Norma Marquez dreamed of owning a house long before she moved to Birmingham, Alabama, 13 years ago. Yet there were obstacles.
One was a language barrier. Another was knowing the right steps to take – and in what order.
Both were resolved when she learned about a homeownership workshop offered in Spanish by ¡HICA! – the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. With her husband, Aaron, she attended and started to understand how her dream could be realized.
“We learned about the options that were available for our community,” Marquez said. “In a couple of months, we walked through multiple homes until we found our home.”
Still, she felt some trepidation.
“We were always hearing stories of members of the Hispanic community who became victims of property sale fraud,” she explained.
That led her to call ¡HICA! for help. She was connected to one of the nonprofit’s housing counselors, who successfully guided her and her husband through the process.
“She told us about all the things that we needed to apply for a mortgage to buy the home, the different financial products that were available for us,” Marquez explained. “She helped us analyze our financial situation, the mortgage product that we were being offered, and referred us to a closing agent. She was there for us all the time. We are really, really grateful with her and ¡HICA!”
I love the strength of character I see from the people we serve.
Isabel Rubio, executive director of ¡HICA!
¡HICA! was founded in 1999 when a UAB social worker named Isabel Rubio recognized there was no key advocate for the area’s growing Latino population. Many people were not only new to Birmingham, but to the U.S. as a whole. Today, ¡HICA! champions economic equality, civic engagement and social justice for Latino and immigrant families statewide.
That lifeline has never been more valuable than in 2020.
“When the pandemic started, and we saw the toll it was taking on families, we decided we needed to scale up the Emergency Assistance Fund we already had in place,” said Rubio, executive director of ¡HICA! “We already had the framework, but we had to make sure we could help people with things like housing instability and food insecurity.”
Since COVID-19’s emergence, ¡HICA! raised close to $250,000 solely for the emergency fund while distributing $130,000 to families in need, helping them keep their homes, make utility payments and get food.
“Without ¡HICA!, there’s no lifeline,” said Jon Davies, corporate compliance manager for Regions Bank, a longtime community partner with ¡HICA! “When COVID struck, they found clients who had lost jobs and didn’t have access to help like enhanced employment and stimulus packages.”
Davies, who serves on the ¡HICA! board, said what sets the nonprofit apart is its unwillingness to say no.
“¡HICA! focuses solely on its community and covers almost any need they have,” he said. “It’s not just providing a service. They’ll work to help a family in any way they can, and that’s what makes them unique because it’s a community often marginalized by immigration status.”
Regions Bank provided a $75,000 grant to ¡HICA! for pandemic-related needs. This most recent support follows a grant from the nonprofit Regions Foundation in 2019.
“Regions’ help goes far beyond writing a check,” Rubio said. “They’ve provided volunteers and leaders on our board, like Jon, and professional relationships. For example, we’re here supporting our small-business owners with a micro-lending program that Regions helped us establish.”
The help comes in many ways.
In recent months, ¡HICA! has distributed 540 meal kits, weighing between 15-25 pounds each, containing bread, veggies and fruit, along with stable shelf items such as canned tuna, peanut butter, beans and rice. Most of the meal kits were distributed from the nonprofit’s Birmingham headquarters, but another 100 have been shared via satellite offices in rural North Alabama. The meals were made possible by contributions from partners including churches, an urban farm, a food bank and Latino News, a media outlet.
Since April 3, the Emergency Assistance Fund has provided financial help for 300 families, including 84 single-parent households, positively impacting 558 children.
The help comes in many ways, including gift cards and rent or utility assistance in 10 counties.
“Our community was hit so very hard, particularly when restaurants were closed and people were laid off,” Rubio said. “Now we see other issues: people needing (COVID-19) testing, becoming ill and not having resources. As a result, we’re seeing new ways to use the emergency fund.”
At the same time, Rubio said ¡HICA! must focus on recovery.
“As we’re still working remotely, we’ve been doing webinars on homeownership that were watched by 1,100 people,” she said. “We also must help them protect themselves. Buying houses when there’s not a clear title on the house is a big issue.”
Sarah Moss, a member of Regions’ Community Relations team, said helping ¡HICA! has long been a priority. But given the new normal, helping is simply a must.
“Regions supports the goals of ¡HICA! in a post-pandemic world,” Moss said. “Right now, the main goal is to ensure families left out of federal relief efforts won’t become homeless or hungry. At the same time, we want to help them help their clients rebuild their businesses.”
For Rubio’s team, the pandemic only adds to problems for a community that already struggles with economic challenges, social justice and racial inequity.
“The world does not stop because of COVID,” Rubio said. “Kids are still graduating and going to college, and we have to be able to support them. We have to help with the hundreds of calls about filing initial DACAs. Unfortunately, the Latino community has taken this pandemic on the nose. But I love the strength of character I see from the people we serve.”