From Partnership to Homeownership

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.

“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.”