Open Hand Ministries is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that seeks to address the racial wealth gap in Pittsburgh by helping the African-American community become financially stable and be able to purchase affordable housing. The nonprofit facilitates home ownership opportunities by acquiring vacant properties, then rehabbing them to superior standards. With a 25-year background in social services, Wayne Younger is the executive director of Open Hand Ministries and spoke about how the organization is making an impact in the City of Pittsburgh.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): How and when did the organization begin, and what unmet need was it attempting to fill?
Wayne Younger (Younger): We began as a ministry 14 years ago as a partnership between four local churches in the East End who saw their neighborhoods being really impacted financially, and we realized that as the community was gaining its economic resolve, many of its neighbors were not.
Basically, the unmet need was the economic wellbeing of our neighbors. What we discovered is that our neighborhoods had many economic goals but didn’t have many partners and couldn’t reach those goals.
NHM: Your website mentions the Pittsburgh racial wealth gap—can you talk about this disparity in more detail?
Younger: In Pittsburgh, it is common for African-Americans to not have access to home ownership. Only 3 percent of new mortgages in any given year are awarded to them. The racial wealth gap in our city continues to grow, and organizations like ours are out there helping people get access to wealth primarily through home ownership, which is the primary wealth driver in the US. Investment in our communities helps people become permanent residents in these communities, and that helps to address that wealth gap.
NHM: Let’s talk about the family development arm of Open Hand Ministries.
Younger: Our Family Development program consists of helping people identify and reach their financial goals. Family development for us is really helping people develop the habits of financial wellness, and about helping people develop the kind of community it takes to mobilize and to work toward success. We have a weekly Tuesday night meeting where people come in and are being equipped with practical skills for financial habit building. The other portion is a monthly one-on-one meeting with a trained professional who not only helps people reach financial goals, but helps with other aspects of what it means to struggle economically.
We work with local organizations, banks and other financial professionals who help our folks understand what resources are available to them. We don’t see ourselves as gatekeepers; there are many people in the community to help infuse financial health into the lives of people.
NHM: Can you talk about the construction services segment?
Younger: Fourteen years ago, when our founder Michael Stanton started Open Hand Ministries, he started it by literally going to his neighbors’ homes and asking them if they needed anything. One of the things that became really clear is that helping people actually maintain their homes and their assets was a real need. That gave us the vision to establish African-American home ownership in communities that were greatly increasing in value.
Construction Services works to renovate homes in our neighborhoods that can then be sold to participants in our programs. Our desire is to buy the ugliest, oldest, cheapest house on the block and turn it into something beautiful that can be purchased by our families that have been made mortgage-ready in the Family Development program. Then they can purchase these houses and move toward the middle class.
NHM: Who participates in building/rehabbing homes?
Younger: There are models out there like Habitat where they call it sweat equity—part of getting a home is working on-site. Our model is a little different. We really are challenging the people we are working with to prepare themselves financially; that is their end of the bargain. We have a small team of construction services workers on the houses but we partner with local churches to come and bring volunteers to prepare the house. That volunteerism is key to us being able to do this work. It literally saves us thousands of dollars on each home build. We could pay a plumber $50/hour to dig a hole or we can pay Pitt students pizza to do the same thing. The end result is that the hole gets dug but more importantly, the community takes ownership for the need for affordable housing in our neighborhoods.
NHM: How and where do you find homes that need to be rehabbed?
Younger: We’re always looking for houses; we buy houses off the market and we look at properties owned by the city or the Urban Redevelopment Authority to make offers so we can renovate them. It’s really important for folks to understand that we’re not a part of some amazing benevolent organization that gives away houses. We are preparing houses for purchase. Folks in the program are working to get themselves in a place where they are mortgage-ready and making sure they are taking advantage of any resources available.
Right now, we operate in Garfield, East Liberty and the Larimer neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.
The land in those areas is very expensive so we’re in a race with time and with gentrification to make sure that the families we work with can have an opportunity to stay in those communities. If you look at homes in those areas, costs are constantly going up, and people are constantly being displaced. Our desire is to help people stay and take advantage of value in their neighborhoods.
NHM: Can you talk about the impact you have had since your inception?
Younger: As a small organization, we celebrate every home that we finish. We are very happy to say that we have 18 new homeowners, and those 18 homes represent about $5 million in equity that has been produced. For some people, their goal is simply to improve their credit score, and we celebrate those victories as well as the folks who have become homeowners and the folks who have started small business—those types of things.
NHM: What is on the horizon?
Younger: The next year or so is a critical time for Open Hand Ministries. As values of homes increase, we have to really double down on what it means to invest in properties. We have to look at where our work is happening. Do we increase our footprint so we have an opportunity to purchase homes in neighborhoods that are not as expensive as the three I talked about? Do we look into expanding into Wilkinsburg, Homewood and Lincoln-Lemington? We have to really look at the ‘where’ of our ministry so we can give opportunities for more people for home ownership.
Right now, we’re a very small organization trying to tackle a really large problem. Do we expand more employees and impact into more communities? It takes a large financial investment. What we do believe is the work we are doing is relevant for the City of Pittsburgh, for the people that we serve, and we believe that those people deserve advocates. If we were to increase what we do, that requires a greater level of faith because it means we need more resources and more people in order to make that happen.
To learn more about Open Hand Ministries, visit www.openhandpgh.org.