‘Public Housing Should Be a Stepping Stone’

Abra Barnes is carrying on the work of her grandfathers while widening the circle of homeowners in her Birmingham, Ala., community.
Abra Barnes

Abra Barnes, CCIM, AHWD
Broker-owner, Barnes and Associates
Birmingham, Ala.

Although she is only 43, Abra Barnes witnessed cross burnings in her area as a child, a malevolent warning that certain residents weren’t welcome. Now, Barnes makes it her company’s mission to put out the welcome mat for would-be buyers and to “let people know they can be homeowners.”

She’s carrying on a profound legacy. Her grandfathers—Alex Barnes and the Rev. Dr. Abraham Lincoln Woods Jr.—stood on the front lines of the civil rights movement. And her father, Anthony L. Barnes, was the first African American to sit on the Alabama real estate commission. He started Barnes & Associates, once the largest Black-owned real estate company in Alabama.

The brokerage serves low- and moderate-income areas of Birmingham, empowering clients to purchase real estate. “A lot of the people we’ve worked with were surprised they could be homeowners,” she says. “They never saw their parents or grandparents buy.”

To avoid competing with the company’s 41 agents, Barnes practices commercial real estate exclusively. She works with small developers, nonprofits and fledgling business owners who are seeking their first space. “Buying a house is a huge thing in the African American community. And when you [buy or lease] commercial, that’s the icing on the cake,” she says.

Raising Awareness and Funds

As executive producer of “Lenders, Landlords, and the Law: A Fair Housing Reflection on Diversity and Inclusion,” Barnes helped raise awareness of
the lingering effects of past discrimination. The award-winning documentary video debuted in 2022 with a screening at a local theater, raising $20,000 for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a research center and museum focused on civil rights developments in the city. Barnes’ maternal grandfather was a founder. The video is also being used as an educational tool by real estate instructors, brokers and school teachers.

Abra Barnes & Randall L. Woodfin
Barnes meets with Birmingham Mayor Randall L. Woodfin at City Hall.

The documentary “makes people look at things differently,” says Barnes. Home equity is often the largest part of a person’s net worth, she says, and “people were denied housing ... for decades. That’s a 50-year head start for some people.”

Barnes opened her own real estate school in 2019, offering pre- and post-licensing education. The school has helped more than 200 students, mostly minorities, earn their license, she says. “I’ve been an agent for 21 years and I’ve seen [discrimination] myself,” she said. “I needed to train other people so I could magnify my efforts.”

Public Service With a Personal Mission

In 2021, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin appointed Barnes to a four-year term on the Birmingham Public Housing Authority. The appointment has placed limits on her business, because it’s a conflict of interest for her to work with people or entities getting subsidies.

But she’s OK with that “because I’m doing a ministry. I’m working to do away with the need for public housing.”

Barnes believes the organization has a mandate: to help people move out of public housing and into homeownership. Prior to her appointment, she worked with a client who had lived in public housing for more than 10 years. After enrolling in a homeownership program that helped her save a percentage of earnings, the client was able to buy a house with $37,000 down. To put that in perspective, “in my community, folks struggle to put down $3,000,” she says. The icing on the cake? “After five years, the woman was able to buy five investment properties.” Public housing, Barnes says, “should be used as a stepping stone.”

“My [grandfathers] gave me the strength and courage to fight for housing for all people,” she adds. “When someone obtains homeownership, they not only have quality housing but can [build] generational wealth.”

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