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A Blueprint for Improving Underserved Communities

A look at 19th Street through downtown Ensley. (WIKIPEDIA)

By Brian K. Rice | Special to The Times

(This is a guest opinion)

As a native son of Birmingham, a mechanical engineer, real estate investor and economic rights advocate volunteering, living and investing in underserved communities, I have picked up an extensive understanding of government policies related to residential and commercial real estate financing practices.

Brian K. Rice

I’ve witnessed firsthand the persistent challenges facing our inner-city neighborhoods while investing in the Ensley neighborhood. My hometown has tragically endured countless murders in the past 45 years — nearly my entire life — while the super majority affect Black Americans. My hometown has witnessed a vast divide in resources and opportunities for the have and have-not that is compounding the challenges experienced by our most underserved.

Reflecting on my experiences, I am compelled to question what we are not adequately addressing. I believe the systematic denial of economic resources for successive generations is far more harmful than most acknowledge as it is source of provision for all families and communities. Accepting the unfortunate conditions as the way they are and always will be is a challenge. The greatest challenge in my opinion is improving the mind of someone who has immersed themselves in the worst of the conditions.

In 2013, I moved back home with the intention of creating needed programs in underserved communities. However, I soon realized that programming resources seemed committed elsewhere. As a result, I decided to invest in commercial real estate. My goal was clear: create a sustainable source of income to foster an environment that supports entrepreneurs and promotes personal growth and self-sufficiency among residents. However, I soon encountered challenging financial hurdles when my properties were appraised to me at an unjust valuation of $0.00. The economic barrier not only prevented me from providing for myself but also prevented me from helping others. However, the dream in me could not be smothered, and I became laser-focused on breaking through economic barriers.

I embarked on a journey of economic justice, and along the way, uncovered that downtown Ensley boasts the highest concentration of Black commercial property owners in Alabama, yet it is trapped in time between its decaying historic buildings and hope. I asked myself many questions about Ensley’s community history. For nearly 20 years, I have studied the economic conditions of Black communities nationally as a pastime. Investing and living in an under-resourced community caused me to become the case study. I never heard of an ethnographic researcher before coming here, but that is what I became.

I learned the Ensley business community was faced with what I believed were silent barriers related to banking, property taxes, insurance, federal programming, and other local planning initiatives.  Generations of barriers have perpetuated a cycle of under-resourcing, underfunding, and underinvestment. For the first time in my life, I could see and define systemic injustice.

It has been common to hear people complain about the system being the reason for their conditions without diving deeper into a specific action. Systemic injustice occurs when an unjust or unequal act is placed in a system, and the unjust or unequal act is embedded in laws, policies, practices, or customs. The act can be a pure custom that could come from your neighbor, or it could be through a policy so well written that the average eye can’t see it, so it can be challenged in our legal system and changed in our political system.

It’s time to dispel the myth of “underserved” communities. These areas are starved of economic resources, making them vulnerable and malnourished. Where there is economic starvation, property owners cannot secure resources to renovate spaces for the next business owner. Where the business owner is locked out, the local families can never be supported with jobs.

When the family cannot be supported, the entire family and community become vulnerable, but that vulnerability is for numerous generations. For me, I can’t access the potential earning power to support the needed programs I wanted to bring to the underserved. We cannot continue to blame these communities for their plight and blight, without addressing the structural barriers that have perpetuated their distress.

Ensley is not an isolated case. Similar narratives of economic challenges plague the United States. We must break our silence and demand equitable opportunities. Together, we can unleash the untapped potential in our most underserved communities.

I urge every citizen to familiarize themselves with local, state, and federal laws pertaining to property rights and economic development. Knowledge empowers us to stand for our rights and effect needed change.

It’s time to end the era of economic injustice. America deserves better. We must dismantle the economic barriers that have hindered progress and restore the promise of opportunity to every corner of our country. Let us move forward with unwavering resolve, knowing that our actions today will pave the way for a better tomorrow. Our most challenged and underserved communities are worth fighting for.

Brian K. Rice, a real estate investor and economic rights advocate, can be reached at brice@briankrice.com or through www.briankrice.com.