Vivian Cox Fraser, the longtime CEO of the Urban League of Essex County, is proud of the work her organization is doing to rebuild and restore Fairmount Avenue in the West Ward of Newark.
The group has helped build eight houses — and hopes to soon add eight more.
“I’ve always been under the belief that you have to see it to believe it,” she said. “And, when people see these houses, and they see people they actually know owning these houses, they start to believe and think, ‘This could be a path for me, too.’”
The visuals go much deeper than that.
The Urban League isn’t just about building new houses on the block, it’s about helping to refurbish the entire block, Cox Fraser said.
That could mean new sidewalks or repairing the existing ones. It could mean providing new streetlights, which help create a more welcoming — and safer — street scene. It could mean new siding on homes already on the block, helping to beautify every house on the street.
“We help build new houses, but we also work with the existing homeowners on the block,” she said. “We want to uplift their homes and their experiences, too, because that helps build the entire community.”
The complete vision is not easy to create — or maintain, Cox Fraser said.
“When you start to think about the cost of total homeownership, it’s a lot more than just buying the house,” she said. “The upkeep can be very expensive. And, when you have seniors, or those on a limited income, it’s difficult. That’s why you see issues of abandonment. We want to fix all of that.”
The Urban League, of course, can’t do it alone. Dollars make a difference.
Cox Fraser said the Urban League relies on contributions and aid from various individuals, nonprofit groups and government services. It also benefits from its longtime relationship with Wells Fargo, which has provided numerous grants to help on Fairview Avenue and in other areas in Newark and Essex County.
“The support from Wells Fargo has been essential for what we do,” she said. “We focus a lot on homeownership and building home equity as a way to improve neighborhoods and address racial wealth gap issues. They are helping us do that.”
Robert Ross, a managing director at Wells Fargo in the wealth and investment management business, said the bank has long been involved in community building.
“Wells Fargo is committed to investing in the communities where we do business,” he said.
And, like Cox Fraser, he knows the impact homeownership has in a community.
“Real estate ownership is part of the foundation of wealth creation and creating financial stability for families,” he said. “Paying a mortgage, building equity in a property over a long period of time versus paying rent, is everything.”
But it’s not the only thing.
While Wells Fargo has helped families qualify for mortgages — sometimes providing some of the down payment through various grant programs — Ross said the bank’s commitment is greater than just providing access to capital.
And it lasts longer than a one-time financial transaction.
“We have dedicated resources to help people with all aspects of homeownership,” he said.
“That could mean offering financial literacy training to really learn how to manage their financial resources — what the responsibilities are, how to get your credit score in order, how to qualify for financing — to assistance for families who may not have the wherewithal to save enough money for a big down payment. We also support developers of low-income housing with financing.
“We want to be there for the community because we understand what homeownership means in a community.”
The percentage of residents in Newark that own their own homes is one of the lowest of all the major cities in the country. A recent report said approximately 80% of residents are renters.
Cox Fraser and Ross are thrilled that the relationship between the Urban League and Wells Fargo is helping to change that. And they both acknowledge homeownership is just the start of creating a better community.
“Getting people in their own homes is just the first step,” Ross said. “Supporting them to stay there and build roots there is the second. That’s why we partner with the Urban League and other organizations, which have resources on the ground that can support the families for extended periods of time and in a variety of ways.”
Cox Fraser spells them out.
“A lot of the work that the Urban League does is around human development, helping people get better jobs, get their degrees, build their finances,” she said. “It’s also about a host of other quality-of-life issues, too, such as providing child care, creating educational opportunities for kids and addressing issues of crime and safety.
“There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle. It’s not as simple as just writing a check — it is helping to provide for all of the life supports that go along with it.”
It all goes back to the idea of building more than just a home — building a community, Cox Fraser said.
“We have a comprehensive and holistic approach to building communities,” she said. “It’s not just the physical development, it’s the human development. If you want to uplift a community, you have to uplift the people, too.”
The people that already live in the neighborhood, Cox Fraser stressed.
“It doesn’t take much for gentrification to take hold,” she said. “We want to improve the community for the people that already are there. We have to make the opportunities accessible to them, or else you’re building great homes for other people.
“We want the residents to believe that this opportunity exists for them.”
Which goes back to her initial point: Seeing is believing.
“When people see they can own their own homes, they become stakeholders in their community,” she said. “When people have a sense of ownership, you can really move the needle on issues of poverty and advancement. The support from Wells Fargo is essential to helping us do that.”
Learn more about programs to help your small business at: wellsfargo.com/cib/commercial-real-estate/community-lending-investment/.