April 22, 2012; Source: Birmingham News

In the wake of last year’s tornadoes, Birmingham, Ala. recently approved the demolition of the remaining damaged structures in an area known as Pratt City in order to move forward with rebuilding. The Birmingham News talked with Neighborhood Housing Services of Birmingham Executive Director John Colon about the high demands of this work, and Colon notes that even before last April, Pratt City’s housing market was “already weakened by blight and the economy” but was then “devastated by the tornadoes.” Although he highlights his success in working with other local community leaders and national planners on the creation of a new redevelopment plan for the area, Colon acknowledges the challenges his organization faces after a 50 percent budget reduction by the city as well as title issues that have delayed property transfers.

Colon makes a strong connection between his housing work and economic development by emphasizing the job growth and opportunities that can come from housing. In addition to his plans to break ground on two new energy efficient homes in Pratt City, Colon notes that the community re-development plan that he helped craft calls for a model of affordable housing with a built-in revenue component. “The concept is to develop housing which provides an optional rental component to help the homeowner generate revenues and supplement their income,” Colon explained. Expanding on his view that the model “redefines affordable housing,” he added, “By supplementing the homeowner’s income with rental income we significantly increase their affordability and improve their debt to income ratios.”

Because of his strong belief in the value of the income-generating aspect of housing, Colon stresses the central importance of funding nonprofit housing programs—even in a weak economy. “Foreclosed properties attract vandalism, criminal activity, are vulnerable to fire and other damage, and weaken communities,” Colon said. He adds that that his organization’s programs actually work to increase Birmingham’s tax base, and bring “millions of dollars in dividends to the city.” Looking forward, Colon points to the need for new city legislation that would expedite the transfer of  “heir properties.”

Asked why housing is such an important issue for him personally, Colon told the Birmingham News that he grew up in the Bronx at a time when owning a home was not a possibility for his family. “Most people don’t understand the importance of home ownership to a family who has never lived in a home of their own,” Colon said. “For many, it signifies their arrival in a society they revere and their stake in its success.” –Anne Eigeman