By Bradley Osburn
“It’s not a hand-out, it’s a hand-up,” said Alachua Habitat for Humanity Development Director Casey Smith. “That’s a big misconception people have, that we just give away houses.”
In reality, Habitat for Humanity is a well-thought-out and very successful system by which low-income families can gain access to housing at a zero percent interest rate in exchange for a willingness and ability to pay, and a willingness to pay it forward by helping construct even more houses through 400 hours of sweat equity.
Habitat goes one step farther than that, said Winzeler, by putting the new homeowners through a series of classes on budgets, homeowner’s insurance and basic home repair. When a home is complete, Habitat takes the new owner on a final walkthrough and schedules an 11-month inspection to catch any problems that may arise in the first year.
Alachua Habitat for Humanity opened in 1986. Since then, they’ve signed off 74 mortgages at zero percent interest, according to Executive Director Scott Winzeler. Habitat operates on a revolving door of funding. As people pay back their mortgages, Habitat uses that money to build even more houses and rehabilitate others.
Habitat houses cost about $75,000 for new construction and rehabilitation costs vary, depending on if Habitat had to buy the house and how much rehabilitation is needed. During the recent recession, Habitat homes stood at a two percent foreclosure rate.
“They are homeowners and just as susceptible to loss as everybody else,” Winzeler said. “But we do not want these people to lose their homes.”
One of their earliest homes was recently paid off and three have been paid off this year alone. By and large people still live where they built their house, Smith said.
Habitat is also funded through a number of individual and private donations, grants, and income from the ReStore second-hand shop, which Winzeler said is great way of serving low-income families. ReStore offers books, furniture, videos, clothes and even building supplies at deep discounts.
Alachua Habitat is currently very active, Smith said. The nonprofit currently has two rehabilitations, two tear-down and rebuild projects ongoing, and another house going up in a new lot.
Alachua Habitat also partners with Santa Fe College’s Charles R. Perry Construction Institute to construct new homes with student builders. They are currently building their fourth house in collaboration with the Builders Association of North Central Florida. Much of the work on those houses is done on Santa Fe’s northwest campus before the nearly complete structure is transported out to its final destination.
In order to keep costs down, habitat relies primarily on volunteers, many of which are University of Florida students. Habitat also sponsors its own Women Build initiative, which is designed to get women out to learn the practice of construction. In 2012 alone, Alachua Habitat had 1,665 people volunteer for a total of 8,706 man-hours of work.
Habitat does have to rely on licensed electricians, plumbers and HVAC specialists, but to the extent it can it relies on regular people who just want to give back. Some licensed technicians will help teach volunteers skills while they work, such as a local electrician who not only approves a build’s wiring, but takes the time to train volunteers in proper wiring procedure.
Many volunteers end up returning over and over. Winzeler said that Alachua Habitat has one volunteer who 19 years ago helped build a house and now she’s back to help give the same home a facelift.
A project will typically have up to 30 people per house working four to five months on Fridays and Saturdays. Summer projects could take longer because everybody is out of town.
Habitat’s next big national push is the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. In East Gainesville, the program will focus on the Duval Community. Habitat will partner with other agencies like the city, Mt. Carmel church, Gainesville Regional Utilities and Rebuild Together as one spoke of the project’s wheel.
The community engagement portion of the project will start on Nov. 21 in the evening, where the agents will present the initiative to the residents and allow them to state what they need, instead of being told what they need. The initiative was driven by the recent recession. Habitat wants to help people stay in the homes they have.
“We believe everybody deserves a safe, decent, affordable place to live,” Smith said. “When you build one of these houses, you bring the community together to build hope.”