctoral program at Harvard University would offer solutions to the problems he’d lived through. “I was hoping to find all the answers there, the pinnacle of the ivory tower. Unfortunately, a lot of my colleagues there in education leadership were struggling with the same things.”
Martin looked to Europe for answers. Switzerland, Germany and some other countries rely on businesses to help prepare high school students for the real world. The businesses offer apprenticeships to students, pay them, give them the tools for success and then hire them, Martin says. “It’s just not putting all that weight of preparing America’s future talent and workforce on the shoulders of educators.”
Cristo Rey, a national nonprofit network of private schools that prepare children from low-income families for college, has adopted a similar model. Martin cites Cristo Rey, which has a Birmingham campus, and Habitat for Humanity as inspirations for what would become Build UP. From Cristo Rey’s Corporate Work Study Program, Martin has developed a similar program for students to develop career skills working with partner companies, such as Brasfield & Gorrie and Hoar Construction. From Habitat, Martin has incorporated 0% interest mortgages for the homes that the students will own.
“It’s not just coming up with one unique idea but batching together a bunch of ideas that have been tried and done well, although when you put them all together it makes for a more comprehensive program overall, and that’s what we think is the big difference-maker,” Martin says.
That, and the homes.
“House moving is new. We’re the only group like this in the country that’s doing this, but we see it as a critical component to reaching our mission,” Martin says.
The homes become real-world classrooms for students to learn and hone construction skills. Working together with construction professionals, they reassemble and refurbish the homes for their families to move into.
The homes also generate revenue to help fund Build UP, including through rent the families pay.
“All of our families are paying rent. Instead of paying rent to a slumlord that’s not investing in this community, we can get them into our houses and stabilize their housing,” Martin says. “It just improves everything. When home is stable, everything else is much easier.”
Build UP often receives money from the donors of the homes, who save on demolition costs and earn a sizable tax deduction for donating the home.
“So it’s a win-win all the way around. It keeps the home from the landfill, which obviously is good for Mother Nature and our environment, and it is also really launching someone’s career as it becomes a starter home.”
Most importantly, the homes revitalize the community and build wealth for the students in the program through home ownership. “We’re helping low-income youth to become landlords and see how they can put capital to their advantage in this country. We tell our kids, ‘earn money while you sleep’ by owning a rental property.”
Build UP also relies on student tuition, much of it subsidized by a $10,000 tax credit scholarship for low-income students zoned for failing schools, as well as with students’ wages from their apprenticeships. Other sources of revenue and resources include from national and local foundations, local and state governments and corporations.
The Alabama Power Foundation, for example, provides a low-interest line of credit to Build UP that helps it move more homes. The short-term capital covers the gap between when the home is donated and when the house is refurbished and ready to be lived in again, which may not be until the following year.
Martin says he appreciates the support of the foundation as well as from leaders in the company.
“As a foundation, we look for innovative ways in which we can use our assets to generate sustainable social and economic change in the communities we serve,” says Myla Calhoun, president of the Alabama Power Foundation. “Build UP is putting this concept into action with its work in Ensley. By blending workforce development, education and community revitalization, Build UP helps students invest in their own neighborhoods and create lasting, positive change not only for their community, but in their lives and the lives of their families.”
In Martin’s view, Ensley was the perfect place in which to launch the program. The once-vibrant community fell on hard times fueled by white flight and the collapse of the local steel industry, which had provided thousands of jobs. The working-class community of 40,000 in its heyday now has fewer than 5,000 residents, and abandoned homes and businesses scar many areas.
“When we’re only 10 minutes from downtown Birmingham and have seen how quickly that area can go from being blighted, with a lot of places abandoned, to now being pretty vibrant, we see that as a possibility here,” he says. “I feel very fortunate. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t want to do anything else. I love this and feel like I’m very blessed to be part of it.”
Martin says his work with Build UP is “definitely more than just a job for me. It’s a passion project. It’s being able to see tangible change in people’s lives.”
His work is also driven by his religious faith.
“I didn’t want to have to crawl out of bed wondering where the Lord would lead me that day, who he would lead into my life,” he says.
Sharon Davis is happy Martin loves what he is doing. She has two sons in Build UP – Jomaree, who is entering his third year, and Bishop, who will be entering his second year. Davis learned about the program from a flier a coach at the nearby McAlpine Park Recreation Center gave her.
“I immediately got on it. When I knew it was centered around children and teaching them a skill, I was all in,” she says. “It’s just a wonderful experience. … It’s been awesome.”
Davis says she lost a home during the Great Recession because of “predatory lending.”
“To get a house is easy. To keep it is the thing. I ended up losing my house,” she says. “I learned a lot, and now I’m ready for home ownership. I will never be house-poor, ever again.”
Davis and her sons were living with and caring for her disabled sister, which she says “wasn’t the worst situation, but we had lived better and they knew that.”
After Davis’ sister died, Jomaree wrote a letter to Build UP about the family’s situation, and soon they were moving into the first home that Build UP students renovated in summer 2018, which had been its first, temporary school. (Build UP’s school is now at Abyssinia Missionary Baptist Church, formerly Ensley Baptist Church, on Avenue E in downtown Ensley.)
“It was really a turning point because I knew then that my son understood something about life. He saw a need and he was trying to fill it the best way he knew how.”
Davis had watched the students working on that home, which makes living in it even more special.
“A lot of spirit and hard work, blood, sweat and tears went into that house. I saw them there. I imagine them being in there,” she says. “I enjoy what they did.”
Among Build UP’s many other fans is Birmingham City Councilor John Hilliard, whose council district includes Ensley. Hilliard has become a strong supporter of the program, which has resulted in city dollars helping fund Build UP. On the day the children are erecting the pergola – the last day of summer boot camp – Hilliard is there to speak to them at lunch.
He offers a preview that morning of what he will tell them.
“Learning to use your hands will help rebuild America. I knew I was right in the midst of something awesome and something great,” he says.
“I believe that we can empower these young people with thoughts and words and help them take it to the next generation, because they will be the architects, they will be the Egyptians of the pyramids of the future,” Hilliard says. “They will define America in a whole new light. They’re going to be the mentors for my grandkids and other grandchildren and children around the country.”
Martin understands that with Build UP just starting its third year, the program has a long way to go. “We’re not waiting six years to see if we’re on the right track,” he says.
The staff has to ensure that students grow academically, that they get homes completed and families move in, that they meet financial obligations and goals and other benchmarks.
The oldest students are still three and four years away from graduating, Martin says, which is when he will know whether the program really works. “Everything that I’ve said, everything that John Hilliard has said to this point, is still a hope, still a dream and is several years off,” he says.
Even so, Martin is focused on expanding into nearby Titusville, Smithfield and beyond.
“Our goal is just to grow from there, but we have to grow talent, we have to grow staff and we also have to be successful with the students who are working with us right now, and that’s the most important piece.”
Martin already envisions the Build UP model spreading across the nation.
“We want to be everywhere. We’ve known that from the beginning,” he says. Word of the program continues to spread. Martin says a foundation in Cleveland recently awarded Build UP a $50,000 exploratory grant to consider expanding to its first out-of-state site in Ohio.
Martin says the Fannie Mae grant confirms the value of Build UP and will “help us expand this thing nationwide. So we are on a roll.”
Martin notes that every year, more than 60,000 good homes are demolished to make way for new, often larger homes. “But these are homes that can go to really building a community,” he says.
In Martin’s view, they could become the mother lode for building prosperity in distressed areas across the nation, one home at a time.