From Partnership to Homeownership

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Whitney Jett is a NOAHH partner family who started her partnership in June 2016. NOAHH will be following her story through the entire partnership and hopefully beyond. Click the buttons below to navigate between parts of her story.

Background Deciding to Call Application Process ReStore and Lot Selection Build Site FTHB Class More Build Site Her Home Begins Continuing Construction Financial Fitness Class Special Events Working on Her Home Pre-Closing and Closing Home Dedication

“I’m old school,” Yolanda Nunnery said. “I believe in owning your own house, so I was 25 when I purchased my home. That’s me putting that in her. I love owning everything. I don’t want to pay rent. I never did want to pay rent, ’cause you never own it. I never leased anything, ’cause you never own it. I buy stuff.”

On January 29, 1988, Yolanda closed on a home in New Orleans East, in an area where no one else had yet moved in. She was always looking for the better deal–for anything–and had found an apartment with a very affordable rent, which allowed her to save up to buy a home. She looked at developments on the West Bank, where she was living at the time, but found out about new construction going on in “rural” parts of New Orleans East, where the homes would be cheaper.

“It was nice but scary because I didn’t have neighbors,” she said. “I didn’t have houses next to me. I had to worry after I bought it. I was like, ‘wait a minute, I don’t know who’s gonna move in next door.’ It was nice but scary. It was nice when people started coming out there, because back then it was really quiet. They didn’t have a lot of traffic. It was really quiet. I had pictures, but Katrina took them. I coulda shown it to you. It was nice.”

Yolanda knew from a young age that she wanted to own her own home. Her father instilled in her a sense of responsibility and a need for independence. He began working when he was 15 years old, and as Yolanda puts it, he learned financial fitness through “hard knocks.” She passed the lessons he taught her on to her daughter, Whitney Jett. Whitney (and her sister) grew up in that home in New Orleans East, learning from their independent mother how to plan, make budgets, and work hard. They also learned the value of owning a home.

“He taught independence to his kids because he never wanted his girls to be dependent on any guys,” Yolanda said. “I had two girls, and I didn’t want them to be dependent. So you raise them to do what they gotta do on their own. You take care of yourself.”

After graduating college, Whitney decided to move out to California. Her mother’s lessons on financial independence served Whitney well when she moved to Los Angeles. She and her older sister rented a place together for a time, but when her sister moved away to New York, she knew she would have to find a way to live on her own while working at Target.

“New Orleans has the central character to it. All of the cultures blend together. Where every other major city they just kinda separated like Chinatown or Little Armenia. We have a New Orleans culture.”

“It was the first time I was on my own, having to pay my own bills by myself for a change,” she said. “I had to basically grow up instantly. I was already on that track, but it was like ‘Do it now. You don’t have time to grow into this. Just do it now.’ Even when I was out there, I still wanted to own a house in California, but looking at the prices, I thought, ‘Not at this job. I can’t do a thing.’”

She sat down, did the math, and found she had to add to her budget things she’d never thought of before, like utilities, Internet, and even the occasional night out.

“I still managed to hang out with my friends once a week and budget what I could,” she said. “If I didn’t have the money, I just didn’t have it.”

She ended up paying $900 a month for an apartment and finding ways to make it work, but after a while, she felt drawn back to New Orleans. The high rent was matched by higher prices for everything, including New Orleans staples like shrimp, which was nearly $15 a pound (“Not even with the heads on! It was horrible!”), and crawfish, which was over $10 a pound (“and the corn and potatoes and stuff were extra!”). She found that even her attempts to bring New Orleans to Los Angeles weren’t enough.

“[Los Angeles] has a character, but it’s only into certain parts of the city,” she said. “New Orleans has the central character to it. All of the cultures blend together. Where every other major city they just kinda separated like Chinatown or Little Armenia. We have a New Orleans culture. They don’t have an L.A. culture. It’s something I grew up with, and I’m just so used to it. I went to a friend’s Salvadorian birthday party. They had a band there, and the music was similar to a second line band. I pulled out a napkin and started second lining. Her mom looked at me like I was crazy. My friend said, ‘No, she’s just from New Orleans!'”

She made a plan to return home by June 2016, but she decided to return much sooner, arriving in time for Thanksgiving in 2015.

“I felt too far away,” she said. “It felt like the longer I was there, the longer I was gonna be there. At a certain point, I was like, I gotta move back.”

A few months after returning, Whitney would make a decision that would help her realize her dream.

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Home

It’s not uncommon for people to express disbelief at how the Habitat program works. It’s not until they meet someone who has done it that they accept it–and even then, there’s some doubt.

“I thought there was no way this was actually real,” said Whitney Jett, who recently joined NOAHH’s homeownership program. “All you gotta do is just put in some volunteer hours and you get [to buy] a house? That’s it? No down payment? And then the no-interest part came up, and I thought, ‘Wait, what?’ So too good to be true were the first words that came to mind. But first we heard from Tamika, and then we went to the actual presentation in Joe Brown Park. Then I thought it was real. I said, ‘I’m gonna call.'”

Yolanda Nunnery, Whitney’s mother, echoes her daughter’s sentiment: “If it wasn’t for Tamika, though, I don’t think we would have looked into it, because I just couldn’t believe. It’s too good to be true. Seriously, it really is too good to be true.”

Since entering the New Orleans Habitat homeownership program, Whitney has heard her own skeptical response repeated by her friends. Most of them seem to be waiting to see how her time in the program works out before they apply, but some are seriously considering it. Tamika Kennedy, who owns a Habitat home, told Whitney and her mother about how it worked and convinced them to try it. Several months later, Whitney is in NOAHH’s homeownership program and has now finished over 60 sweat equity hours. As she continues the program, Whitney is doing for her friends what Tamika did for her: proving that the Habitat program really works.

“I think that’s kinda what’s going on right now with the people I am telling about the program,” Whitney said, launching into a hypothetical conversation. “They’re sitting there saying, ‘Wait. No interest? How do they make money? Do they make a profit off of this?’ I told them, ‘I don’t think so. I think they just kinda sell it at cost. I don’t know what happens.’ ‘But what bank is gonna do–?’ ‘I don’t know! I don’t know how they got this deal.'”

To answer Whitney’s hypothetical questions:

All NOAHH homeowners have a 0% interest mortgage on their homes. That is split between the standard mortgage (which covers the cost of the home) and a soft second mortgage (which covers the value of the home minus the construction cost of the home). The value of the home is determined by an appraiser hired by NOAHH. The soft second mortgage is forgiven over time as the homeowner continues paying for and living in the home.

We make no profit and charge no interest. The money for building homes comes from the mortgages of other New Orleans Habitat homes, from donations, from funds raised through our ReStore, and other sources. NOAHH is the mortgage originator–the loan comes from our affiliate–but the mortgages are processed by Fidelity Bank, who have supported local homeownership since their founding in 1908. The monthly payments are kept affordable because of our soft second mortgages and because of volunteer and donor support.

What truly makes our homeownership program possible, though, are our partner families. Partner families pay their mortgages, which help fund the construction of more homes. Partner families understand the importance of homeownership and serve as the heart of our program. Partner families sign up for the program and do the hard work of sweat equity, work alongside volunteers and show the universal value of homeownership, and spread the word to their friends, families, even strangers in the street.

In the case of Tamika Kennedy, she told one of her clients at work, and the client (Yolanda) went home to tell her daughter. What seemed “too good to be true” is now proving to be all too real. Whitney made the call.

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Intake

It was a short phone call. She spoke with someone, giving a few details about her situation, and then scheduled an appointment with her case manager, Emily. All NOAHH partner families have a case manager who guides them through every step of the program, from the application to the closing. There are four main steps of the application process: the intake meeting, the stage 2 paperwork, the home visit, and the partnership meeting. On the advice of Habitat homeowner Tamika Kennedy, Whitney came prepared for the first meeting, bringing all of the documents she could, which allowed her to move the stage 2 paperwork faster—most of what NOAHH needed had been provided at the intake. Though she was anxious at the intake meeting, Whitney found it much easier than she expected.

“Pretty much from the moment I walked in the door, everybody was so inviting,” she said. “They were excited that I was there wanting to [apply] for the program, especially Emily. Emily was so excited to meet me. I was excited to meet her. We were both just sitting there, just bubbling over.”

Emily and Whitney discussed her financial situation and documents, and Emily gave Whitney a program overview. Once it was determined what more Whitney needed to bring in, she moved on to stage 2.

Stage 2

After dropping off the last few pieces of information she needed to complete her stage 2 paperwork, Whitney’s file was taken to the Family Selection Committee. Every Thursday, members of NOAHH’s staff meet to review applicants for the homeownership program. Applicants are accepted based on three criteria: the ability to pay, the need for shelter, and the willingness to partner. The first time the applicant’s file is presented to the committee, their ability to pay is analyzed, and if they are approved, they move on to a home visit. If there are questions or concerns, their case manager reaches out to them and lets them know. The committee almost never denies an applicant without giving suggestions or action items on how they can meet qualifications. If they don’t have the ability to pay now, NOAHH offers guidance on how to stabilize their financial situation–clear up debt, save money, or build employment or rental history. Whitney, however, was approved right away for a home visit.

Whitney received the home visit approval notification while at work, prompting a few surprised reactions as she celebrated the news. “Especially when I got down to the zero percent interest and sweat equity instead of a down payment part. My manager hit me on the arm.”

Home Visit

At the home visit, NOAHH staff reviews the current living space of each applicant to see if they have a need for shelter, which is based on a list of different factors including the physical state of the home, whether it is overcrowded, the monthly housing costs being over 30% of income, and more. In Whitney’s case, she was living with her parents in a small space that was temporary and frequently over-crowded. A review of her home showed she met the qualifications for need for shelter.

“I was a little concerned because I live in a decent house,” she said. “Are they gonna think that I actually need a house? Are they gonna say, ‘Oh, she’s fine. Turn it down.’ I didn’t really know what it was gonna be, and I didn’t know what you guys were expecting. It’s not really a need for shelter like I’m living in a hut somewhere in the middle of the woods. I just need my own space. You know me and my mom, butting heads or too many visitors in the house. I just want my peace and quiet.”

The visit was late on a Friday afternoon, and Whitney’s parents were present. During the visit, Emily explained the program once more and discussed with Whitney her plans to meet each requirement of the program. Then, the home was toured and her needs evaluated.

“I wanted [mom] to be there so it’s not just me and some strangers she hasn’t met,” Whitney said. “Now she gets to meet y’all, too. It made it a lot easier for her to actually be there for it. Afterward, we all looked at each other thinking ‘all right. That was simple. That was quick.’ It was a short visit. I wasn’t sitting there for hours trying to figure out things. It was to the point. I was glad that [mom and stepdad] got to put in their input during the interview. We just took a deep breath and said, ‘All right. What’s next?'”

Over the next week, Whitney waited for her file to go back to the selection committee for final approval. It was quickly approved by the committee.

“I think it was that next week after another committee meeting. That’s when I got the [notification]. You’ve been approved. You’ve passed your home visit. I’m bouncing off walls again. This time I’m at work, and I’m sitting there, and I’m looking at the email on my phone, and I’m just like [shouts with joy]. The entire lunch table was just looking at me. ‘What? What just happened?’ I went from anxious and kinda excited to BOOM! Just oh my god. I made it. It was awesome.”

Partnership Meeting

“We don’t know what kind of house it’s gonna be.’ Then at the open house, it’s like ‘a whole house’! With a kitchen and a laundry room. It’s got everything, even a porch. A whole house! I was losing it for good couple hours.”

The final step in the application process is a meeting with the case manager where the partner family chooses house colors and signs the partnership agreement. The process is fully explained again in the meeting, and resources are given to the partner so that they can complete each step. Before attending the meeting, Whitney and her mom visited the NOAHH model home on Montegut to see what kind of home she would be buying at the end of her partnership if she signed the agreement. It only stoked her enthusiasm more.

“We went to the open house. The teal looked so pretty on the house,” she said. “Even looking at the layout—at that point I didn’t know there’s more than one layout for the houses—looking at that house, it was cool. This could be my office, that could be the guest room, and this is the master bedroom here. Just already in my mind. And then we’re just walking through, and every now and then I’d look at mom and say ‘a whole house!’ Pretty much for the next two hours after we left the house, I would just be sitting there in silence, and they’d be having their conversation. Then I’d say ‘a whole house!’ Mom would say, ‘I know!’ We were sitting there saying ‘it won’t be a real house, it’s gonna be some kinda [low quality] type home… We don’t know what kind of house it’s gonna be.’ Then at the open house, it’s like ‘a whole house’! With a kitchen and a laundry room. It’s got everything, even a porch. A whole house! I was losing it for good couple hours.”

She went to her partnership meeting the next week. She picked teal and grey for her house colors and black for her counter tops. She Googled for ideas beforehand and picked colors based on what she hoped her kitchen accessories would look like.

“I was a mix of emotions at that meeting” she said. “I was excited, of course, because I’ve been approved, now it’s time to sign paper work, start the partnership, let’s go. But it was more than that. Picking colors was making it a little bit more real, because I’m picking colors for a whole house, for a real house. This isn’t just some hut in the woods. This is a house on a street. We went through this binder full of all of this information, and I still have the binder. Now just every now and then I’m wondering about something. I have to go look up stuff. It’s really convenient, especially when I have to go back and schedule my classes. We read through the whole thing, each page. Every now and then, she asked me to sign an original copy and one in the binder, you keep that. I thought, ‘I think I’m ready for this. I think I can do this.’

“It did help to have [Emily] there. If I had questions, it did help to have her right there, just in case there’s anything I wanted to ask–‘what about this part?’ If I needed any kind of clarification. She was right there; she was ready. That made it a lot easier, but nothing in the papers really made say ‘okay I don’t want to do that.’ Nothing made me turn back. I could do that. We can pull this off.”

She started her hours that next weekend.

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Home

“The street had a reputation, apparently. When we first talked about it, it was like, ‘Dale Street, America Street? Oh, that neighborhood’s rough.’ I thought, ‘Well, not according to the crime map.’ And then we actually drove through, and it’s like, ‘Oh, yes, this is where we’re going. It’s a lot better.'”

In June, Whitney Jett began her partnership. She completed her first 50 hours of sweat equity quickly in the ReStore, bringing her mother and stepfather out to help her. After 50 hours, all partner families can select the lot where their homes will be built from the list of properties owned by NOAHH. Whitney quickly started doing research on the lots. While working her hours, she also met other partner families, including Pamala Adams, with whom she coordinated her lot choice. They each had their own special reasons for picking where they did–Pam wanted a camelback house where she could entertain guests, and Whitney wanted a bigger lot.

“We just want to have a house and want to have a good neighborhood,” she said. “It’s like everybody is on the same page. We’re all gonna be friends. I think we’re gonna look out for each other.”

Whitney’s lot is on America Street, where NOAHH has been building for several years. Over the last five years, this area has been transformed from blighted properties to empty lots to a thriving neighborhood. This change made a difference for Whitney.

“I narrowed down the lot to America Street before I even went to that street,” she said. “The street had a reputation, apparently. When we first talked about it, it was like, ‘Dale Street, America Street? Oh, that neighborhood’s rough.’ I thought, ‘Well, not according to the crime map.’ And then we actually drove through, and it’s like, ‘Oh, yes, this is where we’re going. It’s a lot better.’

“When we first drove through, I saw the beginning of the street from Chef [Menteur Highway] is still kinda the older houses. This neighborhood is a little sketchy, but I had already looked at the crime map. I knew this spot was good. So you go up the street, and it’s like newer houses, newer houses, and then you get towards Dwyer, and it’s all Habitat houses–like, whoa! I’m among friends. Then I got the newsletter, and I think there was a section that said ‘How You’ve Changed America Street.’ I saw the before and after, and I said, ‘See! I get it. That’s exactly what it used to look like.’ I’m enthusiastic about it now.”

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“I’m the queen of this castle. I want it to be my little castle room again.”

Whitney still has a few more hours in the ReStore. She comes most Saturdays with at least one family member–partner families are allowed up to three people with them when they volunteer, and each person’s hours count for sweat equity.

“The hard part is keeping them [her mom and stepdad] from shopping,” Whitney said. “The last time we were here, it’s like, oh look at these doors, these little handles, I can put these on the drawers at home. Mom, we didn’t come here to shop.”

Soon she will begin her hours on the build site. She and her mother are looking forward to the day when they’re helping build Whitney’s home, which is one of the parts of the program that attracted her to it. She has experience with DIY projects and looks forward to volunteering on site as a learning opportunity–and as a source of satisfaction.

“I get to build my house? Yeah!” she said. “‘Because then it really feels like I did this. It’s not like, ‘oh some people built a house and now I bought it.’ No, it’s like I had an active part in doing so. I can walk in and say I put that nail there.

“I guess before Katrina and all that I had my room, and that was my sanctuary. I could just close the door and block myself off from the rest of the house and everything was good. It’s kinda like when Katrina took that away, I feel like I never really got it back. Even moving to California and having my own apartment, it still didn’t quite feel like it was mine. Even moving back home, it’s not quite my room right now. It never really quite feels like it’s my room. Especially if I have to share it with visitors coming to town. My only solution is to have a house where I can just say get out of my house and mean it. This is mine! It’s great. It’s about ownership, just–like a mental ownership. This might be mine, but I need it to feel like it’s mine. I need to walk in the door and know nobody else is in here, nothing. It’s great. I run this. I’m the queen of this castle. I want it to be my little castle room again.”

Her mother once more echoes her sentiments, and credits her own father with it as well. “Home is my space. My zone. My dad always taught me that’s where my structure comes from. He always told us no matter what goes on with your day, that’s your space. You close the door, turn the key, get in the house, and you just shut the world off. You do you. Reset. My dad always taught us it’s your home, you own it. Don’t let somebody come in and run it for you.”

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“It was awesome. I’m in so much pain right now, but it was awesome.”

Whitney, her mother, her stepfather, and a family friend had taken their Saturday to help with painting and flooring at the future home of one of Whitney’s future neighbors on America Street. They worked alongside volunteers from Tulane University, NOAHH staff, and core volunteers on a warm September day.

“My mom got her friend to come out,” Whitney said. “She’s been a family friend for a long time, and she had said when we told her what was going on before that she would like to come out and join us for one day. I don’t think she’s coming back, because she’s sore, too. She enjoyed it, but she was exhausted.”

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They accomplished a lot with their hard work. At the end of a long, hot day, the home they were building had most of its floors installed.

“We pretty much got two bedrooms and two-thirds of the living room done,” she said. “To say that none of that was down there when we got there, we did a lot. And the shelving hadn’t been up; now it’s up. It’s just a matter of painting it now. We did a lot.”

As a partner family, Whitney’s experience on site was different than most volunteers. When she learns a new skill, she’s learning how to take care of her future home. When she meets another partner family, she’s meeting her future neighbors. When she helps build a home, she has a better understanding of what the work means.

“Every time someone would drop a hammer on a floor board,” she said, “I would almost snap, because I know this is somebody’s house. You gotta take care of it. This could be my house. It didn’t leave a scratch or anything, but it’s just the idea–stop! Be careful!”

As she said before she got to the site, she wanted to learn about fixing flooring especially, and how to work with the right tools. On her first day on site, she got her chance. Like many volunteers and partner families, Whitney’s experience with construction was limited, but it proved to be no obstacle to seeing progress that first day.

“It was just me and this core volunteer Crawford [Malone], putting down an entire bedroom floor,” she said. “Or I’m sitting there with a miter saw, and the staff is telling me I’m a natural. I’m all excited. ‘I did this! I did this!’ “I went there with the impression I was gonna learn something. I learned how to use a miter saw, and I learned how I’m actually okay with using a miter saw. I learned measuring and laying an entire floor of hard wood flooring, even though it was just tongue-and-groove, not nailing it in. Still, it was pretty difficult for somebody who’s never done it before. It was all new to me. None of it was something I had done before. Maybe next time I’ll do a little more with the power tools, but I was not ready to do it on Saturday. Not on day one. I’m already getting the miter saw down. I can do that.”

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Along with Crawford, her teachers on site were NOAHH staff and AmeriCorps members Alyson, Chris, and Christina, all of whom often work with volunteers and partner families of varying degrees of experience. No Habitat build site is without a representative of the affiliate to guide the home-building process.

“I was glad they were there,” she said. “[Site supervisor Alyson] was so sweet. She knew what she was doing with the flooring, so if we came across a problem, we would just go to her. She’d get us right back on track. We also had [AmeriCorps members] Chris and Christina. Chris was helping us with difficult cuts because I was very nervous about using the jigsaw or circular saw and all that. They were helpful. They were super sweet, and they kept us constantly with something to do. We didn’t just stand around. They always had the next project ready, sot hat made it go by so much faster. Next thing I know, it’s 3:30! We need to start cleaning up!”

As with all milestones on her journey to homeownership, this one had special resonance for her as she imagined what it meant for her and her future home.

“It was kinda like a second open house to me,” she said. “It wasn’t a finished house, but it’s like the walls are up and it’s a whole house! I’m looking at this layout, and I’m thinking, okay, this is different. This could be my layout, too. It was really sealing the deal. I’m gonna have a house, probably like this one. Probably like the other one one block from here. Picking the lot, that’s what really sealed it, because it’s like I have my address. I know my address now.”

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One of the key elements in our homeownership program is the First Time Home-Buyer’s Class. Partner families take two classes during the program (the other on financial fitness) as part of learning everything they need to know about owning a home. Whitney scheduled her first class in October with Desire Community Housing Corporation, one of several local groups that offer sessions. Some of them cost money, some don’t. Some are more flexible with their scheduling than others. Whitney selected Desire Community Housing Corporation after calling several of the organizations and working out the best schedule.

“I don’t have the best schedule,” Whitney said, laughing. “That’s why the month of October, I barely got any hours, because I had to use my Saturdays to take these classes. Then I still have to schedule my financial fitness classes, and those are gonna be in the evening so I have to do that straight from work. That’s gonna be fun. Scheduling wasn’t too bad. It was just a matter of ‘when is it?’ ‘Can I do it?’ and trying to work with my work schedule and have them let me have these two Saturdays off so I can do my classes. But that part was actually pretty easy.”

She found that some of the organizations were only scheduling in certain months or after she wanted to have the classes completed. NOAHH offers several different options for the classes knowing that some partner families will find different ones more convenient. Some have Spanish language options, for instance, and some classes can be done for free, for those on a tighter budget.

“I did find one online,” she said, “and I was hoping [her Case Manager] Emily would say I could do that one. I’m a millennial. Kind of. Kind of. I like to do everything online, but it was only fair, because everybody else has to do these classes. I should do them at the local classes.”

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She arranged her schedule so she could spend two Saturdays in class. She met Deborah, who was teaching the classes at her own home. Deborah teaches classes through the Desire Community Housing Corporation and is one of many organizations NOAHH recommends for first time home-buying classes.

Whitney attended the two sessions along with several other students, who helped add insights to the class.

“It was good to have other people,” she said, “because everybody had some different job that they did or some different input that they could put into the class of whatever topic we were on, like credit scores and things like that, so it was cool.”

The class focuses on all of the aspects of the traditional home-buying process, from what banks look for in home loan applicants to what one should do upon moving into a home. In some ways, the class illustrated how NOAHH’s program differs from the traditional process. NOAHH homeowners don’t have a down payment or closing costs to save for, but they do 350 hours of sweat equity and save up monthly payments of $225 while in the program for their first year’s payments. There’s no bidding process, because the homes are new construction (rather than the purchasing of existing homes) sold for cost with a soft second mortgage covering the difference between the cost and the appraisal value. NOAHH covers the inspection process (mostly city inspectors who check various stages of home construction). For a traditional new home construction process, many of these fees would be covered in the agreement with the contractor.

“[I didn’t know] how nerve-wracking the [traditional] home-buying process is–I’m so glad I don’t have to go through that. ‘Let’s see if the owner accepts your bid’ and the whole pins and needles. Even after you entered into the contract, and you have to go through all these inspections. Maybe the house might fall apart while you’re inspecting it. You never know, so it was a relief. It was a relief. But talking about interest and PMI [private mortgage insurance, which traditional home-buyers sometimes have to pay for] and all those extra terms that other home-buyers would have to deal with that I won’t, I was so happy to just say, okay, well, I don’t have to worry about that.”

But the class also provided valuable insights for Whitney about what to expect once she owned her new home and helped prepare her mentally for a future as a homeowner.

“The second half of the class we finally ended off with this note of once you’re in the house,” she said, “what’s the first thing you do? And everyone was thinking–change the locks! Blurting out things at that point. Overall, it was good advice. Good little tidbits of information. Get to know your neighbors, things like that, but I learned a lot. Insurance, that’s important; when your bill comes in, pay attention to make sure if it’s going up or down, so you don’t get any surprises on your escrow. Things like that. That’s not things I would think about going into this. It got me thinking about the things that I don’t know, the things I don’t know about as soon as I move in. It’s like–now what? It kinda set me up for that.”

Home

“The second day was a lot easier.”

Whitney Jett brought her mom Yolanda and a family friend, Crystal, to site with her later in the fall. She continued working on site on America Street, not far from where her new home will be built, helping to build the community she will soon be a member of.

“We mostly cleaned up the inside,” she said. “This was the last day on that house, doing final finishing touches. I had wanted to work on a new house. I wanted to move on from that one since we had already been there the last time, and I saw they have one that’s on my block. That’s the new one they’re doing. For a second, we had to double check the addresses, ’cause for a second, I really did think it was my house when I drove through there. So we ended up going back and forth because the other one wasn’t ready for volunteers to start working on it. We went back and did some cleaning and we were clearing material out of the rooms, sweeping, mopping, clearing the windows, and they had paint everywhere.”

In the newer build, she helped install insulation, adding another skill to the list of things she’s learned on the work site. She and a volunteer worked with a machine called a hopper, which blows the insulation into the attic. NOAHH uses volunteer-friendly, environmentally-conscious denim insulation donated by Cotton, Incorporated, one of the affiliate’s longtime partners. While her mom and Crystal helped clean the house (and Whitney took notes on what to expect when her own home was under construction), she made sure the home was insulated. Along with a more efficient air conditioning system and other features, all NOAHH homes are designed to keep energy costs down.

“The insulation was actually much better [than cleaning],” she said. “If it was more towards the summer, it would have been a lot worse, but it was actually kinda ventilated enough,. I don’t know how to explain that, but it actually wasn’t that bad. I’m afraid of heights, so getting up and down that ladder was the hard part, but it wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t up there for very long. [The hopper] is really a box with little rotators at the bottom, and it’s breaking down the packed insulation into these small little things. It just blows everywhere in the attic. We got to see how that worked out. I’ve seen it before, because I worked at Lowe’s before, but I never knew what it did, how that worked. It can be a pain in the butt if the tubes don’t stay on, though.”

She also worked on fencing and found one of the volunteers was something of an expert and saw first-hand how important volunteers are to the home-building process. While she was inside, exterior improvements were rapidly underway.

“I went outside and helped some ladies from the FBI finish the chain link fence,” she said. “I was so happy. I was like, ‘oh, that’s what holds this thing in place. It doesn’t take much at all.’ I don’t know who she was, but there was a lady who just knew how to put up a chain link fence. She was a volunteer. She was just, ‘All right, you put this here and you wrap this, all right, hold this tight, and then snapping it in place. Okay. That’s it.’ ‘That’s it?’ She made it sounds so easy. They didn’t have as many [volutneers] this time as they did last time. It was a few short of last time, but it wasn’t as crowded as it was last time. It was a perfect number. I think last time, it was medical students from Tulane; this time it was an FBI group there mostly women, about six of them. The whole group took care of most of the fencing by themselves. That was awesome.”

By bringing family and friends with her, Whitney is speeding up the completion of her sweat equity hours. Every hour her family or friends work on site while Whitney is there working with them counts toward her sweat equity. With two people on site with her for an eight hour shift, Whitney earned 24 hours of sweat equity. All partner families can bring up to three people with them at a time. Getting people to come spend some time on a build site, however, isn’t always easy.

“I do have to kinda drag [my mom] out the house, but once she gets there, she’s fine,” Whitney said with a laugh. “It’s the whole concept of ‘you have to do work today and you’re coming with me.’ I do have to drag her out a little bit. Crystal on the other hand, she’s like when are we doing this again? She’s just ready to go. I need you! She loves it. She’s gonna come back forever. ‘Cause that’s the one thing, after the first day, it was like, ‘we gotta go back another day, and [my mom and stepfather were] like, ‘I don’t even know,’ ’cause that’s the hard part. Getting them to come back when they actually have done some real labor.”

“I lost a couple on my way,” Whitney said. “I can’t bring my grandma. She helped me at the store, but she can’t help me on site. We tried to bring my mom’s friend out there. She spent that day with us, and she didn’t wanna go back after lunch. I had to convince her to go back after lunch. Then the next day, I was in so much pain. We’re trying to get groceries out of the car, and my mom drops something on the ground. She asked me to pick it up, and I can’t. ‘I’ve been putting down flooring all day. I can’t!’ Hopefully I can get my coworkers to come join me on site, too. Hopefully they’ll put in on my hours so my mom can take a break one weekend.”

“My mom is the one who gets excited the most. She’ll say, ‘yeah she’s getting it with no interest!’ She goes into the whole rant almost about how she wishes it was hers. ‘She don’t have to worry about PMI. She don’t have to worry about none of that.'”

While partner families must be present on site for their friends and family’s work to count toward their sweat equity, they don’t have to share tasks.

“Crystal mainly stuck with whatever my mom was doing,” Whitney said. “I kinda would separate and do whatever. They were mainly cleaning the bathroom. Meanwhile, I’m sitting at this stainless steel sink, picking at it with my fingernails, scrubbing some more with the rag. And we sat there forever. Just a little bitty specks of paint.”

“I looked at [NOAHH site supervisor] Alyson, ‘Don’t let them do this in my house. Don’t let them use the sink,'” she added, laughing.

A crucial part of the program is the connection between partner families and volunteers. Because partner families are active participants in our program, they’re often best able to explain it to others, and their presence is significant reminder of why volunteering with Habitat matters. Sometimes, volunteers are already familiar with the program, but still seek to connect with future homeowners on site. Whitney found that her mother Yolanda was more than ready to talk about the program.

“They knew what the program was about already,” Whitney said. “That was I guess why they decided to come and help out. They were already aware of the general part of it. They got to asking most of them just wanted to know where my house was. That’s what they wanted to know. My mom is the one who gets excited the most. She’ll say, ‘yeah she’s getting it with no interest!’ She goes into the whole rant almost about how she wishes it was hers. ‘She don’t have to worry about PMI. She don’t have to worry about none of that.’ Okay mom, let’s get back to what you were doing.”

As with every site, there are AmeriCorps members and NOAHH staff present to ensure volunteers have clear guidance. Because she has focused on the neighborhood where her home will be built, Whitney has worked mostly with NOAHH site supervisor Alyson Harding. She has found Alyson’s style has suited her.

“I love it. They know what they’re doing and that’s fine,” Whitney said. “Alyson is gonna check in before you’re done. You have to make sure she looks at it. She’ll tell you if you’re done, because she’ll tell you if you did it right, ’cause I don’t know what I’m doing. Even something as simple as blowing insulation in an attic, I’m down stairs filling the hopper, looking up, feeling good. I think I’m done. Alyson is like, ‘nope, you’re not done. One more bag.’ She gives a little more context to why we’re not done, and she’ll say, ‘see here, you want it to be this high. This is good, but the more insulation is better for the homeowner.’ She puts a lot more context into the project, what we’re looking for, but she’s not gonna sit there and babysit us. The context made sense. She made it make sense, especially the flooring. This is why you want to do it this way, because this will make it easier. Then she’ll actually demonstrate it. Then she’ll say ‘see how that happened?’ ‘We’re doing it that way from now on.’ She’s good at teaching. At some time, though, we gotta make sure we got it right. So she’s gonna sit there and babysit us just long enough to make sure we know this, and then she’ll back off. She’ll let us do our thing. She’ll come in and check on us and say, ‘all right, good job, and then leave.’ She’s monitoring everything that’s going on and there’s several projects going on.”

Home

In late November, Whitney called her case manager Emily to discuss her sweat equity hours, and instead, got some of the best news she could possibly get: construction had started on her home. Like many future homeowners, Whitney visits the site of her home often, and she quickly went to the site to see what the start of her home looked like.

“I drive by and they had cinder blocks out,” she said. “They’ve started on the foundation! Whoa! My head exploded. They started. It wasn’t real before. Now it’s like: that one. That one right there. Not ‘that’s my dirt’ or ‘that’s my lot’ or ‘that’s my area.’ No. This is my foundation to my house. Oh my gosh.”

She also got another great surprise: a special guest volunteer would be volunteering on her home. Though every volunteer is important to NOAHH, sometimes volunteers are well known figures or opt for custom build events. Not all NOAHH homes have special guest volunteers, but when these events occur, partner families are often asked to join the special guests on site if they are able to make it. (It is never required, of course, as partner families sometimes cannot make their schedules match special events.) The special guest volunteer on Whitney’s home asked for anonymity, which NOAHH is happy to comply with. It meant that there was some mystery even for Whitney when she first arrived on site.

“I drove by on December 9th,” she said. “I just wanted to see what kinda progress we’re talking about from one day to the next. They pretty much had the framing done. I was wowed. This is fast. So I go out there with my mom. We get out there, and [some Habitat administrators] are hanging out on site, and he tells me we’ve got this special guest on my roof. I had seen articles about the Property Brothers. I saw Big Freedia had helped before. Who could it be [on my house]?”

After she visited on December 9th, she brought her mother out again the next day to meet the special guest and check out the progress.

“We came back the next day to meet them,” she said. “They’ve got the windows pretty much up except two. They got all of the framing done. Most of the roof done. And then everyone kept commenting on how well built it was. We got Marines out and we’ve got the whole Habitat team, so it was a big deal. I’m like, ‘for my house?!'”

Local members of the Marine Corps volunteer often with NOAHH, and many of them are core volunteers, coming out twice a month or more to help on the build site. It was hard to say who was more excited about meeting whom: Whitney and her mom, or the special guest and volunteers.

“We got Marines out and we’ve got the whole Habitat team, so it was a big deal. I’m like, ‘for my house?!'”

“They were so excited to be working on my house,” she said. “I’m honored to have them working on my house. I’m floored here. Come on. One of them’s writing on the wall and stuff. They left their mark. I’m gonna remember this stud right here. This stud has this guy’s initials on it. I’m gonna remember he built my house. Wow. Everybody’s just taking pictures, taking pictures, and it just really was kinda taking a minute to sink in.

“My mom and I did a walkthrough and everything. This is the master bedroom. This is the living room. I already picked out my sofa set. I haven’t bought it yet, but I’ve picked it out. It reclines! We’ve already started thinking about where we’re gonna get dishes from. It’s really coming together so well. Perfect timing, too. That was my birthday weekend, too. It was kinda a birthday gift to me. It’s like my house and the special guest. It was just so wonderful. What a pleasant surprise. Just that feeling of being out there, there were 30 people looking at me like when they’re excited to have me here. I’m excited for them to be there. I don’t know what to say but that y’all built my house!”

Some people might find the idea of having to work 350 sweat equity hours volunteering with NOAHH to be a little daunting. If you have a busy work schedule and/or a family to care for, it’s not always easy to find the time. Some times of the year can be busier than others, too, so predicting when you will be able to get to the ReStore or the build site isn’t always easy.

Sweat equity helps partner families connect with volunteers and other supporters, helping to raise awareness of the importance of affordable housing. It also helps partner families learn about how their homes are built and teaches them some of the skills they will need to help repair it in the future. Finally, because it takes the place of a down payment, it is a major part of how NOAHH makes homeownership affordable. The 350 hours of volunteer work are worth 3.5% to 20% of the total loan.

Sweat equity is a crucial part of NOAHH’s homeownership program, however, so NOAHH’s Family Services Department works with every individual partner family to find ways to support, encourage, or occasionally nudge them. The homeownership program takes most partners about a year to finish, meaning to reach 350 hours of sweat equity, they need to average about 30 a month.

The three criteria for entering the Habitat program are ability to pay, need for shelter, and willingness to partner. Keeping up with sweat equity hours is part of the third criteria. While all partners must complete their 350 hours, NOAHH works with everyone to guide them through the process. Those who have disabilities that mean they cannot help on the build site sometimes spend their hours entirely in the ReStore, and all partner families define their own comfort level on the build site. While everyone is required to work, no one is forced to do anything they cannot do. Case managers work with partner families to help keep them on pace.

“She understood completely. Everybody wants their weekends. She appreciated that I had a plan. I wasn’t saying I am falling behind and I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I had some plan. This is what’s about to happen, so I know I can do better next time. I was a couple hours ahead. She said, oh you’ll be fine. Just come back in January. You’re good. She was completely understanding about the whole thing.”

It helped that she got a promotion that let her have more Saturdays free. Before she knew about her promotion, her plan was to bring as many people out as possible. Even though she now has time to complete the sweat equity on her own, she says she appreciates having help lined up.

“I knew the holidays were coming up and I was looking at what Saturdays I had off,” she said. “Then I got the promotion. My plan now is to work every single Saturday, and my uncle’s girlfriend already offered to help me out. My mom’s still on board at least one weekend every month. One of my friends said she was gonna help me out. We’ll see. Basically, we’ll be out there every Saturday.”

Finding out she might fall behind led Whitney to calculate how far she had to go, and she discovered it wasn’t as far as she thought.

“I still have to take one last class,” she said. “I talked to the lady [from Desire Community Housing Corporation], and we’re gonna schedule that for January now that I have Saturday off. I sat down and did the math. If it’s just me and my uncle’s girlfriend every weekend, I’m [done with hours] by April. So not only can I catch up, but I can finish my hours early. That’s what I really want. That house is just calling my name.”

As for that promotion she got, it is somewhat appropriate:

“I’m moving to the loan servicing department,” she said. “No longer a teller. I’m taking care of property taxes and insurance all of the stuff I need to know about when I’m a homeowner.”

Home

It was like an embrace. Like family. We’re not doing it for you, we’re doing it with you. They felt more a part of something important,” said Whitney. “To have me there made it like this isn’t just for some business or some nonprofit. There’s a person benefiting from this. So I think for them it made it more important for them to be there and say we’re here for somebody. Not just for some cause we can say we believe in, this is for a person that really needed this or is really benefiting from this. I was floored to have 30 people working in my house over the weekend. It was a lot. It was Marines, and AmeriCorps, and everybody was there. It was awesome. It was an awesome experience for me because it was kinda like all of these people are here for me, for my house. Just for me. I felt like a little bit of a superstar, but at the same time, I was humbled. It humbled me at the same time because there’s nothing else in this world I can think that 30 people would get together for me. Strangers.”

Most volunteers speak about the experience of working with partner families as a highlight of their volunteer experience. They echo Whitney’s words, but rarely do they capture just what it means to partner families to have complete strangers from all over the world take the time to help build homes. The fact that the experience of building with partner families means something to volunteers is something that actually adds to the impact for partner families. To put it another way: it’s not just the fact that a stranger is helping build your house that means so much, it’s the fact that a stranger is happier knowing they are building your house that means so much. This phenomenon, which occurs many times each year as thousands of volunteers work with future homeowners, is at the heart of NOAHH’s mission. Making affordable housing a matter of conscience and action–that is, spreading awareness of why and how important affordable housing is so they continue to make it a priority–happens when partner families work side by side with volunteers and when sponsors see the human side of what they are supporting. This is the value of volunteering.

Whitney has completed hundreds of hours of sweat equity, on site and at special projects. She has built on America Street and in Hollygrove, and she has worked with numerous volunteer groups and site leaders. Her plan to avoid as much building as possible in the hotter months meant she found herself on site in one of the rare cold snaps in New Orleans. She also found a few more aches and pains than she expected. NOAHH encourages any partner family who thinks they may have any sort of serious injury to stop working and see a doctor, but Whitney chose to keep working. Sweat equity, as rewarding as it is, is still hard work.

“I think I was out three weekends,” she said. “In Hollygrove, that first day we built a wall. All the work we did that whole day and we just put one wall. I was like I never wanna build a wall again. It was freezing cold. I think I had sprained my wrist. That was rough. The next day, we’re thinking, ‘well let’s work on the other house since they’re working on both of them now.’ We get over there and they tell us we’re gonna be on the other address again. All the walls were built by this point. We were making sure the window holes [frames] were all in. Then, framing was done. We put up [OSB]. Putting that OSB on, the nails were not cooperating. But at least that day I got to work with Alyson and Chris again–familiar faces. It was a little bit easier, and then we got to the foam [blueboard] part. All right the foam is really easy. I’m glad that day is over, too.”

She also came to understand better the limitations and challenges of doing construction work herself–and adapted her future plans. She said: “I probably told myself before I went out to the Hollygrove address, ‘Yeah I can do a treehouse in the back, I can build it all myself. This is gonna be great!’ Now I’m like ‘not by hand!’ My hands do not think it’s gonna be easier. My fingers were cramping up, especially that first day in the cold, my toes were frozen. I thought I would have to amputate them. My toes were gone. I do want to build my deck, though. I want to build that myself. I’m not playing games.”

Returning to America Street meant working next to her future home and learning how to use a circular saw. When she started the sweat equity process, she was unfamiliar with power tools–and sometimes uncomfortable with them. Now, she has grown to enjoy working with them. Most partner families come to the build site with little to no experience building, much less with power tools, but the experienced staff and core volunteers know how to guide people of all skill-levels through the process. Part of working on site is growing comfortable with the kinds of hard work that will be required to maintain a home in the future. She also learned about soffit.

“Then this past weekend I was out on Ameria Street again,” she said. “I worked on the other house that’s on my block. I was looking over. Tim asked which house is mine. I was just pointing. He told me they’re starting my siding. I said, ‘but it’s not on the list for today.’ I got excited. I got to use a circular saw. It’s all about me now. Now you gotta actually guide this thing. We were doing the soffit on the outside of the house. I had no idea what soffit was. Soffit is the vinyl foolishness that comes pretty much where the roof goes past your wall. It just keeps that covered or something. I don’t know what the purpose of it is, but I guess it’s supposed to help ventilate the attic or something. Certainly won’t keep the wasps out. It’s actually a surprisingly study material because every time I had ever seen it before, it was this flimsy plastic foolishness. It’s still foolishness, but it’s really solid vinyl. You actually need a circular saw to cut through it. That circular saw was fun. After a while I got my groove and I was just like I got it I got it. I only messed up two getting there. Some were too long, and I just had to go back and trim ’em a little bit off so. We had a couple ended up too short, but we got to use them on the other side of the house. It worked out. It was fun.”

Soffit on New Orleans Habitat homes allows ventilation to the attic and up through the roof, displacing heat and cooling the home. It also provides an aesthetic trim for the overhang of the roof, and the overhang provides more protection from the rain. Working with volunteers of varying skill levels, NOAHH staff also know how to make use of inexpertly cut materials.

While working on America Street, she continues to keep track of the progress of her home.

“Every time I go out there, something’s up,” she said. “At first, I drove by and see if the lot’s been cleared or something, if there’s been some progress. The foundation was up. And I’m just like ‘What!’ So I’m taking pictures, posting them on Facebook, just like ‘What!’ [Later], we’re walking through the house with some of the people that helped out. I’m taking pictures of everything, inside and out. All of this framing up and done. I’m like on a whole other level, and my mama’s like walking through the studs and stuff. And then I didn’t take pictures again because there wasn’t really much that happened from then until this past weekend. It looked like they were preparing for siding. I was excited. I didn’t take pictures that day. I should have. When they told me ‘Oh we’re starting siding today’ I’m like ‘What.’ And then at some point we’re leaving for the day, and they got a lot of it done. I walk up and all these people are looking at me, and I say ‘Oh hey this is my house. This is my house.’ So I gotta go inside. I walk in there and sheetrock’s done. No paint, no flooring, but the cabinets are up. And I’m just [sound of delight]. It’s the simple stuff. It happens so fast.”

Getting her hours in hasn’t always been easy, but she has had a lot of help from her family and friends. Some partner families do all of their sweat equity alone, scheduling hours carefully around their day jobs (and/or night jobs), school, and taking care of their kids. For Whitney, getting her friends and family to keep coming out has sometimes been a challenge. The help she has gotten, however, has helped her complete her hours more quickly and easily.

“It was just me this weekend,” she said. “The weekends before it was me and my uncle’s girlfriend. Then my mom came out the second one. It was the two of us. We were having fun. The hardest part I’ve gotta say is the hours. Because it’s been difficult to get them done by myself. Pretty much this whole time I’ve always had people helping me. I think this past weekend is the first time I did go by myself. My schedule wasn’t perfect for it. But the hard part was not even getting gout there to do the hours, it was getting other people to help. My grandma’s the only one who’s like ready, but she can’t do construction. She was even asking me the other day, ‘If I go to the [ReStore], would that help you with your hours?’ I said ‘Sorry, grandma, I gotta be there. And I cant work at the store anymore. I finished my hours there.’That’s been the hardest part is keeping people motivated. Cause they really don’t want to. And I barely want to, but I’m getting something out of this, so I have to. That’s why I always try to use other people on the site as an example to my mom especially. She’ll sit there and want to take breaks all day. I say ‘Look at him. This guy over here (I’ll point to any random volunteer that’s not with the program). Look at him. Look at this whole group of people who aren’t getting anything out of being here today. I’m getting a whole house. They’re not getting anything. We’ve gotta be more motivated than they are. Come on.’ There was this one group in Hollygrove who came all the way from Wisconsin. They’re not getting a house out of this.”

When it gets tough on site, the site leaders and AmeriCorps members keep them motivated. Along with guiding partner families and volunteers through building a home, they know how to keep people moving–and when to trust them to take breaks.

“Every now and then, I know Chris used to be on us,” she said. “Well, not on me cause I was always working. But Chris will be on them like ‘Oh you need something to do?’ ‘Oh what are you working on right now? You need something to do?’ They were annoyed with him for a while. I forgot, at some point, my mom was out somewhere, and she saw Chris working on something. And she realized, ‘He’s working hard,’ and I’m like ‘It’s his job! He’s supposed to be. You can’t be mad at him for doing his job, come on.'”

She has also worked with other partner families. As they work together, they share their stories about why they are in the program and compare their journeys to homeownership.

“Everybody is in the program from a different perspective,” she said. “[One partner family] was getting a house, and they were gonna come back and try to get their sister a house, and her mom already had a house. It’s like they’re gonna take up a whole block. Then there was Pam. She wanted to have a two story so she could have room for her kids. Everybody had a different perspective on it. Some were single like me, trying to have a house and stop renting and stop that endless cycle of never owning. They had other people who had families who I would’ve said if you had to choose between me and them, I would say pick the family because they really need it. Just hearing why they wanted a house and what it was all about to them, I felt like they were just as excited as I was. I mean, we would sit there and chat about what the next steps were and what we thought was gonna happen, what might actually happen. I think we were just, ‘this is new to all of us so let’s just talk to each other about what we know so far. Let’s see what we have.'”

The recent tornado in New Orleans East bypassed not only her parents’ home, where she currently lives, but also her future home. None of NOAHH’s homeowners reported any significant damage in the area. All NOAHH homeowners have homeowners and flood insurance.

“There’s a tornado in the east,” she said, “I’m like ‘Oh okay.’ Not thinking it was Kansas tornado. I thought it was a pipsqueak, probably knocked the fence over or something. That’s the tornadoes we usually get. We might get a couple shingles off somebody’s roof. Then next thing you know I get a text from my friend ‘Don’t come to the east it’s a hot mess.’ What do you mean Chef [Menteur Highway] is closed? That’s the first thing I was thinking. I’m listening to the news, and it’s near Wilson [Avenue]. And Wilson’s over near [America Street]. I did know my mom’s house was fine, so I wasn’t worried about it. I think my stepdad was at the house, and he had to go check on his truck. And his truck’s fine. I was surprised–the tornado touched down less than half a mile away. So some stuff was closed, but I managed to get down Dwyer the back way onto the street. Rolled up to my house and, ‘Well it’s still there.’ And not only was it still there, there were empty cardboard boxes on the porch that had never moved. So not only did it not get hit by this thing, on top of that, it didn’t even pick up an empty cardboard box off the porch?! How? ‘Cause when I left off America St., I got to the end of St. Mary’s. I look to my left where St. Mary’s had this brick and metal sign, and the whole sign was turned. ‘How did it turn that?’ A couple of blocks away is Wilson where they have it all blocked off still. My friend lives in the middle of the path, and her house is fine. How, I don’t know. Her street got hit. She didn’t get hit. So we made it through the tornado just fine.”

Home

Financial literacy is an important part of NOAHH’s homeownership program. While many partner families already have a handle on their finances, like a lot of folks, many future Habitat homeowners have never been taught in any formal setting about budgets, savings, or financial responsibility in general. The financial literacy courses ensure that, as homeowners, they have been grounded in the basics and understand many of their options better, no matter what their background.

Whitney had to figure out how best to schedule her classes while working and completing her other sweat equity hours. Because she was working with the same person who taught her First Time Homebuyer Class, Whitney was already familiar with her teacher and the location. The only snag was finding time. Like many partner families, she had to consider her full-time job while also putting in her sweat equity hours. She was eager to get the classes out of the way and move on to completing her hours on site.

“[Deborah Davenport of Desire Community Housing Corporation] was trying to schedule classes where it wouldn’t be just me and her,” Whitney said, “because that might be weird. She was trying to get people together, but it was a little difficult. At first it was a little hectic, a little stressful trying to figure out what Saturdays I need to take off to do the classes. It was a lot of decision-making on that part. That seems to be with everything when you work normal days and business hours, everything else is also during business hours so you have to take off work.”

Eventually, Whitney got a promotion at work, and her new schedule made things easier. She ended up taking the class with only one other student, but the small class size did not cause any problems.

Whitney’s experiences in banking and living on her own had taught her a lot about saving money, but she still learned a lot in the class. Topics included how to save money, how to build wealth, and different products and services that were generally available.

“I learned saving money requires real steps,” she said. “You have to have a goal. You have to have a plan to get there. In your mind, you’re thinking that you’re saving money for anything that comes up, but if you have a goal, then it makes it more realistic. ‘I can’t touch that money if I feel like going to Beyonce’s concert tonight. I can’t touch that money for that. I gotta save that for my car.’ It creates a different mentality of why that money is there. It was cool. I’m putting money into different account for savings, so I’m working on housewarming money.”

Another major part of the Desire Community Housing Corporation financial fitness class was about fringe institutions and products to avoid. Payday loan places, certain rental outlets, and check cashing spots offer short term access to cash and materials at what seem like reasonable rates, but come with high risks in the form of fees, interest rates, and other practices that drain money with every transaction.

“She was showing us the percent that they can charge interest in everything you get, and it’s just ridiculous,” she said. “There’s no limit. A payday loan can charge 586% interest. It was ridiculous.”

The First Time Hombuyer’s Class that Whitney took had a lot of information about the traditional method of home-buying, but it also had a lot to offer those in Habitat’s program. The class focused on information about processes and needs of first time homebuyers. The financial literacy class had a different tone. For Whitney, Deborah Davenport’s class featured a lot of practical guidance on how to change your perspective on saving money (other classes may differ).

“It was a lot more like advice,” Whitney said. “‘This is how to go about what you do with your money.’ Don’t look at it as, ‘Because I have these bills, I can’t have any fun.’ Look at it as that little bit of a sacrifice to have fun later. It was interesting. Everything was relevant this time. The classes tied in to each other because a lot of the stuff we talked about in the other class was being financially fit to be a homeowner, but this class was definitely more about how you should personally handle your finances. Make sure you definitely save money to invest for later, because it’s not just about our generation. It’s about our next generation, too.”

“She was showing us the percent that they can charge interest in everything you get, and it’s just ridiculous. There’s no limit. A payday loan can charge 586% interest. It was ridiculous.”

One of the more important parts of the class involved what a “rainy day fund” was. Whitney said the class emphasized that when saving, you need to anticipate more than one emergency at a time.

“One section of class we harped on a little bit was people always say they prepare for a rainy day,” she said. “Well, what do you consider a rainy day? It’s more like a storm. It’s more like a hurricane-type stuff you really need to be prepared for. Losing your job or something like that. I don’t want to ever lose my house. I don’t want to get behind because of bad luck. I don’t want that to ever be me, so I want to have savings to at least give me a little buffer zone so I could find another job in the meantime or whatever I need to do. It was just the idea that no matter how prepared we think we are for anything that might happen we’re not ever prepared for several rainy days. We’re not prepared for when everything happens at once, and it usually does. It’s usually, ‘Your car broke down, and you gotta get a new engine, and oh, my roof just collapsed… onto the car.’ It just happens. That’s how it is. So you gotta be prepared for what you can’t expect. Pretty much if you don’t think it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. Especially with my luck. It’s gonna happen. I’m looking over my shoulder.”

Her caution about rainy days has not always kept her from spending. The class made her reflect on her own financial weaknesses and how she has coped with them in the past. Her experiences have put her in a good financial position and helped her develop habits that help her save, but impending homeownership has made her focus more. She has begun to use some of the tricks she learned in her classes.

“It’s just small things,” she said “Overspending in general. I’d hit up the mall and ‘ooh I need that!’ …swipe. My financial problem is having money. If I have money, I’m gonna end up at the mall. I’m not broke, but when I’m broke, I’m really on it. Then I panic. Then I have to look back and say, ‘what could I have done better?’ But it’s too late. My credit card’s already up. Can’t do anything about this now. I like the idea of tricking myself into not having money. Tell yourself that you’re broke so you don’t end up spending. That way I find myself not going out to lunch to eat. I end up bringing stuff form home. I end up finding myself making those little small decision, and so I keep more money in the bank, and then I hide it from myself. It’s something that evolved. I’ve always tried to save money. I’m paying more attention to my savings now because I actually feel like I’m about to have a house. I need to budget, and I need to have money in the savings account for maintenance and all these other things that are gonna come up. So maybe not this year, maybe not next year, not in 20 years, but maybe in that 21st year, if you don’t have the money for it, then you’re gonna end up in a 20 degree winter someday with no heater. I always tell myself I gotta be prepared; now I need to put this into action. So I tell myself ‘you’re broke.’ Every single day now. Because now it’s like this money is already set aside for something else. That helps me.”

Part of financial literacy is understanding that your home is an investment. Habitat homeowners build home equity quickly because there is no interest, meaning every payment goes toward the principal on the home (meaning the actual mortgage amount, not interest added to the mortgage). There is no penalty for paying extra or early, either. While home equity can give a homeowner financial stability, there is more to it. In contrast to renting, homeowners invest in their homes when they improve or maintain them. Not only do they keep the value up, but because they are the owner, they benefit from that value. When renting, improvements renters make to the home only benefit the renter while they live there, and the rent you pay gives you no ownership over the place. A friend of Whitney’s learned this the hard way.

“This just happened to my friend,” she said. “She just closed on her house on Friday, her brand new house. She was renting [from someone she trusted], and she had pretty much took down the whole house almost to the studs and redid it because the tenants that were in there before destroyed it so much. It was a labor of love. This was their house. They’re putting all this money into it, all this work, all this sweat equity, and then [the owner] fell on financial troubles because of plumbing issues. She had to come out of pocket with a lot of money, and she decided to sell the house. Now they gotta go and everything they’ve done to this house, they can’t take with them. They don’t get any kind of discounts or anything, nothing. They get nothing out of it. That made it hit home even more so. If it’s my house, and I’m putting something into it, that is forever mine. If I sell, I get the profits from what I’ve done to the house. [When you rent] somebody at any moment can just say you gotta go. If you own a house, and you’re on top of your bills and everything, you can’t just get kicked out. There’s this whole idea of this sense of sanctuary. This is my space. This is my little bubble, and nobody can tell me what to do if I’m on [time with my bills]. Nobody can tell me anything. My mortgage is paid, my utilities are up to date, everything is good, taxes, insurance, all that’s paid, then I’m fine. I have nothing to worry about. Even if I have to let the lights and the water get off to pay that mortgage, and insurance and tax bills, I at least get to keep my house. I can let everything else go and just keep the house, and I still have something. If you get the lights and stuff out on an apartment, the landlord might be asking, ‘hey, whatcha doing? Get out.’ So you never know. It’s just the security of it all, of just having your own house.”

Whitney’s history of renting was brief, but she was motivated to do so because she wanted independence. What she learned was that independence, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency were easier to acquire through homeownership, in some ways. The work you put into your own home is something you get the value of–anything that improves your home improves the value of it.

“I didn’t rent for long, pretty much only in California,” she said. “I had wanted freedom. You think all you want is freedom and to have my own space, and you try to get out of your mom’s house and wanna move into an apartment. You wanna do all these wonderful things. And it’s not like it’s easy, renting and being on your own, but it’s if you wanna clean up the place, change the wall color, if you wanna do some kind of small construction, build in some shelves or something like that, you have to check the rules to see if you can. If you can do it, but then two years from now you move out, you can’t take those shelves with you really. Everything you’ve done isn’t yours. It belongs to them now. It’s increased their value, and they’re getting all the profits out of this.”

After having to move out, her friend then bought a home through traditional home-buying methods. She looked for a home, went to the bank for a loan, and made an offer on it. Whitney got to learn more about that process by talking with her friend. Habitat’s program does require some paper work to be submitted, and there are sometimes questions from Habitat case managers about an applicant’s financial history.

The criteria is sometimes different, however, and the process usually takes a few weeks to approve someone who qualifies (depending on how long an applicant takes to turn in their paper work).

It differs from traditional loan programs because Habitat looks at the ability to pay with the understanding that it will be an affordable mortgage payment, which NOAHH defines as being no more than 30% of the applicant’s income. That affordable payment is income-based, but it is also affected by the cost of building the home. Habitat mortgages usually have a soft second mortgage that covers the difference between the cost of the home and the appraised value of the home. The payment is based on the partner family’s income and the term of the mortgage (usually 20 or 30 years), but the payment also includes flood and homeowner insurance, property taxes, and an annual termite contract. Some of these can change over time. The partner family’s income might also change over time, but that part of the payment calculation is locked in at the time of closing, but acceptance into the program is based on the income the applicant makes when they apply. Figuring all of this out requires a bit of paper work, but the back and forth of a traditional loan application is not often how it works with Habitat. We also do not charge interest, require no financial down payment (instead we ask for sweat equity), and we accept good or no credit. We consider past-due debt to determine eligibility. (If all of this sounds like a lot to take in, don’t worry–our case managers walk every applicant through the process and explain as they go.)

“[My friend] went looking for the house,” she said. “She fell in love with the house. It was great. It wasn’t perfect, but she loved it. She knew all of what she wanted to do with it. She had all her ideas in mind, so they wanted to go buy the house. Then she had to go to her bank to go and get the loan. Next thing you know, she has all these hassles. They want this paper work and they want that paper work. ‘Where’d this money come from? Why do you have this in your account and your statement looks like this?’ I mean, they tore her finance apart trying to find any reason not to give the loan. That’s what it felt like to me. So it was coming close to her closing date, and she hadn’t heard from the loan officer. Apparently the loan officer went on vacation. Someone else was supposed to take care of it, but she did close on time. She got the house, and she was so excited she was in the house by New Years. That’s all she wanted to do. That’s the other trade off. This time issue, you got a little bit more leeway [in the Habitat program]. You don’t have to go ‘We’re doing this in a month.’ You got a nice little year, figuring this out.”

Ultimately, Whitney considers Habitat the right decision for herself:

“I definitely would prefer this way. Especially the whole idea that I get to help build [my house] too. Because [my friend] didn’t get to help build her house.”

Home

While the program typically requires every homeowner to earn their sweat equity in the ReStore and on the build site, sometimes, other opportunities come up. Some are built into the program as extra options–children’s good grades can earn partner families some hours–and others come up with special events. Whitney took part in both kinds, attending NOAHH’s First Time Homebuyer’s Presentations to help encourage others to join the program and helping the ReStore with the major Orgill donation in February.

Homebuyer’s Presentations are a chance for those interested in the program to learn about it before applying, to ask questions of our Family Services department, and to meet with current partner families and homeowners and hear first hand accounts of the program. Like many partner families in the program, Whitney is enthusiastic about sharing it.

“I’m just like, ‘Come get a house. Come get a house! Stop renting,'” she said. “The last presentation, I went to, we’re about to start wrapping up, and then next thing you know there’s like 8 people, so we’re excited. These little ballerina girls–they’re like 5 years old, and she walks in. ‘What’s going on in here?’ she said, and we said, ‘We’re trying to get people in houses. Give this to your mama!’ and she says,’Okay!’ I’m always saying, ‘Come on people, get a house!’ One of my friends, she lives with her mom right now. Her and her mom get into it all the time. And I’m just telling her, ‘Get. A. House.’ You can have your own and not have to worry about it anymore. I gave her all the information, like ‘This is all you have to do.’ I had all the brochures and stuff. I had them scanned so I could just email them to people when they ask me. That was the same thing as a woman at the last presentation we did. She came up to us afterwards, and she was asking if it was okay, beause she had applied to the program before but she couldn’t do it then. We told her, ‘Yeah, go back!’ I’ll start passing out pamphlets. ‘Here. Here. Here. Go get one. Here. Go get one.’ It’s like ‘I exist, you can exist too. Go get a house.'”

The Orgill donation came from the Orgill Dealer’s Market, a convention of vendors for a major independent hardware store supplier. In 2015, the convention donated materials used at the convention for display purposes, and they contacted NOAHH again in 2017 for their newest convention, which took up every hall of the Morial Convention Center. The convention took place in the lead up to Mardi Gras, and parades made it hard to reach the convention center.

“I guess we didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “My mom was excited about it because she was like ‘Oh good, it’s not construction.’ So when I got them on board it was great. We show up–it was bad enough with the traffic getting there because of all the parades going on. We show up and we didn’t even go in first. We stood out in the foyer talking about safety and all that. There’s all this power equipment running around, and I’m asking, ‘Uh okay what is this?’ Then I got the first glimpse inside and I’m just thinking ‘Oh okay it’s not too bad.’ And then they told us, ‘Oh we got the whole convention center, all the way down there.’ Because we were at one end and were thinking, ‘Uh all the way down there?!’ So we walk in and we’re wondering, ‘What kind of stuff are people donating to the store?’ So it’s like ‘Okay what’s the game plan? Okay these are ours. We’re gonna take all of the stuff that’s marked for Habitat, and we’re gonna put it in these carts.’ You go booth to booth. It’s like somebody took down about four Walmart’s and gave everything to Habitat.”

It took several days to complete the donation pickup. ReStore staff, partner families, and volunteers worked through the weekend to process everything.

“The first day we did 16 palettes,” she said. “Actually, I think we did 16 by lunchtime. The next day we were in the 20s. Just going aisle to aisle, making palettes in the aisles and just wrapping them cause running them all the way down to the other end was just getting tiresome, because we’re getting to the other half at this point. It was just so much stuff. It was getting ridiculous. From sets of forks to a ninja building. It was fun. A lot of hard work though. Especially because we did Saturday and Sunday, so we went from 3-10 p.m. and then came back at 7 a.m. the next day. So we’re tired, needless to say. It was exhausting, but exciting at the same time, because we were looking at all this stuff, especially my mama cause she tends to get excited about stuff. But it was exciting. And [fellow partner family] Melvin was over there too. I really want to do that again. One day, not two. And as long as it’s not Endymion weekend, it’s fine. That was the first thing I thought is, ‘oh man it is Endymion weekend?’ Then I checked it and it was all right.”

For those not from the New Orleans area or familiar with Carnival season, Mardi Gras is a major holiday. There are parades, parties, and special events leading up to the big day, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, during Carnival season. The parades are run by krewes, each of which has their own style and themes. Whitney’s plans for Carnival were simple, but she was enthusiastic about everything. She also made plans for what to do with her Mardi Gras beads (thrown at every parade during Carnival season to parade-goers and partiers).

“Just parades. Parades all day every day,” she said. “I don’t really have a favorite anymore. It used be to be Endymion. Endymion used to be the one. Then Muses got on the scene, and I’m like ‘Yeah!’ Now Krewe of Nix has the top spot for the women’s parade. And Krewe de’Tat, because I’m pulling for political science. I love political satire in parades. I should’ve gone to Krewe de Vieux, but I missed that one. Second lines and king cake–oh my gosh king cake. And king cake burgers. I just went to the king cake festival. Most of my family, they’re saying, ‘Oh I don’t feel like going anymore,’ and I’m telling them, ‘Bye.’ Rolling out with my chair. Sometimes I don’t even take a chair. I’m just like, ‘Whatever I’m here. Just gotta find parking and I’m here.’ I recently did get rid of all the [old beads] I had in my house from the last Mardi Gras. We just started a donation, so now I know where the next ones are gonna go. I keep the special ones, and then, this is a New Orleans tradition I swear, every house has that one mirror. Put all the specialty beads on that corner. And then all of the bad beads–I used to like make things out of them. Keychains and stuff like that. But I don’t do that anymore. But part of my house decorations will be Mardi Gras beads. Certain colors of them. So I’m gonna be collecting for that.”

She’s also using the Orgill donation to plan for her new home.

“And of course I’ve been coming back to the store to shop for the stuff,” she said, “because they have nice stuff. I was up there picking out patio furniture. I don’t even have a patio yet, y’all. I did come through the other day. I bought some dishes and went home with a bunch of stuff. I have a whole bunch of stuff in my room ready to be boxed up. Just waiting. At first I just had this one plastic tub of everything that had nothing to do with this house and was going to the other. So now I have stuff sitting on top of that tub. I’ve gathered a bunch of boxes. I have people at work collecting boxes for me. One of my coworkers just gave me a bunch of packing material, and I’m telling her, ‘You’re the MVP.’ Bubble wrap and all that can be expensive. So yeah, I’m shopping. I’m shopping hard. Just looking. It’s not necessarily buying, because I’m trying to stick to that budget. Dishes that I brought home from California that I hadn’t even looked at in the last year. It’s nice stuff, too.”

Home

In March, Whitney Jett went for the first time to do a full build day on her own home. It was an emotional day:

“The first time working on my own house, I was so excited,” she said. “First things first, I was excited. And then as always I’m glad it was Alyson and Chris working on my house, because I’ve been working on other houses with them, and I just love how they work. So I was excited to be there with them to walk and see everything. And it’s like ‘Okay I’m not building somebody else’s anything now, I’m building mine.’ It was a lot more personal than building a porch or something, all the other work I’d been doing. ‘This is for <i>my house</i> now.’ I think we painted the front part. We painted the doors inside. That day was pretty much all painting. I had paint everywhere. I still have paint all over those clothes. I’ll eventually get around to soaking that out, but I wanted to wait until I was actually done before I got more paint on it. I still really don’t know how [to get paint out]. I hit up Google real quick. Vinegar? I had paint all over my face. I was telling Chris something, and he was just laughing, ‘You have paint all over your face.'”

Because of the build schedule, Whitney did not start on her own home until later in its construction. On her first day there, site supervisor Alyson made sure to ask her how she wanted her house numbers displayed, and Whitney put them up herself.

“It had a finality to it,” she said. “Now, this is [my address]. I just marked it. A hand print. It’s mine. Oh man, I love that house. I already love that house, and I don’t even live in it.”

Seeing volunteers work on her own home already had a special meaning for Whitney, but working alongside them also had an impact. As usual, she was asked about being an applicant without children. NOAHH partners with individuals as well as families. Our only criteria are need for shelter, willingness to partner, and ability to pay. Whitney answered their questions happily, and enjoyed the smaller group size.

“I walked up and said, ‘Hi I’m Whitney I’m the homeowner,'” she said. “And they’d ask questions like ‘How many bedrooms? How many bathrooms? What’s the square footage? You living here by yourself and you don’t have any kids?’ That’s always the question, but it’s expected. I like the good size [of volunteer groups] where it’s not crowded. Everybody’s got something to do, and you have enough to make little teams. One house I was doing a soffit. There were four of us working on the soffit, and that was enough. We pretty much finished it that day, and everyone had their own tasks and we weren’t stepping over each other. It worked out.”

Construction staff will sometimes check with partner families if they are present for small details about the house, which means there are less things to update or fix during the final walkthrough.

“There weren’t that many things they were working on that I had much preference in,” she said. “Alyson marked the spot where I wanted my towel bar and small stuff like that. Of course I got to pick how my numbers went, but I didn’t really get too much say. There wasn’t too much to say about. It was just like, ‘Don’t break anything.’ We went to put insulation in the attic, and I was thinking, ‘Please don’t put a footprint through my ceiling. Thank you.’ And they didn’t, of course. I just want to get in the house. But we had a good time. It was great.”

Having now completed her sweat equity hours, she has learned quite a bit about construction. Because some things were subcontracted out, there were parts of the home building process she never got to help with, but she looks forward to learning more in the years to come. For every home, the plumbing, electrical, air conditioning system, drywall, and cabinets are subcontracted out. She also did not get to work on the railing of her porch, but she looks forwarding to working on one when she builds a deck in her backyard.

“It had a finality to it. Now, this is [my address]. I just marked it. A hand print. It’s mine. Oh man, I love that house. I already love that house, and I don’t even live in it.”

“What can’t I do now?” she asked before answer: “I can’t do drywall yet. I can’t do cabinets and countertops yet. I think that was all subcontracted out anyway so I wouldn’t learn that. I didn’t do framing. Like base molding and framing the doors, I didn’t do that. No staining. I was painting, so I didn’t need to be staining. What didn’t I do? I built stairs. I didn’t build the railing! I wanted to build the railing. I get to build one on my deck, it’s fine.”

NOAHH volunteers do not typically use nailguns, so Whitney did not get the chance to try one out on site. Using hammers wasn’t her favorite part of building. Because of insurance issues, some power tools are limited to staff only or not allowed on the site with volunteers, but various saws, drills, and sanders are used often. NOAHH staff instruct all volunteers–even those experienced with power tools–on how to use them (and no one under the age of 18 can use power tools on site).

“What I definitely don’t want to go again is framing a wall,” she said. “No more hammers and nails, please. I’ll come with my own impact drill. My own power tools, and we’re gonna go build this wall in five minutes. No more hammering and nailing. And no more 35 to 40 degree weather. Just no more. I think I’ve always really wanted power tools, just never knew what to do with them. But I can say now I’m not afraid of saws anymore. At first I was like ‘Eh a circular saw. It’s gonna go everywhere. I don’t think I can guide it like I’m supposed to.’ But now I’m not afraid of it. Now I’m like ‘Give me that.’ I feel like a pro now. Like minor saws and dealing with angles, it’s nothing.”

Anxious for her pre-closing and closing meetings (where she would officially buy the house), ss the home got closer to completed, Whitney began making plans.

“At some point I walked into what will be my master bedroom, and I spread my arms out,” said Whitney, “and Alyson was laughing at me, but I wanna be in my bed! I’m so ready. It’s been 10 months. Could’ve been longer. I was there the Saturday when we were done with the volunteer part, and then all we need now is the doorbell, some patch work, and that’s about it. So then I’m just waiting. ‘When is closing when is closing when is closing?’ I got the email from Emily and I’m like ‘Finally!’ I told my boss, ‘Can I have all of those days off?’ I just took that Tuesday to Friday off, so I can focus. But I haven’t fully cried yet. I was telling Alyson I’m pretty sure it’s gonna be the moment that I get the keys in my hand. I’m probably just gonna break down. But it hasn’t come to that yet. But I think about it. I imagine it. Every now and then I get a little teary-eyed. But I can hold it together for a few more weeks.”

Her first priority is the alarm system, something she learned from her First Time Homebuyer Class. She has been searching online and considering her options.

“I need to get my alarm system, the Internet, the important stuff,” she said. “Not to mention furniture, because I’m trying to move in that night if I can. I’ve been thinking about stuff like that, like what kind of alarm system? Do I want a monitor it myself cause I used to work in loss prevention? I would rather watch my own stuff to be honest. But do I want to get a self-monitored or get monitoring services and pay monthly fees? I’ve been shopping online.”

Her top priority after making sure her home is secure is the interior design. Partner families choose the flooring type (carpet or laminate flooring) and the counter top colors. NOAHH also provides a refrigerator, a water heater, and an oven through donors like Whirlpool, and the layout is determined by the affiliate as well. After they move in, as homeowners, partner families can decorate and design the home how they want it. Whitney has been planning her own style for months:

“Setting up my theme, it’s royal chic,” she said. “Modern, but traditional. Not too modern, not too traditional, right in the middle. And the scheme of it all is anywhere from Paris to Bourbon St. Eiffel Towers, fluer de lis everywhere. I have a huge canvas with the Eiffel Tower and I’m figuring out, ‘what wall are you going on again?’ Walking through with my dad, I see I want two recess lights here. Two lights hanging down in this little corner. I’ve been designing. I haven’t even been watching HGTV. I can’t even blame them for this. I’ve been checking out pictures on their website, but that’s not the same. I can’t lie. I’m a fanatic of everything on there. Especially like the crasher shows where they rearrange an entire room. One of my favorites is Colorsplash where David Brumsfield shows up to some bland, blah, beige room and the next thing you know there’s color everywhere and it works. I’m like okay this is inspirational. I like this guy. So yeah, HGTV and the DIY network, that’s my stuff. I still go on the website. The front room will be an office. It’s not like I run a business from home, but I do like how much light is in that room. I’ll probably sit in there and play The Sims or something. I’ve already picked out a desk, so I’ll set up a little work station where I’ll play with my Legos or do puzzles. Just relax.”

For her lawn, she took inspiration from her parents’ homes. The front lawn is sodded for every NOAHH house, and the backyards are fenced in. The size of the yard varies by lot size, but most homes have enough room for a little lawn care. Whitney is planning how she’s going to care for it and what she’s going to do with it… and what to do with certain uninvited guests.

“I guess one of the things I didn’t expect to be so excited about is the backyard,” she said. “It’s unfinished. It needs love. Needs a little TLC. One thing I need is St Augustine grass runners, which means St Augustine grass is gonna take over my yard eventually. We have had St. Augustine grass in front of my mom’s house for forever. It’s awesome. I’ve already scoped out two friends. Already scoping out who’s gonna cut the grass because it won’t be me. Already thinking about things like if a wasp decides to build his house on mine, what cemetery I’m gonna book for him. And any spiders, I’m gonna turn into a mob boss and kill him and his entire family and burn his house down too.”

Her father, mother, and stepfather have all been helping her get ready to move. Her father is helping her plan and her mother is helping her shop.

“My family’s been getting together,” she said. “My mom’s already saying ‘I’m gonna buy this, I’m gonna buy that.’ She bought me a pot set. She bought my microwave. I ain’t even mad. She wants to get the cross for the house. One inside and one outside. We’re almost there. I’m anxious now. I’m less stressed out about the house being completed, I’m more just like, ‘okay, that day is coming.’ I need to pack more than the five boxes I’ve packed so far. I have so much stuff to bring to that house. That day I was building on my house, both my parents came and walked through the house, especially my dad cause he works for Lowe’s so he knows plumbing, appliances, he knows everything. And he’s a DIY guy in his own house. He likes to install things and replace things. My dad’s walking though and he’s telling me, ‘Okay your washed and dryer could probably fit there.’ This past Saturday he was saying, ‘Okay you can put the sofa this way and the TV on this wall.’ We’ve gotten through most of the nitty gritty.”

Even with help from her parents, she’s having to budget around moving in and decorating her home.

“It’s all part of the plan,” she said. “I have a budget for what do I need right now to move in. Bed, check. Alarm system, however much that is gonna cost. I’m trying to go like as cheap as possible but still get things I like. I’m balancing. I don’t need to spend like $3,000 on a bed. Like I can get a bed for $500, get the rest of the furniture later. I can live out of a few boxes for a couple months. Do I need gutters right now? Do I need them later? Do I need to worry about anything on the exterior right now? Maybe a little chair on the porch. I’ve just been thinking about the order of business. What order am I doing everything in? The whole point to me is I just want to be comfortable. So the bed is coming first. I wanna be able to sleep and not have to drive all the way to Michoud again. I’m gonna take of those four days with closing and get all that settled in the first, so I can just coast from there.

“It’s been fun. I’ve been thinking about how I’m gonna budget what little savings I do have for the furniture, because I’m starting from scratch. I’ve been shopping online, in stores, everybody’s store. I literally went to Lowe’s last night and just walked around. I looked at everything. I looked at their cabinets, pull out drawers, all in them. I even looked at deck material cause I’m gonna build a deck eventually. I was just looking at everything. It’s overwhelming. It’s definitely overwhelming.”

Home

Toward the end of every homeowner’s time in our program, they come to a pre-closing meeting. Closing is when they officially buy their home. Pre-closing is a meeting where they go over a small list of things they will need to understand for homeownership. About 30 days before closing, homeowners sit with our Family and Mortgage Services Director. Sometimes, if some homes are finishing roughly the same time, multiple partner families will be present at the meeting. Whitney’s meeting included Marty and Scott, two other recent homeowners.

“It was just like, ‘all right, here’s this folder, look through it,'” she said. “It’s a loan application that’s like 6 pages. All this information. I’m like okay I gotta refer to this, I gotta pull up phone numbers asking about previous jobs. It’s like man, I don’t even remember the phone number from my last job. I had to look up the last address I lived at. So it was a lot of information. Of course all of it was either in my house or with me cause I had my paystubs and bank statements. They told me everything I had to bring. I just had to bring bank statements and my last two paystubs. Some of that I had sent in beforehand, but I still brought in all of it. It’s this big ole loan application, all this paperwork, and I’m double checking to make sure I got all of it right. And she says, ‘Here’s this big old packet of stuff you have to sign.’ This will give me an idea of what closing will be like. Which that wasn’t even that bad. It’s probably like 20 signatures. They were asking, ‘Are your hands tired yet?’ ‘No no, lets keep going.’ Closing is really gonna be two hours long. Oh my word. At least it’s just one more day. And they give me copies of the documents ahead of time, so I’m not sitting there, holding everybody up reading legal stuff, because when it comes to legal stuff, it is another language. It is another language, so I gotta sit down with that eventually, so I can be prepared.”

The meeting covers the loan application, loan servicing, what to expect at closing (that it’s a one-hour meeting, what to bring, etc.), predatory lending, comparisons to traditional lenders, and the warranty agreement. This probably begs a few questions, so let’s cover these quickly:

  • The loan application differs from the partnership application. When people join our program, they apply for partnership. When they reach the end, they fill out a loan application. Because NOAHH has already covered their ability to pay in the original partnership application, the loan application is generally not going to be rejected. And since partner families keep in close contact with their case managers throughout the program about the financial situation–changes in income, loss of job, new debts–any problems are usually addressed beforehand. The reason the loan application waits until the end is because there are laws requiring that closing must occur a certain amount of time after the loan application is submitted, specifically that an updated financial verification must take place within a certain time limit of closing. If the loan application happened at the start of partnership, closing would not fall in that time frame.
  • Though NOAHH is the lender–the money for the mortgage comes from us–Fidelity Bank services the loans for us. This started in 2003, when a board member realized that a bank with multiple locations would be more convenient a place for partner families to deliver their payments than NOAHH’s office. They have provided this service for free for 14 years.
  • Predatory lenders are organizations or businesses that offer money quickly but with high interests rates, hidden fees, and excessive penalties. When someone becomes a homeowner, as an owner of property, it goes on record that they are paying a mortgage. Some lenders will send unasked for mail with various offers on mortgage insurance and offer financial services, and some of these are predatory. NOAHH warns about and gives details on how to avoid predatory lenders and solicitations to help protect our partner families.
  • There are several warranties involved in the process. There is a five-year builder’s warranty that covers the roof system, floor system, and foundation, and a two-year warranty on the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems (that is, the central heating/air system). There are warranties on every appliance provided (Whirlpool donates a refrigerator and stove for every Habitat home, and each house has a water heater) and parts of the HVAC are covered by their manufacturer. Finally, there is a 60-day warranty for anything the homeowner might have missed on their “punch list,” which is a list made during their walkthroughs of the completed home, noting any small details that need to be addressed before they move in.

“Well, it covers certain things,” Whitney said. “The houses are not perfect, but they try with site leaders to keep it as perfect as possible. But there is bound to be something they missed, something they should touch up, something that wasn’t finished. So you do a final walk-through. On the outside, a board may be missing a nail, and you can miss that on the walk-through. So you get 60 days to do an extended punch list and say like ‘Oh now that I see it, maybe the inside of the door does need to be repainted.'”

With every house, the punchlist is a normal part of the process that ensures nothing was missed during construction. While NOAHH’s site supervisors are meticulous in completing each house, some minor issues do occasionally crop up.

The monthly payment for NOAHH homeowners includes the mortgage payment (which is just principal and no interest), property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, flood insurance, and an annual termite contract. A savings account called an escrow for these items is set up a Fidelity. This is a budgeting tool that allows the homeowner to save for bills before they come due. Fidelity pays these bills out of the escrow account as they are due. The payments vary slightly, as taxes and insurance can differ from house to house, and the mortgage payments also differ based on the length of the mortgage (usually 20 or 30 years) and the income level of the homeowner. A significant portion of the monthly payment goes directly to principal (for Whitney, principal is about 63% of her monthly payment). The rest is for insurance, taxes, and termite treatments. NOAHH tries to make the process go smoothly for every homeowner.

“It felt right,” Whitney said. “I had been trying to do to the math, trying to figure out what the note was going to be. Like there’s no way it’s gonna be a $500,000 house. But what it was is really valuable. They’re out there selling houses for that much that are smaller and need work. When I walk into mine, I really didn’t have to do anything to it. I just chose to. Through all of my house hunting before this, just look what I got with no interest. It’s amazing. And my grandma’s insurance coverage for her house is like half of mine, and somehow she’s paying more than I am. I gave my mom the list, and I’m like ‘Shop around. You call them.’ It was all kind of spoonfed in a way. I didn’t have to do any research. ‘Here’s your homeowner’s insurance, here’s your flood insurance, we got your termites covered. Here’s your package. Read it, sign it, bye.’ I showed up to pre-closing, and it’s like ‘Here’s your insurance. You don’t have to go with them.’ And I’m like ‘Uh that’s cheap. I’m gonna go with that.’ And the mortgage was a 20 year loan. All this time I thought it’d be a 30 year loan. I showed my mom the numbers, and she’s through the roof. She is through the roof. She said, ‘Girl your house is gonna be paid off in 20 years.’ I won’t even be retired yet. Sunday we went out looking for a new dining room for her in Kenner. She’s saying, ‘Shoot we can have that loan paid off in 15 years if I have something to say about it.’ I know how amortization works, and I can put more to principal every month if I want to, just put up a couple of hundred. Take thousands out of my savings. Wouldn’t that be something if I could take years off my mortgage?”

Amortization refers to paying down debt on a schedule. Disclosure packets are documents that are required by federal law to be sent to the loan applicant three days after the application is submitted. The disclosures inform homeowners of facts about homeownership law and the mortgage the homeowner will have, and they verify information about the homeowner. Working in loan processing at the bank, Whitney has some insights into how other mortgages compare:

“Say they’re paying $500 even for principal, it’s like $200 is going to interest,” she said. “It feels like that at least. I think that number may be actually kind of close. It seems like it would be that much if it’s between 4 and 6%. But I guess most people don’t know it’s 4% of the remaining balance. It goes down eventually, but it’s not like its 4% of that month’s payment. They could end up spending pretty much just as much to interest every year as they do to principal. And it’s like ‘Man how do you pay a 30 year loan when you’re paying so much to interest?’ It’s ridiculous. But I don’t have to worry about interest, and I’m really excited about that part. Once I saw my closing disclosures and everything, I’m reading through it. We deal with closing disclosures at work all the time but I’ve never actually sat down and read them. I actually compared other people’s closing disclosures. One of them, their house was $150,000 and the interest was ridiculous. I’m thinking man if I had gotten the house that was in Gentilly for $151,000, that’s what I would be paying to the bank. Wow. So this is such an opportunity. Especially for so many people who feel like they have to rent forever. Imagine your rent bill went to your house. That’s amazing.”

“And the mortgage was a 20 year loan. All this time I thought it’d be a 30 year loan. I showed my mom the numbers, and she’s through the roof. She is through the roof. She said, ‘Girl your house is gonna be paid off in 20 years.’ I won’t even be retired yet.”

The soft second mortgage allows Habitat to sell their homes at an affordable rate and to protect the value of the property and Habitat’s financial investment. With Habitat mortgages, the soft second mortgage is forgiven over time if the homeowner lives in the house. If they sell it or move out, they have to pay off the soft second mortgage. Whitney plans to remain in hers:

“I’m staying in the house,” she said. “I’m thinking 20 years from now I’ll be 48 years old. I’ll be five years from thinking about retirement. So I can retire and just live off my 401k and my IRA. I’ll be sitting out on my porch people watching just like we were doing the other day. We actually sat on the steps for the whole two hours the Cox guy was there. We sat on the steps and watched people and made guesses if they were going to run the stop sign. We had a blast. I’m actually trying to pay off the first mortgage before the 20 years, just so I can have that off my back. The sooner I get it paid off, the better. It’s wild to even say something like that.”

About a month after pre-closing, Whitney attended her closing to sign the official documents transferring the home to her and setting everything up.

“I was panicking a little bit,” she said. “A little anxious. The closing went faster than I expected. Everybody joked about, ‘Oh your hands are gonna be hurting from signing too much.’ My hands actually hurt more from the pre-closing, filling out that loan application. I had already gotten the copies beforehand [for closing], and I was able to read through everything. So once I get to closing, I’m like ‘Yeah, that says the same thing except with my name and address on it.’ It was so streamlined; it was perfect. I thought leading up to it that I would cry. I thought I would finally cry the moment I got the keys. It didn’t take that long. I cried as I was signing the mortgage. My dad came with me as moral support, and I kept looking at him like ‘You got questions? No? Sign the next one. Questions? No, sign this one.’ And then walking out the building afterwards to the car I’m like ‘I just bought a house. A whole house’ the whole way home, just like the day at the open house, I’m like ‘I just bought a house today. Oh my gosh. What have I done?’ But then it was, ‘All right, now for the hard work.’ I had on a dress, looked all cute for the closing. I needed some shorts on, so we can get to work [moving in].”

Her dad wasn’t sure about the program at first, but Whitney convinced him once she showed him the details of the program.

“In the beginning, he was more skeptical than I was,” Whitney said. “Especially when I tried to break down how the loan itself would work. He was like well ‘How are you only paying this?’ I’m like ‘Calm down! Some kind of way it’s gonna work. I haven’t signed any papers yet, it’s fine.’ He just had a lot more questions, like I would try to answer them and then he’d have another questions I don’t know the answer to yet.’We’ll get to there when we get to the end, let’s find out.’ In the beginning we just talked about the maximum it would be, but we don’t talk about the specifics yet because we just didn’t know. He had another question that I wasn’t 100% sure. Probably about how to fund it. I answered that since then. He was just so unsure. But now that he’s seen the house, and now that I actually told him the actual numbers it’s gonna be, it makes sense. He’s a mathematical person. He’s gotta put numbers to everything. Once I was able to put the numbers in front of him, he was okay with it. Even I checked the math and I didn’t trust it. It took a little more convincing for him. ‘They’ve got a house right here that’s selling for $151,000, and a house down here and all you have to do is put this down.’ And I’m saying, ‘But do they have no interest though?’ You can’t beat no interest. And it is a brand new house. Brand new everything. I don’t have to deal with ‘What if the foundation is cracking?’ I don’t have to deal with that. It’s just nonexistent problems. I don’t have to go through that traditional mortgage process. Seeing it from the inside out makes it worse. It made it so simple.”

Home

Though NOAHH requires partner families work 350 hours of sweat equity, the year-long process really takes up more time and energy than 30 hours a month. There is the escrow to save, the move to plan for, the scheduling and coordinating… it takes effort and patience, and support from family, friends, and NOAHH staff and volunteers. From the initial phone call to the final walkthrough, hundreds of people are involved in the process. At the end of that process, many homeowners opt to have a dedication ceremony. While usually not every volunteer who worked on a home is able to come to the ceremony, many of the people involved in the homeownership program are often there. Among those at Whitney’s dedication were volunteers from America Street, her case manager Emily, Family Services AmeriCorps member Casey (who worked with Whitney at various homebuyer’s presentations), and, of course, Alyson, the construction site supervisor who led the building of Whitney’s home.

“It was so nice,” said Whitney. “It was exactly what I wanted it to be. Everyone who I had met along the way in the process. Even Casey was there. It just felt complete. It was awesome. For a moment there, I forgot I had already moved in. They were like, ‘Here’s the key to your house.’ I’m like, ‘Wait no I have them already.’ It was really awesome. For everybody that’s in the program, I definitely suggest they do a home dedication. There was a feeling there. It was surreal. It brought back that Tuesday moment [at closing] where it was like, ‘I just bought a house. A whole house.’ Everybody got a chance to say a word from their end of things. And I got to say things from my end of things. I did not want to give a speech. I was like ‘What do I say?’ But it was touching. I think the part that got me was when Emily called herself my former case manager. I was like, ‘My heart!’ I can’t really describe it. It was so surreal. It’s still so surreal.”

At Whitney’s ceremony, Anna Danese, Director of Family Services, emceed from the front porch, where Whitney, her family, Emily, and Alyson had gathered. Volunteers, other staff members, family, friends, and neighbors came to her yard as Anna opened the ceremony. Volunteers, staff, and other NOAHH supporters then presented Whitney with the ceremonial gifts NOAHH presents at each dedication. Each gift has a symbolic significance: bread, which represents ‘the staff of life,’ bringing wishes of fulfillment; wine, which represents the joy of companionship of friends and family; flowers, which represent beauty and renewal; a Bible (or other specified book of faith or significance, as requested by the homeowner); tools, to help maintain a happy home; and a ceremonial key (the real keys are given at closing). Emily and Alyson each spoke in turn, talking about working with Whitney in her year of partnership, and then Whitney spoke, telling the gathered crowd about what it felt like to be in her new home. Whitney had tried to reach out to her former pastor from childhood, but he was unavailable. Instead, Anna led the home blessing.

“I stocked up the fridge,” Whitney said. “I’ve cooked in my house now. Now I just have to use the oven. At the dedication it’s like, ‘Wait have I done all that yet?’ It’s as if I went back to the closing where I walked out the building and said, ‘I just bought the house.’ I told Emily I don’t care what time it is, I’m off that day anyway, just make sure everyone can be there. It was good. It was nice. It was so nice. I want to do it again. Just gather everybody. I told Alyson, when I really finish everything, she has to come back. I’m like ‘You gotta see it though! You did this. You gotta see this.’ That’s what she said at the dedication. She said, ‘I’m Alyson, I built this house.’ I’m like ‘Yeah you did!’ Every time I drive by the one I worked on, I’m like ‘I did your flooring! I did your insulation and attic! I put your gate together!’ I was all up in their lawn shoveling dirt. I remember the first time I was going to see my house–see the progress, take pictures, and all–I passed it and saw the woman on the porch who lives at the house I worked on, and I was like, ‘Wow that’s quick.’ It hadn’t been that long since I was working on the house, and now she’s moved in. And now I’m her. I stand out on my porch and just look at everybody. ‘Hey neighbor, what’s happening?'”

Though most dedications feature the same ceremony, each one is different. Every partnership has its own unique ups and downs, special moments, and challenges. Some dedications are more formal, others are more intimate. Some are bright celebrations and others are emotional outpourings. Every partner family is given the chance to speak from their heart, and those who have been closest to them on their journey are on hand to cheer each partner family’s accomplishments.

The dedication ceremony is scheduled by the homeowner with their case manager, and it sometimes falls a little after the homeowner has moved in (as it did with Whitney) and sometimes a little before. A week before, Whitney began the process of moving in. Because she was moving from her parents’ place, she did not have a lot of furniture to bring, meaning she had to buy new furniture. She had to set up (deep breath…) her electric bill and her water bill, her air conditioning system, her appliances, her alarm system, her cable, her drivers license, her homestead exemption, her security door, and her yard. Let’s go through that one by one:

  • The utilities are in NOAHH’s name before the homeowner moves in, and they have two weeks to switch them over, which allows for continuous service with electricity and water.
  • Partner families are given the numbers to call for their air conditioning condenser and a special cage that helps prevent theft.
  • Whirlpool donates a refrigerator and stove to every Habitat home, and their delivery is arranged by the affiliate.
  • Whitney chose to get an alarm system (which is recommended) and buy Internet from a local cable company.
  • A homestead exemption is a special tax exemption available to some homeowners. Updating your license to show your current address is required to get this exemption.
  • Whitney bought a security door to help keep her home safe.
  • Each NOAHH homeowner is also offered a plant package for their yard from Eco Urban, which they must call about themselves.

“Homestead exemption is this wonderful thing that gets you a discount on your taxes,” she said. “If your house is worth $75,000 or more, homestead exemption basically takes off that first $75,000 that your house is worth to the city. At work we had a property tax estimation, and it has a part whether or not the home is owner-occupied, which basically means do they have a homestead exemption, and the difference was like $1,500 a year in taxes. Basically the only requirement is that you live in the home. They want to see the actual paperwork, official act of sale, official mortgage, and they want to see the address on your license to make sure you actually live there.”

Not all homeowners tackle everything in the first week, but most of these are things that need to happen around the move-in date. For Whitney, it all started immediately after closing. As she was driving to her mother’s home to change clothes after closing, she got a call that her appliances were being delivered.

“Every task I do around the house–I don’t know what the feeling is–I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. At my mama’s house I hated doing dishes. I love doing dishes in my own house, no where else.”

“I have appliances in my house!” she said, noting how much she had to do. “I had to go to Walmart and buy a shower curtain, curtain rod. Buy groceries. It’s like just bread, cheese, and meat to make sandwiches. Basic stuff. But it took me a very long time. When we were in line, it’s probably like 6 or 7, I realize I haven’t eaten the entire day. ‘Oh I’m feeling light headed, about to pass out. I need to eat food at my house.’ That first night, I needed to stay at my mama’s house. I really didn’t want to. But I needed to because it’s hot, and I’m lightheaded. Woke up the next morning early at like 6 a.m. I was expecting Cox, the alarm people, the A/C. It might’ve been a good thing we postponed the washer and dryer until Friday because that would’ve been coming then too. And then we gotta go furniture shopping. I forgot the list, and I come back. Then I need to make another list with the things I didn’t get yet. And then I make another list after I get that. I keep adding to it. It never ends. You never stop buying for a house. ”

She also began working on her Paris/Bourbon Street theme for her home.

“My dad bought me a security door and a bar for the front window,” she said. “When he was first talking about it, he showed me which ones he wanted to get and I was like ‘Nooo.’ The door he was looking at was like this sun-pattern. I’m trying to go for like chateau, between Paris and Bourbon Street, and I don’t want the sun on my door. It didn’t look right. So now I have this new pattern. It’s very simple. It’s very cute. We had to spray paint the bar, and it matches the door perfectly. I have already so many things. I just need the furniture there, so I can start putting it up. I need shelves to go on the wall. I have one bookshelf up, and I have three more from my mama’s house. And then small decorative shelves. I have my huge canvas in there with the Eiffel tower. It matches my sofa way more than I thought it would. So I have to figure out what wall I want to put that on. Looking at my yard, I asked my dad, ‘Do you think this tree can hold a lot of Mardi Gras beads?’ I really want a Mardi Gras tree. That would be the Bourbon end of the spectrum I’m going for. It’s an oak tree.”

Her home is on a slightly bigger lot, so she has a big yard to take care of. Lot sizes vary, though most NOAHH homes are roughly the same size.

“It feels amazing,” she said. “It’s the most breathtaking part of the house. ‘Oh, come see the backyard,’ and then it’s like woosh. Everybody’s like ‘Wow this is huge.’ I can put a lot of stuff back here. I need to put a lot of stuff back here or else I’m going to have a lot of grass to cut. If anything, I need to build the deck soon because then the grass will grow, and there’s gonna be a lot of grass.”

Already, she has noted that the home maintenance is different now that she’s a homeowner.

“I might actually cut grass myself. Every task I’ve been doing–I’ve been washing dishes every day, washing clothes ever since I got the washer and dryer. Every task I do around the house–I don’t know what the feeling is–I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. At my mama’s house I hated doing dishes. I love doing dishes in my own house, no where else. Now it’s like oh man there’s still a little grease, I gotta do it again. Just these menial tasks, but it seems right. Things like sweeping the floor. I hate sweeping the floor, what is wrong with me? And then it’s like ‘Oh right I just bought a house. These things happen I guess. I don’t know what to say.'”

Her first week saw a few maintenance tasks come up, but her time in the program had shown her how to handle them. At the end of the week, she reflected on how her life has changed during the course of the program.

“I feel so accomplished this week,” said Whitney. “The paperwork, getting things delivered. And then over the weekend it was just things like the refrigerator didn’t come with an ice maker. So I went to Lowe’s and got that and installed it. That night it started leaking, and I turned the water off and was just like ‘I’m gonna deal with you tomorrow. It’s too late for this.’ But now I know how to install the icemaker. There was something loose on the toilet, so I just turned that a little and it was fixed. By Saturday night, everything is fine. I’m out with friends. We’re at Bayou Beer Garden, and we just started talking about adult problems because we’ve got them now! One of my best friends–he grew up around the corner from me, so we’ve been friends for a very long time. He’s married now with kids, so he’s going through that adult life. I’m going through the ‘I just bought a house’ adult life. We’re just sitting there, shaking our heads. What have we gotten ourselves into? There’s nothing that could’ve prepared me for this. I think I have spent–between the furniture and things that go in the house that I didn’t have–a lot of money. Probably more than a lot. But that’s the whole house. I’m done now. What else do I have to spend money on now? Nothing. Where’s that mortgage at?”

She has begun planning what she will do next with her home, after she saves up.

“My house is my project now,” she said. “It’s going to be my hobby for a long time. I’ll never be finished with it. It felt really good showing my aunts the house. They hadn’t seen it yet, so I was like, ‘I’m going to put a deck right here. An enclosed space right here. Another deck behind it. We’ll have a cabin in the back. A fire pit on this side. A fountain on that side. Fire and water, it’s going to be great.’ I have plans, if you haven’t noticed. So I have plans for that house. All I need to do now is just focus. I’m saving up more money every month. All I have to do is hang onto it just a little bit longer. Get a double of dividends. That’s my favorite word when it comes to my savings. I love looking at my dividends when they come in. So I gotta save it up, then take a look at it. ‘What am I gonna do this week? Okay, we’re gonna do gutters this time. Next time we’ll do the deck.’ So I have a budget for what I want to do, and then for maintenance I have to keep money on the side just in case something happens.”

 

Like many Habitat homeowners, she wants to remain involved now that she’s in her home.

“I enjoyed the construction end of it more,” she said. “My mom enjoyed the store, but I liked construction. I’ve worked retail before, I don’t want to go back. The construction site was fun because I felt like I was learning things. The most I learned at the store was what the store had. That’s about all I learned. I’m a fan of learning things, so the construction site was my spot. I was actually bossing them around when they came with me. ‘You’re taking another break? Come on, lets go. Come on, reach for that door. Let’s go paint this.’ Worth it. I think of all the different routes I could’ve taken, and I’m like ‘Why would I have done that?’ I still love working on site. Now that I’ve left retail, I never want to work in a store again. So working in the Restore was fun, it was cool, but I didn’t want to do it anymore. I could not wait to get out on my site. My mama wanted to stay in the store. It’s been a long time since she did retail, so she was ready to go back. I told her, ‘I’m going back on site’ she said ‘I’m going back to the store.’ It’s the one thing I’m excited to continue doing. On top of that, going with [Family Services] to the presentations too because now most of the questions I can answer. I could’ve answered all of them. Once I introduced myself with ‘I have a house now.’ It’s like they can really ask about anything now. Now it’s like even the details I know. They asked about the warranty, ‘What if something’s wrong right when you move into the house?’ ‘They got you. They got you.’ It’s like I’ve graduated. I just went through a year of college and graduated. I feel like I just got my master’s in something. I feel like anybody could do it, if they just go do it. Like just go do it. I told one of our customers about the program earlier today. I had been telling her about it, but she’s old, so she forgot. It was for her daughter. I gave her the paperwork again. Please, go get a house. Please. Rent is only going to go up. At least with a house the main thing you have to worry about going up is taxes and insurance. But then you just go and shop for other insurance. Tell them ‘You drop my bill off, I drop you.’ You gotta be tough as a homeowner.”

Having moved in and set her home up, she’s ready to celebrate. The fact that she’s a homeowner has only begun to sink in.

“I’m having a mini-housewarming on Wednesday when my furniture comes in,” she said. “I’m going to have a lot of mini ones in between whenever something good happens. I was joking with my coworkers ‘Furniture’s coming in–housewarming! This is here–housewarming! I got mail today–housewarming!’ Just the small things. I want to celebrate this house. It took a while and there was a lot of work involved. Of course, it’s not ever going to be done, but I want to celebrate it. When I’m there, it doesn’t feel real, but it’s real talking about it. I actually slept there the past five nights. It should be real by now, but it’s still sinking in. I didn’t get the moment of ‘Here I am’ because the fridge and stove were coming in, so it was a little hectic at that moment. I get it in little moments, but it hasn’t really hit me yet. I guess it’s just taking a minute. Probably once I have the furniture. We put up the TV last night, so we were watching it. And my dad was like ‘It feels like you actually live here.’ The TV made such a difference. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when I get to sit on a sofa and watch the TV. I get excited about the little things like the washer and dryer, but it still hasn’t hit me. It really hasn’t sunk in yet, but it’s getting there. It’s real. I bought a house. Last Tuesday. A week ago, I bought a house. I have been a homeowner for about 7 days.”