For 22 years, an unusual housing and support program has been quietly transforming the lives of single mothers in Houston’s Third Ward.
by Roxanna Asgarian
Photos by Pu Ying Huang
May 9, 2018
When Joidan Felix went off to college in 2014, she had a plan: She wanted to become an accountant. A knack for numbers had helped Felix ace her accounting classes in the business magnet program at Houston’s Westside High School. That led to an internship in Halliburton’s tax department her senior year. “It just came naturally,” she said. “I think it’s what I’m meant to do.”
But she struggled to adjust when she moved to Wichita Falls, an almost six-hour drive from her home and family, to attend Midwestern State University. Felix was failing her accounting class, even with a tutor. A first-generation college student, she was also having a hard time getting her financial aid squared away. And in the winter of her sophomore year, she unexpectedly got pregnant. When she told the father, he abruptly cut off contact with her. Angry, scared and ashamed, she dropped out of school and took a job at a shoe store. She was homesick and lonely, and didn’t tell her family or friends about the baby until she was seven months pregnant. “Expectations were so high, it was so much pressure,” she said. “I just didn’t know how to come out and say, ‘Hey, I’m pregnant.’”
Felix moved back home with her mother in southwest Houston in July 2016 and gave birth to her son, Jair, that September. She couldn’t afford her own place, so for the next three years she stayed with her mom, taking the bus to her job at a call center. Her salary barely covered the cost of childcare. A few months ago, her mother announced she was moving to Katy, leaving Felix, who doesn’t have a car, without a way to get to work. Felix realized she needed help.
A place to live would be a start. Though Houston is often praised for its low cost of living, it has a critical shortage of affordable housing. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Houston metro area has only 19 affordable homes for every 100 low-income households — one of the lowest rates in the nation. Policy often serves only to perpetuate the problem. In a scathing ruling last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that the city violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when Mayor Sylvester Turner caved to racist opposition and blocked an affordable housing development planned for the primarily white, wealthy Galleria area. “This is no accident,” wrote John Henneberger, co-director of the housing advocacy group Texas Housers, in an op-ed at the time. “For decades, Houston’s elected leaders have practiced racial segregation.”
Felix was fortunate. She heard about the Young Mothers Residential Program, a small, little-known initiative that would provide her with a nearly free home for two years, as well as subsidized childcare for her son, while she re-enrolled in school and took part in workshops designed to help her grow as a woman and as a parent. She applied and was accepted at the beginning of 2018. And it’s not a shelter. Though she and her son now have a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home to call their own, it’s not just about housing. In a series of workshops, Felix learns how racism affects mental health and studies how to think critically about parenting Jair. The program is next door to a thriving art community. And she’s getting to know several other young mothers, ages 18 to 26, who serve as the basis of her support system.
“There’s no excuses anymore,” Felix said. “I have to do this on my own, for my child. I have to learn some independence.”
In “Shotgun, Third Ward #1,” renowned African-American painter and muralist John Biggers depicted row houses — small, identical homes placed close together with shared outdoor spaces — that were instrumental to post–Civil War black life in the South. In the background of the 1966 painting are the homes, along with a burned-out church, its bell tower barely standing, possibly alluding to a wave of church bombings in the early part of that decade. In the foreground is a scene of joy and bustling neighborhood life: A ring of children dance, arms raised. Church folk chat in their Sunday best. A woman cradles a baby.
In 1993, a group of six Houston artists saw a block of abandoned Third Ward row houses in terrible shape. Inspired by Biggers’ paintings, they created what’s now a celebrated concept of art meeting social justice. Project Row Houses, now in its 25th year, calls itself “social sculpture.” It’s a neighborhood of buildings, many of them row houses, which serve as galleries and studio spaces for artists. It’s also grown to include a small-business incubator, an all-hours online soul radio station and a community development corporation, which manages 60 units of affordable housing. The organization has developed deep and lasting roots in the Third Ward, a historically black neighborhood that has seen blight, poverty and the haphazard intrusion of mismatched townhomes so common in Houston’s unzoned communities of color.
The art concept, along with its MacArthur Award-winning cofounder Rick Lowe, has received sizeable grants and glowing media coverage. The New York Times called Project Row Houses “one of the most original and ambitious works of art of the past century.” But far fewer know about the first-of-its-kind program tucked into the foundation of Project Row Houses: the Young Mothers Residential Program, a radical, intimate housing program quietly serving young single mothers like Felix since 1996. At the very beginning, when the row houses were undergoing extensive renovations, then-Executive Director Deborah Grotfeldt was thinking about how the spaces could be used to lift up the communities from within. She met Nelda Lewis, a social worker and professor at Texas Southern University who grew up across the street from the row houses and had shown up one day, curious to know what was happening to them. That chance meeting and the mashup of each woman’s skills — Lewis’ deep roots in the community and extensive social work background, and Grotfeldt’s grant-writing prowess and big-money connections — led to the creation of the Young Mothers Residential Program. Two of Project Row Houses’ greatest supporters, Sheila and Isaac Heimbinder (the latter then CEO of U.S. Home, a huge homebuilder at the time) provided funding to buy and renovate the homes, and enlisted interior designers to outfit them beautifully.
A grant came in for the first cohort of mothers, who moved into five adjacent row houses in early 1996. The original program allowed the women to live in the homes for free for a year and stipulated that they were required to be in school (securing a degree is the main focus) and working part-time. “My idea was to have a program that was holistic, that would deal with the total person — mind, body and spirit,” Lewis said. On-site childcare was provided, in addition to tutoring and mandatory workshops on topics such as black parenting and human sexuality, as well as sisterhood meetings, which were more relaxed get-togethers. Lewis also held weekly one-on-one therapy sessions with the moms. The aim of this wraparound support, Lewis said, was to allow the women to move past survival mode and into a more goal-oriented approach that gave them the space to envision their futures.
Assata Richards was part of the first group. She’d become a mother in high school, when she took charge of parenting her neighbor’s son, Jamal (later formally adopting him). She’d graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class and brought Jamal along with her to the University of Houston dorms, enlisting friends to watch him while she was in class. But Richards buckled under the weight of her classes, parenting and poverty. She dropped out after three semesters. “If nothing else, I’d always been smart … so when I dropped out on academic probation, that was really devastating for my self-esteem,” said Richards, now 44.
She switched from one low-wage job to another, trying to find ways to get back to school while struggling to provide for her and Jamal’s basic needs. Sometimes they were homeless, bouncing around to stay with friends or family. While she and Jamal were living in a two-bedroom duplex with another woman and her four children, Richards took in her younger siblings when her own mother, who battled addiction, couldn’t care for them. “I struggled for a number of years,” Richards said. “It takes all your energy just to figure out how you’re going to make it, and all your failures become internalized.”
When Richards and her son moved into their tiny row house with its fresh coat of white paint, she started the process of untangling the effects of poverty and trauma on her life choices and self-image. “It was a beautiful house. Walking into that house was really a statement that me and my son mattered,” Richards said, with tears in her eyes.
Entering the Young Mothers Residential Program allowed Richards to re-enroll at the University of Houston, where she flourished. After she and Jamal moved to Pennsylvania, where she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in sociology, she maintained the support network she built at Project Row Houses. “I opened my [grad school] acceptance letters at the Project Row Houses office,” she said.
Richards became a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, but wanted to give back to her hometown. She moved back to the Third Ward in 2008 and returned to the Young Mothers Residential Program, first as an on-site mentor mom, and then as the director from 2010 to 2016. Her Project Row Houses network helped her to launch her current project, Sankofa Research Institute, which collaborates with institutions such as Rice University and MIT to address the needs of the Third Ward. This work led to the creation of the Emancipation Economic Development Council, a nonprofit of which Richards is vice chair. She said the council wants to be a voice for the community’s interests as development and gentrification encroach on the Third Ward. Jamal, now 27, joined the Navy, went to college and lives in California. “He’s amazing, he’s happy,” Richards said.
She credits much of her career success to her time in the program. But she says its influence goes deeper than professional development. “I’m sure I would have gone back to school, and I’m sure I would have done something, but I’m not sure I would’ve had the opportunity to be whole,” she said. “The program gave me the opportunity to be a whole human being, as a mother, as a woman, as a scholar, as a professional. That’s the difference.”
More than 20 years later, the white paint on the houses on Holman Street has faded and peeled a bit, and the Young Mothers Residential Program has lost a bit of its shine, too. The program has undergone waves of new management and sometimes rapid turnover of the mothers themselves. Participants are now housed for two years at $150 a month. They are still required to enroll in school, attend weekly workshops and meet with a social worker. Only three mothers are currently enrolled. The program’s high cost — about $100,000 per year for each woman and her family — and the fact that only five row houses are allotted for the mothers make it tough to scale. A single program can’t solve Houston’s affordable housing issues, of course. But Project Row Houses executive director, Eureka Gilkey, says staff are in the planning stages of increasing nonresidential offerings for single mothers, which she hopes will broaden the project’s reach.
And, she says, it was the young mothers themselves who led to the creation of Row House CDC, the organization’s affordable housing arm, which seeks to counter the effects of rising home costs in the Third Ward. “We saw that after the program, the mothers didn’t have anywhere to go in the neighborhood, where the affordable housing stock was low,” Gilkey said. The mothers have priority access to the Row House CDC’s affordable housing, including duplexes designed in partnership with the Rice University architecture school, once they leave the program.
Chrishelle Palay, the Houston co-director for Texas Housers, says that Project Row Houses has earned a strong reputation in the Third Ward because “it’s been there a long time, they’ve been consistent and it’s definitely an institution that’s not a one-trick pony — it serves the community in a variety of ways,” Palay said. “It’s about community and the preservation of that community, and not just about housing. Housing is just one facet of that.” And though only a maximum of five women can be enrolled in the program at once, “That’s still five families that have decent housing,” she said.
A major challenge, according to program director Shawn Owens Lemons, is turnover of residents. The program has housed more than 60 women and their children since its launch, but only about half that number successfully completed two years. Some chafed at the rules, like a 10 p.m. curfew on weeknights and no men sleeping over. Some didn’t want to continue with school. And a few became pregnant, which the program isn’t equipped to handle. That 50/50 success rate, Owens Lemons said, has led staff to look for a specific type of applicant. “A goal-oriented, ambitious participant could really benefit from this program,” she said. “That way, we’re helping to lift her, we’re not pulling — because some people just aren’t ready, for a myriad of reasons.”
Many applications come from young mothers who are homeless, but “we’re not a shelter and we’re not the cure for homelessness,” Owens Lemons said. Rather, the team looks for applicants who’ve done well in school and who have a clear vision of their academic and professional goals.
But Owens Lemons stresses that it’s not just about getting a degree and a job — the goal is to break the cycle of poverty for single mothers. In 2015, one in three single mothers in the U.S. — and nearly 40 percent of African-American single mothers — lived in poverty. The hope is that stabilizing the mothers will allow their children to pursue their own education and increase their opportunities. “Some of the early mothers who went through the program, their children are in college now,” Owens Lemons said.
“We used to say that the goal of the program is for the women to lead full, meaningful, independent lives. But that saying has evolved. What we really mean is we want the women to lead full, whole, interdependent lives,” Owens Lemons said. “Because a lot of the women in our program have felt like, ‘I have to do it all, I have to do it by myself.’ And you don’t. … So we teach them how to create community wherever they go. Which means you’re going to have to be a little bit vulnerable.”
Felix moved into her white house on Holman Street in January and enrolled at Houston Community College. She’ll have to start over as a freshman, but she’s excited about getting back into accounting classes. Jair’s father has recently resurfaced, and she’s been negotiating with him, so far fruitlessly, to provide some support for Jair. She’s looking for a new part-time job closer to home, and Jair is settling in to his new daycare. The hardest part so far, she said, is adjusting to the new schedule and to caring for Jair without the help of her parents, but she’s begun to make friends with the other two moms in the program through their weekly workshops.
On a recent Thursday night, the mothers got together with Keva St. Fort, a local massage therapist and healer, for the second night of a workshop modeled after the storytelling nonprofit The Moth. The previous week, the women learned the main tenets of a good story: narrative, emotion, humor. This week they came prepared to tell their own stories.
The table in the main office was littered with sandwiches, cookies, chips and salsa. The theme of the night was “food and love.” Felix stood up, addressing the other mothers, St. Fort, Owens Lemons, and a pair of young social workers, who had all come prepared with stories of their own.
“Y’all probably already know I’m a daddy’s girl,” Felix told the group, smiling. “Well, this story is about the time my daddy tried to make me dinner.” The girls cackled as she related the story of a dry roasted chicken and mashed potatoes too salty to eat. Her eyes were warm as she recalled her 11-year-old self, and her dad, who was trying to impress her. “Halfway through the meal, my dad looked at me and said, ‘Wanna go get something to eat?’”
The week after the workshop, Felix tidied up her new home while Jair, who will be 2 in September, slept, recovering from an ear infection, in his own room. His little fold-out lounge chair sat proudly in a living room still scattered with belongings that hadn’t yet found their place. Felix said her goal is to at least earn her associate’s degree by the time she leaves the program in two years, although she’s hoping to do it a semester before that. Once she hits that goal, she knows she’ll be able to get her bachelor’s degree, and then the accounting job she’s always wanted. “I want to be better for him,” she said, pointing at the door to Jair’s room. “I just want to be the best that I can be for him and continue to grow, so he can have his best shot.”