“I was stunned by the conditions that people in poverty endured”
Driving down her street in Kansas City, Missouri, Helen (Brewer) Hurst takes the time to really look at the houses. These are houses for low- to moderate-income families. Hurst helped secure funding for many of these houses.
“A great number of the housing developments I worked on are here in Kansas City,” said Hurst. “I ride by them all the time. I live in one of them. I live across the street from houses that I underwrote.”
A Mentor at Missouri State
Hurst, who graduated in 1966, is likely the first female African-American to graduate from then-SMS.* Initially, Hurst had no interest in getting a degree. She thought she might take a few classes, but her overall plan was to get a full-time job on campus.
“My motivation to go to college was to just have a job where I didn’t have to do domestic work! In 1962, domestic work was largely the only employment available to an African-American female. That’s where Robert Peace, instructor and former director of the then-SMS business operations department, was a big help to me.”
She landed one of the student jobs in the college print shop.
“Peace was our boss, and by default our mentor. He made certain all the student workers were pursuing the goal of education first. It was through his urging and support in 1963 that I came to realize that an 18-year-old black kid could be a greater success as an adult with a college degree.”
Peace even met with Hurst’s dad to ask him to sign her up for a student loan — which she got. She was able to complete her last two years of school without having to work.
Exposure to poor leads to new passion
Hurst earned a bachelor’s in education with an emphasis in physical education and a minor in English. She then taught English for eight years in Missouri, Florida, Michigan and then Georgia.
When she left Springfield, what she saw sometimes shocked her.
“After I really got out and I started seeing other cities and other places, I was just devastated by the living conditions in minority and poor communities. I was stunned by the conditions that people in poverty endured. Being a teacher, I would see it a lot,” Hurst said.
“… I felt so guilty that kids were growing up in those kinds of conditions.”
During her years of teaching, she took real estate and property development classes in the evenings. Her true passion became real estate.
Work leads to changes in minority/low-income neighborhoods
Hurst received an MBA in 1975 from Atlanta University.
Her first job was in the real-estate lending division of Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the bank, she learned the art of packaging funding for large developments, as well as other construction underwriting skills.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, community improvement and development became a national priority. It was the beginning of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and efforts were started to clean up toxic waste in many inner-city communities.
Federal funding to redevelop poor and minority communities was available. Hurst moved to working full-time in the packaging of funding for the redevelopment of poor communities.
After 11 years with the bank, she decided to step out into the community.
For the next 12 years, Hurst worked for an inner-city builder/developer as a project manager. Working with nonprofits, banks and foundations, she assembled funding to develop more than 200 units of “homeownership housing” — homes intended to be purchased by a family — in five low-income and/or minority Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
In total, she worked on developing more than $15 million in single-family housing units, and $3 million in commercial developments and renovations, in Pittsburgh.
‘Could have been content dealing solely with wealthy clients’
Hurst’s friend, Norma S. Duncan, nominated Hurst for this story. Duncan was one of the first female African-Americans to attend MSU, and was on campus from 1957-59.
“I have known Helen’s family all my life. Helen is a really amazing person. She could have been content dealing solely with wealthy clients in the field of real estate, but she never forgot the struggle her parents had raising a family and trying to get money to purchase a home. Her focus couldn’t help but be on middle- and low-income families, doing what she could to help. Helen was always very low-key and modest,” said Norma Duncan.
Hurst moved to Kansas City in 1998 to work as a risk management consultant for Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., a nationwide funding agency focused on affordable homeownership development.
Retired and still volunteering
She worked for other Kansas City agencies before retiring in 2010. Hurst continues to work for the good of the community. She volunteers with K.C. nonprofits, helping them put various projects together — some of which having nothing to do with housing.
“Right now, I’m working with a group that is developing a youth jazz band. My role is with the funding component. Even though it’s not housing, the technique is basically the same. You find the sources, you make sure the documentation is right, then present it to as many sources as possible.”
In Kansas City and Pittsburgh, Hurst’s work helped lead to more than 20 developments, totaling nearly $50 million in homeownership housing and neighborhood revitalization.
Developments she consulted on through other agencies constituted millions more in homeownership housing.
“I loved all the housing development for homeownership that I’ve done — easily 500 to 600 units financed in the different cities across the country. The way my career ended, I loved it! I stood over a lot of sewers being dug, but I didn’t have to clean one toilet!”