Habitat for Humanity seeks more applicants

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 29, 2011

By Scott Jenkins
EAST SPENCER — Olympia Smyre is counting the days to Sept. 26, the date she and her three children are scheduled to move into their new home on Division Avenue.
She’s excited. Her two sons and daughter, though, “are extra excited.”
“Every Saturday, they wake me up and say, ‘Mommy, are you going to work on the house?’ ” Smyre said.
Working on the house is part of Smyre’s contract with Habitat for Humanity. It’s an agreement she entered into after years of thinking she couldn’t buy a home, and one about which she sometimes feels “a little nervous, overwhelmed.”
But that’s just sometimes. There’s one thing Smyre always feels when she thinks about the house with the green siding and brown shutters that she picked out, where each of her children will have a bedroom and they’ll all have their own yard. She feels “joyful.”
“I probably never would have gotten a house without Habitat … not soon,” she said Monday.
Smyre and Habitat for Humanity of Rowan County want more people to have that feeling.
Habitat and its volunteers build what the ministry calls “simple, decent houses” for families living in “inadequate housing.” Right now, though, Habitat is finding it difficult to attract people who want to live in those decent houses.
While Habitat of Rowan typically has four or five people who’ve gone through the application process and are in homeownership classes, no one is taking the classes right now, said Coleman Emerson, the ministry’s executive director.
Emerson said attracting qualified applicants is an ongoing challenge for Habitat branches everywhere. He said, however, the recession and sluggish recovery are making it more difficult.
That’s because while prospective Habitat homeowners have jobs, they “live pretty much on the knife’s edge all the time … and they’re not eager to take any chances, even if it’s the best chance on the planet.
“We have noticed in prior years that when the economy goes south, applications are less frequent,” he said. “I think that’s because people are afraid to do anything. … A good deal is no deal if you’re afraid for your job.”
What those people don’t realize, he said, is that entering into a partnership with Habitat can improve their financial situation. While some, like Smyre, live in public housing, many with low incomes are paying “all they can pay for rent … but what they can afford to spend only buys them substandard places to live.”
Instead of paying $600 a month on rent, Emerson said, they could pay $400 a month toward owning a home. And for that loan, they make no down payment and pay no interest.
And their payments help finance more Habitat houses.
Habitat works with people who have a steady income but don’t make a lot of money — making them unlikely to be approved for conventional bank loans — but are responsible with what they do earn and have good credit.
“Many of them are the best of the working poor,” Emerson said.
Once an applicant is approved, that person is guaranteed a home, “as long as they do their part,” Emerson said.
That means keeping their finances in order, taking homeownership classes and helping to build their own house.
Volunteers do a lot of the work on any Habitat project, but a family must be willing to invest at least 400 hours.
“Their sweat equity, their work, is their contribution toward owning a home,” he said.
Even those whose applications aren’t approved can make corrections and reapply, he said.
And being unsure of approval is no reason not to apply, Smyre said. She was in that situation.
For a long time, Smyre couldn’t hold a steady job because her sons, 10-year-old Amaadie and 7-year-old Amarion have disabilities, and she spent weeks at a time with them in the hospital.
About a year ago, she found a job at St. John’s Child Development Center, where her supervisor works around those hospital stays. She knew about Habitat and knew that with steady income, she might qualify. Still, with spotty credit, she hesitated.
But she eventually decided the worst that could happen was Habitat saying no. In March, she applied. In April, she got a call saying her application had been approved. And in May, she started working on what will soon be a new home for her family.
And she said the sweat really does build equity.
“After you put in 400 hours of work on your own house, you’re going to do whatever you have to do to keep it,” she said.
Now Smyre, her sons and her 5-year-old daughter Keira are close to enjoying the fruits of that labor. And she’s telling everyone about the program. She tells relatives they should check it out and she’s gotten applications into some coworkers’ hands.
“I’m like a commercial for Habitat,” she said.
Smyre spoke standing on the front porch of her new home, where railing lay stacked in preparation for workers to install it.
She watched a brief rain wet the red mud in the front yard, where she’ll be this weekend helping to landscape.
“I’m excited about that,” she said. “I never get to be in dirt.”
Smyre’s will be the 86th Habitat house in Rowan. The 87th is being constructed in Spencer.
Coleman is looking for people who want to live in No. 88 and beyond.
“There are people out there,” he said, “and we want to help them.”
To qualify, applicants must have lived in Rowan County at least a year and must be U.S. citizens or in the country legally.
Anyone interested in applying for a Habitat home can pick up an application at the agency’s offices, located in the Habitat ReStore at 1707 S. Main St.
For more information, call 704-642-6292 or log on to www.habitatrowan.org