From Partnership to Homeownership
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. Part 14, the final chapter, is about her home dedication and moving in. For previous parts, click here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12 and Part 13.
Though NOAHH requires partner families work 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.
“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.”