Gentrification and making housing affordable has been a key talking point in Greenville for some time now. Rightfully so, as Greenville has experienced unprecedented growth over the past decade. Just recenrly Pulse, the Greenville young professional organization, held a luncheon that featured a panel of experts who discussed what can be done and the Ubuntu Institute for Community Development showed a documentary on gentrification.
I find that it’s only fitting this week’s feature is Chris Manley.
Chris is the owner and founder of Engenius, a local web-design and marketing agency, and Executive Director of local non-profit Rebuild Upstate. Rebuild Upstate is dedicated to repairing and renovating homes in disrepair for those that cannot afford to do it themselves. A side effect of this is the slowing down of gentrification.
Chris was born and raised in the Upstate. “I grew up in a typical middle class family,” he said. “My mom worked in social services. She has a strong passion for caring for others. She would often have me with her at the group homes and facilities where she worked. I was regularly playing with kids who were taken out of their own home for counseling. We may have looked a little bit different, but we were the same age, we went to the same school, we both liked playing with legos. This could happen to anybody. I was incredibly fortunate to grow up in a good environment.”
His mother’s passion became his own. In 2006, while still attending Clemson, Chris would load up with other volunteers in 15 passenger vans and drive south to New Orleans to help with rebuilding efforts after the devastation hurricane Katrina caused. They did everything from roofing, flooring, and plumbing.
Their efforts did not go unnoticed. “I had someone reach out to me,” Chris said, “asking if we could help a local family get their roof repaired. I didn’t see why not, so we decided to make a go of it. We had 3 dozen people show up to help. We realized there is a need in our own backyard. This is how Rebuild Upstate was born.”
“There are people all around us that are in need. The motivation behind why I started Rebuild Upstate is because Christ calls us to help those in need. For some people, that’s providing clothing to the homeless and for others it’s feeding the hungry. For us it’s helping people feel safe and comfortable in their own home.”
Their goal is to perform everything on a wholistic scale by connecting with other non-profits doing similar things. “We can’t serve everyone on our waiting list which is over 1,000 people now. We don’t want to dominate or control all the credit,” Chris said. “There’s a need for collaboration in the non-profit sector. If we meet an elderly gentlemen who’s living by himself, has an unsafe way in and out of his house, and who can’t drive, it would behoove us to give meals on wheels a call and introduce them.”
While Rebuild Upstate is in affordable housing, their focus is different than other organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity. They work with homeowners that are living in a state of repair. They use volunteer labor which helps cut costs significantly, and they work to make a home livable again so the homeowner is in a stable situation and off of waiting lists. Not only that, it keeps them in the community they live in. “Most of the people we serve have been in their community for 20+ years,” Chris told me. “This help prevents gentrification. They’d love to stay on the street the grew up on.”
Although they’re not building from the ground up, they’re helping people stay in place. “If we can keep people in the same spot for $3000, rather than uprooting them and placing them in a brand new home, it allows us to collaborate and work together with other organizations that do provide affordable housing.”
Chris continued, “We were doing assessments of families that we served a year ago, and one of the questions was ‘are you financially able to maintain your home.’ We found that the majority of them weren’t any better off than they were a year ago. We decided we wanted to address that need, so we started offering financial literacy training. Financial literacy isn’t our mission, but at the same time, we can’t just keep putting a bandaid on a gaping wound. We want families to be able to take pride in maintaining their own home.”
Rebuild Upstate has a diverse string of support. They work collaboratively with local government, the Greenville County Redevelopment Authority, Senior Action, and State Housing Trust Fund. The remainder of their funding comes from several generous individuals and private organizations such as churches. Their labor is all volunteer based, many companies will use it as a team building and giving back exercise.
Rebuild Upstate’s work is entirely with low income people, many of their clients are individuals who make 50% less than the median income in their area.
“I have always maintained this philosophy that if you’re in the human service sector of non profits your job is to make life better for others,” Chris said, “That’s our job. There may be different organizations that serve in different capacities and demographics, but at the end of the day we’re all trying to improve the life of people in our community. Our mission is more than just the specific niche we’re trying to solve. We have to ask ourselves, ‘How can we create wholistic change?’ We want to create a support framework that allows those in need to lead a better life.”
Now, over 10 years since Rebuild Upstate’s fruition and with his company Engenius thriving, Chris finds himself delegating more and more. “I rely a lot on leadership teams and trust them to keep things running. “I’ve learned that to be a good leader you have to set a clear vision and get the hell out of the way. I can’t do everything. Sometimes I just need to get back in my office and stay there. I’ve got a lot of expertise and history in both of these organizations that I try to bring to the table when necessary. Otherwise, I let people do their job and run with it. I want to empower people to do amazing things.”