Blia and new ACTS Homeowners.
Blia farming at her central city Milwaukee home.
Homegrown green beans cultivated by Blia.
Blia with ACTS Homeowners Pastor Lee and his wife at the ACTS Longest Table 2016 Event
In 1993, Blia heard about members of her church purchasing homes from the City of Milwaukee for only $1, condemned foreclosures that they rehabbed. Blia already owned a home, but she was interested: “I thought, $1, that’s a pretty good deal, I can do that.” Now, 23 years later, Blia is retiring as an iconic figure in ACTS Housing history after helping 792 families become homeowners.
Blia called ACTS Housing co-founder John Worm about one boarded up house, but $1 homes were not available to existing homeowners. Since Blia and her husband were church leaders, she knew a lot of people who would be interested in the home and she made some calls.
So many families came to see that first foreclosed house that John asked Blia if she wanted to get into real estate, helping other families purchase and reclaim homes. She agreed, and the rest is history.
When Blia first started at ACTS, she had very little formal education, having not finished high school or even used a computer. She credits her success to the guidance and support given to her by John Worm, who encouraged her to first learn the skills needed for the position, and later to study for her real estate license. John, on the other hand, explained, “I learned more from Blia than she could ever have learned from me.”
Blia has loved being a part of ACTS Housing because she feels that she makes a genuine impact on the lives of the families who she works with: “I like to encourage people to buy their own home, so they can stop calling landlords, take control of the situation, and just fix any problems themselves.”
Through selling homes to families in the central city, Blia feels that the neighborhood is improving. She explains how when she first moved to Milwaukee, there were not many people in the area who owned their own homes. Now she has sold nearly 800 homes in ACTS’ Central neighborhood to families who make it a better place. She tells families she will call them if another house on their block goes on the market: “That way,” she says, “they can know that they will have good neighbors, and help watch for each other’s homes.”
Blia has two main goals for retirement: travel, and farming. She wants to travel all across the world to learn about the different farming techniques that fellow Hmong refugees are using, including: Alaska, to learn how to catch fish with nets in the north Pacific; Australia, to visit a giant banana farm she saw on YouTube, run entirely by Hmong refugees; and to French Guyana, where other Hmong people are farming on land that everyone else said could not be cultivated. Perhaps the most interesting thing Blia plans to do in retirement is to raise chickens in her Milwaukee backyard: “In Laos, a farmer without any animals is not a farmer- so if I only farm vegetables, I am not complete as a farmer.”
ACTS is thankful for Blia’s 23 years of service. If she applies even an ounce of the tenacity, compassion, cunning and dedication she’s shown at ACTS to her retirement activities – Watch out, Milwaukee may soon be overrun by chickens.
When you enter Brenda Brown’s office, one of the first things you see is a decorative quote on the wall that reads: “begin each day with a grateful heart.” It is clear by her bubbly personality and warm smile that this is a mantra she takes seriously: she is a person who lives her life full of gratitude.
ACTS won a contract with the City of Milwaukee to staff the City’s lease-to-own program. Brenda Brown, an ACTS Housing counselor operates the program for the City, Brenda recently took over the position from Coretta Herring, who has moved on to be a full time realtor with ACTS Housing (see picture below).
Brenda explained the City of Milwaukee’s Lease to Own program to me first: it is a program designed to help families and individuals that find themselves in an challenging predicament. When a landlord, for whatever reason, stops paying taxes on the property, the property is foreclosed on by the city. The property sometimes still has tenants in it, often tenants that have been paying their rent. The City’s real estate team goes and meets with the families to make sure the house is decent and habitable. If it is, they ask the tenant if s/he would like to continue living there, most tenants say yes. Tenants then sign a contract with the city to continue renting from the city and are then given the first chance to purchase the home for $1.
This is where Brenda comes in. She explained her role:
“I work with them to transition from being a renter to homeowner. It’s my job to analyze the situation, help them understand this is a golden opportunity, and help make it happen. I help fix any judgments, collections, and talk to people about money management.” It’s not all financial, Brenda also talks with families about the big picture of homeownership, and what it can all mean: “I ask them, where do you see yourself in the next 3 to 5 years? What are some stories you can tell me about you and your family that are positive since you’ve been in this house?”
Brenda explains that all counseling is done on a one on one basis, since every family is different. Tenants in the program pay their bills, property taxes and get homeowners insurance, and are able to own the home without a mortgage.
Delving into the world of personal finance and mortgages may be daunting to some, but for Brenda, it has been a challenging and rewarding career. She started her career owning a cleaning company years ago, becoming a banker, working at a mortgage company for seven years, right up until the foreclosure crisis in 2008. At that point, Brenda explained: “I thought, ‘uh oh’ I couldn’t even get families approved for a basic FHA mortgage. It was a tough time.” Brenda left the world of mortgages to help counsel families facing foreclosure: “I argued with banks, advocated for families to stay in their homes and went to Court with families for their foreclosure hearings. I helped a lot of people stay in their homes but I had to help a lot of people transition out. My heart was broken.” After an inability to approve mortgages, and counseling families through foreclosure, Brenda says she feels her career has come full circle: “This job shows me the flip side, a different way, how the foreclosure turned out to be a little brighter for some families.” Brenda’s focus on the families she works with is admirable. When she began working for the City’s Lease to Own Program, she had 46 families.
The first thing she did was schedule a meeting with every single family.
Hearing Brenda talk about her career and her work is inspiring. For her, it has been a journey, with one common thread throughout: to help people,
“I have no fear about what my purpose in life is. I’m very clear on what my assignment is – it is to serve others. That’s what my assignment is, and it has been for a very long time.”
We are thankful to have Brenda living out this purpose in service to ACTS families.