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Build UP Innovations bring hope for the future

Build UP is a private, nonprofit high school in Birmingham, AL, that blends traditional academic coursework with hands-on, paid apprenticeships in home construction and real estate.

Founded in 2018 by veteran Alabama educator Dr. Mark Martin, the six-year program currently has 72 students. Located in Ensley, one of the city’s most underserved Black communities, the program teaches students trade-specific skills to rehab local homes, while increasing the community’s affordable housing supply.

Upon graduation, students not only have employable skills, but will own two rehabbed properties — one to live in and one to rent.

A contract award from Fannie Mae's Sustainable Communities Initiative is helping to scale this innovative program that revitalizes communities and gives students access to the dream of homeownership.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, Build UP has re-opened the school to students, faculty, and staff in compliance with federal and state guidelines.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once referred to Birmingham as the most segregated city in America. Although the city has come a long way from when it was an epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, it is still coping with its past. Today, economic and health indicators for Birmingham’s Black residents significantly lag behind those of white residents.

The divide is particularly evident in Ensley, a town on the western fringes of Birmingham. In the early 1900s when Birmingham was the steel capital of the South, Ensley was a thriving, integrated middle-class community of 45,000 people.

After the closure of the steel plants came “white flight,” which led to blighted neighborhoods as the economic base of the community declined. Today, only about 4,500 people live in Ensley. Blocks of dilapidated housing stretch as far as the eye can see.

But Build UP is bringing innovation and a new hope for the future.

Equity is a word that educators use to refer to efforts to level the playing field in classrooms,” says Mark Martin, founder and CEO of Build UP.

Dr. Mark Martin encourages students to think about equity a little differently. As in home equity.

In addition to the core requirements mandated by Birmingham City Schools, Build UP students take courses in real estate, personal finance, and social justice.

In the Geometric Construction Lab, veteran teacher Lisa Cranford shows how geometric principles apply to real life. Students use power tools, saws, and sanders to build a geodesic dome that they plan to turn into a play space for children and donate to a local library.

Some of these kids are going to learn things that they can walk out [with] at age 19 and make more money than anybody coming out of college,” says Cranford.
We instill in them that they have the ability to revitalize this community,” says Cranford.

A new component of the program is working with homeowners in affluent neighborhoods who were planning to tear down their homes and persuading them to donate the homes to Build UP instead. Donated homes enable the nonprofit to save one-half of its renovation costs.

The donated homes have been relocated to Ensley and to neighboring Titusville and rehabilitated. Under the contract award with Fannie Mae, Martin plans to expand the program to other parts of the country. He has already opened a second school in Titusville.

Davis has come a long way since middle school, when he says he wasn’t learning anything. To make matters worse, the house he and his mother rented was full of mold and “creepy crawly” things, which their landlord refused to remedy.

I’ve learned how to hang sheetrock, install doors, lay flooring, paint, mud, tape, fix stuff that needs to be fixed, and I do it all myself,” says Davis.

Last year, Davis and his mother moved into a Build UP house that the students helped rehabilitate — he takes credit for the cabinets. Once Davis graduates from Build UP, he will be eligible to own the property himself. Later, Jomaree plans to start his own demolition company.

Hooper, who is in her second year at Build UP, loves history and especially math. “It’s very important to know about your money and your finances and all that,” says Hooper. “We go over stuff like what you need to learn about your taxes, or things you’re going to need in the future.”

I want to be a realtor because I love talking to people and I’m not shy,” says Hooper.

Bria Davis, age 17, says the classes in architecture have instilled an interest in interior design as a career path.

It’s good to know that at the end I’m going to become a homeowner,” says Davis.

“Fannie Mae’s Sustainable Communities team is proud to support the Build UP program, which addresses important social and economic issues in innovative, comprehensive ways. They are preparing the next generation of skilled trades workers, increasing financial literacy, creating a path to homeownership, and providing the tools that enable sustainable homeownership all while creating new affordable supply. This truly is an outstanding program,” said Maria Evans, Vice President of Sustainable Communities Partnership and Innovation at Fannie Mae.

Learn more about Build UP