Troubled Waters: Discussion with Teresa Fox Bettis on Civil Rights and a Green Economy

Teresa Fox Bettis is Executive Director of the Center for Fair Housing in Mobile, Alabama. She recently spoke with Bridge the Gulf and the Institute for Southern Studies for the report Troubled Waters: Two Years After the BP Oil Disaster, a Struggling Gulf Coast Calls for National Leadership for Recovery. Bettis discussed how her fair housing work extends into the fields of community development, environmental justice, and mental health; and how her vision for the Gulf Coast's future lies in green jobs and inclusive communities.

Bridge The Gulf / Institute for Southern Studies: Tell me about where you’re from and where you work.

Teresa Fox Bettis: I’m actually from the city of Prichard, which is inside the county of Mobile. I’ve been there since I was about three years old. Prichard is a city that has regressed over the years. When I was a child it was a thriving city. We were an integrated city with both black and white residents. And it was really a happening place at one time. But since that time we’ve seen a lot of decline. There is a lot of crime, homelessness, and unemployment. And we have become a predominantly black city now – approximately, 90-98 percent African American. I work in Mobile, but my organization serves the southwest portion of Alabama. There are eight counties that we actually serve.

BTG / ISS: Tell me more about your service.

Bettis: We are a nonprofit civil rights organization, and we educate and enforce laws on fair housing. Our primary funding source is the U.S. Housing and Urban Development. For example, if you feel like you’re being discriminated against in any type of housing-related transaction you could contact our office and find out if we might be of service to you. Also, we advocate for issues around community development. The scope of fair housing is usually put in a box, and when our presence is seen at community meetings around the city they might say, “What exactly does fair housing have to do with community development?” Well most municipalities, both state and local, get what’s called Community Development Block Grants. And what most of them don’t recognize is that there is a provision in the regulations that specifies that when they sign to get those funds that they will affirmatively further fair housing. When you think about fair housing, you have to think about transportation, jobs, and education, because where you live and how a community functions is affected by all of those things.  

BTG / ISS: What are the center’s priorities for 2012?

Bettis: For 2012 we’re connecting the region around issues around community development, housing, health, environment, as well as economic development. We are continuing to grow our partnerships with other entities across the region, and our focus also continues to be on the disabled community as well – those individuals with special needs. We’re getting more complaints from persons with special needs being denied access to housing or not being able to gain accessible housing when it’s needed. We’re still reeling from the burst of the housing bubble. Foreclosures are still a big issue. We are also a HUD-certified housing counseling agency and so we offer counseling for those individuals who are in jeopardy of being foreclosed on their homes.  

BTG / ISS: What are the main issues impacting the areas you serve?

Bettis: So many of the communities that we serve still have unemployment rates well over 10 percent, which supersede the national average.  Now we have the concern that unemployment benefits for some individuals are running out. We of course are still also recovering from the effects of the BP oil spill. Now we’re seeing issues with health problems. Perhaps you didn’t lose you’re job but you’ve gotten sick as a result of what has happened with the BP oil. We’re also seeing an increase of issues around mental health. And then another issue is that many of our state mental facilities are being shut down and we don’t have adequate housing programs or resources for those individuals. Most recently, we have begun to see an influx in the calls that we’re getting in our office from individuals who have mental health issues in regard to being able to find housing, or they have found housing and there’s the issue of the management not knowing how to interact with those individuals because they’ve not had any training in that area.

BTG / ISS: What can national leaders do?

Bettis: They can make sure that they continue to fund the Fair Housing Initiative for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. What we do is very important. Also continuing to fund HUD’s department for housing counseling. I think with so much discussion around cutting or doing away with entitlement programs, such as Community Development Block Grants, very little thought has been given to the short term effects that would take place. I would not want any president or members of Congress to go in and take away these types of entitlement programs without considering a review of those programs to establish efficiency in those programs, because they’re desperately needed in the community.

BTG / ISS: Where would you want to see your community in 50 years or 100 years?

Bettis: If I could look at the greater area in Mobile here where we serve and the surrounding counties, I would really like to see more of a partnership between the community and the individuals who actually run the local municipalities and the counties and the state level. There seems to be such a disconnect, especially when you look at those representatives who function on a state level, between them and the real hard issues on the ground that people are dealing with.

I would love to see more inclusive communities here in the South. There are just certain pockets or areas where you just see lines drawn along race. And I would like to see that diminished more, so that people begin to understand one another and are able to co-exist, you know, in a peaceful manner. I would love to see the South become the leader for a clean economy, green building, green jobs and green development. We’re in an area where you see the highest numbers for health disparities – high blood pressure, diabetes, death rates, and heart attacks. Additionally, our air quality is not good. We have all of the oil refineries and drilling in the Gulf. So if we could really take a lead as a region, that would be one thing that I would really like to see us do: to take a leadership role.  

BTG / ISS: What will it take to get to that place?

Bettis: A lot of work. And, I think, education is a big piece of that. So many people don’t really understand what green building is, and I think there  needs to be a serious piece on educating the community. Because I think if we could get the community educated on what green building is and what that means – and you have to really make it plain, make it simple. If you can get consumers to understand that rather than paying a $300 per month power bill, if we use techniques for retrofitting homes to green standards or building homes to green standards, you can be paying $40 a month.  

BTG / ISS: What motivates you to do this work?

Bettis: People. I’m afforded the opportunity to learn a lot about resources, and then be able to share that with people who would not otherwise have that connection.

Another motivation is my kids, my children. My son, who’s 7 years old. As I told you earlier we live in the city of Prichard. I had the opportunity last year to take him over to Fairhope, which is in a neighboring Baldwin County. We went to the Earth Day. And as we were driving through downtown Fairhope, my son was sitting in the backseat of the car. He was like, “Oh, Mama, this is just beautiful!” He was looking at all the pretty flowers and the quaint buildings and the big oak trees hanging over. And he said, “Oh, I love it.” In the same instance he says, “But why doesn’t where we live look like this?” And when he said it, you know, it pinched a little bit. But I said, “You know what?” I said, “It doesn’t look like that now, but Mama is working on some things to try to make it look like this.”

When he said that, that was like a real wakeup call for me, and why it’s so important to continue the work of civil rights and the community development work that we do.

iss report coverInterview conducted by Ada McMahon. The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Read the Troubled Waters report from Institute for Southern Studies.

Read and watch more interviews with Gulf Coast community leaders.

Watch another interview with Teresa Bettis.

This content was produced by Bridge the Gulf Project and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health, in collaboration with the Institute for Southern Studies.