Rust College Builds a Better Community

Philip Brooks
Rust College President Dr. David L. Beckley hands keys to new homeowners.

Looking for a house? You might see what local colleges are offering.

About a decade ago, Rust College saw a need for housing revitalization in its city of Holly Springs, Miss. Leaders at Rust, the oldest of United Methodism's 11 historically black colleges and universities, wanted to transform the area into a vibrant, self-sustaining community. In order to pursue that dream, they founded the Rust College Community Development Corporation. The first step on the path to revitalization became a housing project of the city's Main Street. Rust College is one of the 11 colleges and universities supported by The Black College Fund.

Clencie L. Cotton directs the organization.

"The RCCDC emerged out of a desire on the part of Rust College to bring the resources of the institution into the community," Cotton said. "Our primary concern was housing rehabilitation, so in 2003, we founded the organization to head up the housing rehabilitations efforts. We didn't just want to patch up these houses, but actually revitalize the area in ways that would last."

Cotton and his organization soon realized the goals might require more than they originally thought. Most of the existing homes were already beyond rehabilitation, so the RCCDC switched the strategy to building new homes in the area.

"We changed our strategy," Cotton continued, "by first partnering with other local organizations such as the Mississippi Home Builders Association. Secondly, we turned to new sources for additional funding, including two grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development."

They began to build 11 new homes in the area. Along with being nicer and safer than the demolished houses, they would be more economically and environmentally viable. "The city provided the street, electricity and water," Cotton said, "while we build the homes. We worked with the utility company and other partners in the area to build homes that would use less energy and save money in electricity and heating. We're now committed to building four more houses in the area."

Holly Springs resident and new homeowner Larry Martin admitted he had reservations initially.

"We were pretty skeptical," he said, "because there had been similar ideas in the past that failed, but I went to a meeting … and was surprised with how serious Mr. Cotton and his organization (were) about building stronger and better houses."

'Such a blessing'

The RCCDC does more than build new homes, however. The organization also provides education and new opportunities to homeowners through homebuyer education and counseling programs. The Amos Institution administers some of the classes, but people associated with the college, including Cotton, offer financial literacy education to applicants.

"Along with serving 15 families who are being given a new home to live in," Cotton noted, "we've had about 200 people apply for homes and take the classes on homeownership.

"Even if they don't get a house right away, they learn important principles about finances, budgeting and credit that can be helpful in other ways. They also learn the difference between renting and owing a home. While some of them might learn that they are not quite ready to own a home now, they could still be ready in a few years."

"When I first heard about this project," said new homeowner Stetory Finner. "I was living in a 50-year-old house that was falling apart, so I applied for the program. When they finished building my house, I brought my preacher over and prayed together over it. It's so nice living here now. I had room now for a washing machine so that I didn't have go to the Laundromat anymore."

Martin added, "It is such a blessing to get a new house. Most people never experience such a thing. I feel very blessed. RCCDC worked so hard to make these places strong and suitable for living."

Martin and Finner also serve on the board of directors for RCCDC and work with Cotton to raise funds for new projects and identify other streets to target.

"Rust has a long history of seeking ways to improve the quality of life for the local community beyond the classrooms occupied by students, many who are not residents of Holly Springs," said Dr. David L. Beckley, Rust president.

"This tradition of serving the community dates back to the early days of the school when it organized the first school for African-Americans after the Civil War, to special programs to train farmers during the Depression, to serving as the first grantee for Head Start in the 1960s. The housing initiative came as a result of our efforts to rid our area of poor housing. With the cooperation of the city and federal funding, we launched our housing initiative to clean up a section of the city that adjoins our property."

The partnership continues today with the city, homeowners and business owners. "We want to think," Beckley said, "we have only started on this effort of improving the quality of life for our neighbors. Rust is proud of the project and the support we have received from property owners, local elected officials and the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development."

*Brooks is a freelance writer living in Nashville, TN

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