Steadily and perhaps quietly to some, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County has been changing lives for the past 34 years – one home at a time. At the nonprofit’s fifth annual signature fundraiser Blueprint held in April, CEO Mike Sutton shared news that the organization had been recently named second largest of the 1,300 member locations that comprise Habitat for Humanity International, a statistic that may surprise some but not Sutton. “We’re building 50 to 60 homes over the next 12 months which will include starting on our 500th home, a huge milestone for us that speaks to the support we continue to receive from the community,” he says.
Sutton, who hails from a background in the nonprofit sector including Habitat for Humanity organizations outside of Florida, kicked off his local leadership role four years ago on the day of the 2014 gala. He insists the journey has been nothing but rewarding so far. “We were at a place where we were serving about 25 families a year with new homes and our board wanted to see us get out more into the community and grow, so we’re coming off a year where we built 59 homes,” Sutton says. “The need for affordable housing is greater than ever and Habitat is constantly looking at ways we can impact the community and provide families and individuals opportunities to own their own home.”
Kelly Wooten was another guest speaker at this year’s fundraiser and knows the impact of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County firsthand. She and husband Nicholas and 7-year-old son Matthew moved into their new two-bedroom Clearwater home through the nonprofit’s homebuyer program, receiving the keys during a special dedication ceremony in February and officially moving in a month later.
“The second we were signing the mortgage, all of the pressure lifts off your shoulders. As an adult, that is the one thing we all want, that American Dream. The house. Some people want children or animals in their life, some don’t. But the house, people want that security, having that control of how you live your life. In your own living environment, you have control when you own it. Renting you don’t,” she says. “Call me a control freak, but I needed that control in my life. I needed to know that my kid was safe.”
Wooten and her family had been experiencing overcrowding and serious repairs that remained unaddressed in the low-income apartment complex they were renting. She had seen information about Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County before but was not sure if their family qualified. A fire in a nearby tenant’s apartment that swept through four units and did not trigger any of her apartment’s faulty fire alarms was the last straw as she feared for the family’s safety and especially the well-being of her son, diagnosed as autistic and experiencing lasting repercussions from that traumatic event. “That day changed my life. It was such an intense day that my son still reacts anytime he hears a fire alarm or smells smoke. Those moments were the reason we contacted Habitat. I told my husband we cannot do this anymore. We need to get something of our own and see if Habitat can work with us.”
Wooten says that many people may not realize once families apply for the homebuyer program, there is a commitment required of both parties – the nonprofit and the homeowner-to-be. “It’s really a work and educational program with community support and a mortgage that’s interest free in the end. But it’s a homebuyer program with an agreement of what Habitat will do for their part and what they expect the homebuyer to do in return.”
Sutton agrees that there is a misconception about his organization that it gives away homes. Like the Wootens, families that Habitat Pinellas partners with usually have steady employment but may be living in an overcrowded situation or paying an exorbitant amount of rent, sometimes as much as 50 or 70 percent of their income. “That’s not affordable and it doesn’t provide any kind of growth for a family living paycheck to paycheck,” Sutton says. “Habitat is there to provide an affordable housing solution, a 0% interest loan, but the family goes through a series of classes geared at helping themselves become more self-sufficient.”
Homebuyers not only participate in classes but must also invest anywhere from 350 to 450 sweat equity hours into hands-on construction of home sites, their own as well as others’, an investment Sutton says pays back in dividends. “You can imagine the pride that’s instilled when you’re helping to put up your own walls or install cabinets in your kitchen,” he says. “We’re really proud that the program is a hand up, not a hand out, and our hope would be that down the road, we help them to break that cycle of poverty that in many cases has impacted families for generations.”
For the Wooten family, the process of entering the homebuyer program and finally opening the door for the first time upon move-in took about five months, as the process pushed through some permit issues, a very active hurricane season and holiday breaks. After the hard work and 350 sweat equity hours invested in the construction of their home and others, Kelly Wooten says the family couldn’t be happier, enjoying the simple things that some may take for granted like quiet neighbors, reliable air conditioning, the convenience of having a dishwasher or washer and dryer onsite or even having one’s own “problems” to deal with like fighting weeds. These are problems Wooten loves tackling because as she puts it “these are our little problems we can solve.” For Wooten, home ownership has meant taking the reins of their lives, taking control, and that means everything.
“Everybody with Habitat has a story. For my child, I needed a quiet, stable environment. Now, I can focus on just raising him. It had been difficult when things were happening to cause him anxiety and now, we have neighbors who respect us, and who want peace and quiet, too,” she says. “For me, the weight, the pressure, the anxiety, are off my shoulders and I feel safe and secure.”
In addition to Habitat Pinellas’s home purchasing program, the organization also supports existing homeowners in the South St. Petersburg area with its St. Pete Midtown Home Repairs revitalization program. Sutton says the group partners with families to provide critical home repair services such as roof or HVAC system replacement, handicap accessibility or ramps, and other home improvements. “One of the things we realized is that home ownership there is generational, so families may own homes for generations and not have a clear title or struggle from paycheck to paycheck and the homes can fall into disrepair,” he says. “By improving the home, we help make it more sustainable for the long term.” The revitalization program supports on average about 15-20 critical home repairs per year in addition to another 20-40 homes which benefit from a subset of the program, A Brush with Kindness, providing external work for neighborhoods such as painting and landscaping.
Sutton says that between all three programs – new home construction, critical home repair and Brush with Kindness – the organization serves about 125 to 150 families a year in Pinellas County. The community can lend its support for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County in any one of four ways currently in place. Individuals or businesses can get involved by volunteering individually or with their families or companies; by donating cash, goods for the annual gala or golf tournament or even donating property; by referring a potential individual or family to the homebuyer or revitalization program; and by shopping or donating at either of the organization’s two ReStore locations in Clearwater and Palm Harbor, where 100% of proceeds go back into building new Habitat homes.
For now, the building continues toward that milestone 500th home in the not-so-distant future. Sutton says it’s not unusual for members of his team (he included) to shut down the office and work on a house together. He calls it a reminder of the work that’s being done by the nearly 7,000 volunteers each year that help keep the Habitat program running.
“Every time we finish a home, we do a small dedication ceremony, and the smile on their faces when they receive the key to their front door is priceless. It never gets old,” he says. “That smile and the way they respond is what keeps me going every day.”
By Chris Kuhn, photos provided by Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas
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