The Coastal Sussex Interview: Sussex Habitat for Humanity

by Dave on May 15, 2009

AS first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, April 30, 2009:

COASTAL SUSSEX WEEKLY:  Talk briefly for people who don’t know what you do about your mission and how you go about achieving it. What is it that you do?

KEVIN GILMORE: Habitat for Humanity has the mission to build simple, decent and affordable home, and we do that in partnership with people in need. Our focus here is in Sussex County, so families apply to Habitat and they qualify based on three different criteria. The first is willingness to partner with Habitat, because they have to help in the construction of their house. The second is housing need, because we’re trying to help people get out of bad living conditions and into home ownership. The third is ability to pay. So we’re targeting hardworking, lower-income people so that they can afford to pay a Habitat mortgage, which is an interest-free mortgage – best rate in town! And that’s generally how Habitat works.

CSW: Some people are surprised by that. They think that Habitat gives away houses to people who can’t afford their own house. Is that a misconception that you’ve experienced?

KG: I’ve been doing Habitat for about 15 years now, and I’ve found that there are two main misconceptions about what we do, and one is that we give houses away, and that is not true. Habitat sells houses. We do not make a profit on the sale of the house, and we hold a no-interest mortgage, which takes a normal, decent house and makes it affordable to a low-income family. (The second misconception is that Habitat was founded by Jimmy Carter.)

CSW: Here in Sussex County, how many families are there that fit your criteria?

KG: In Sussex County alone, the state Housing Authority says there are over 4,000 families living in substandard housing. We’re currently building about 10 houses a year, so the need is tremendous. Now, not everyone meets those three criteria of ability to pay, willingness to partner and housing need, so we work in conjunction with other housing agencies, some that do emergency repair. We’re looking at a program now where we can buy houses that have been foreclosed upon and rehabilitate them and turn them into affordable housing.

Again, we’re building about 10 homes a year now, which is a drastic change from just a few years ago. In the housing industry, we’re just a small builder. But in addition, we’re a social service agency, we’re a mortgage company, and we’re a counseling service. We work with the families to help them be successful. We match the families up with counseling, financial management training. We try to help people go from a hopeless situation to a hopeful situation where homeownership is key.

CSW: Have you seen anecdotal evidence of the need growing as the economy has dipped?

KG: We get about 50 calls a month for families looking for homes. We encourage those folks to apply, but some of those folks don’t qualify for the Habitat program. We have seen an increased interest in homeownership and an increased need. In some cases where two people were working and one lost their job and they have their income cut in half overnight. It’s a tough time, not just for us, but for the entire USA. Habitat is one solution, but we’re a long-term solution. This is not a quick fix. Folks that want to partner with Habitat need to realize that this is not transitional housing. This is a way to change their life from her on out.

CSW: What about staffing? With an influx of retirees in the area, I imagine there are a lot of highly qualified people with time on their hands? What is the status of your volunteers?

KG: Habitat runs by volunteers. Volunteers are the lifeblood of this organization. We have a few people on staff and our job is to coordinate more volunteers. So when we bring someone on staff, they’re out there trying to get more people engaged. I think in tis area we’re blessed to have a lot of retirees, a lot of people with a heart to do good, and a lot of people who want to make this community a better place to live. Habitat provides an avenue for them to do that.  We do it through the volunteers who want to come out for one day or who want to come out for several days. Companies that come out – Comcast, Happy Harry’s, Home Team Realty just recently were on the job site. Companies who want to use it as a team-building exercise. People who unfortunately are out of work right now and don’t want to have idle hands are coming out. Subcontractors who don’t have as much work as they used to are coming out and donating their time to help their community. In these tough times, people still want to give back and help the public.

One way that we’ve expanded is through AmeriCorps, which has been called the “domestic Peace Corps” where citizens of the United States give a year of their lives to serve others. They receive a small living stipend. And we’ve started this program here, where we’ll eventually have 10 full-time AmeriCorps volunteers in Sussex County Habitat. This appeals to recent college graduates who are looking to do something before they go to graduate school. In this job market, we’ve seen a lot more applicants for our AmeriCorps program, because it’s a great way to do something productive for a year, to network, build your resume, and then go on to your career.

We also see people at the end of their career doing this, so we’ve got AmeriCorps members who are retired and want to do something productive, and this is one way to do that. We’re taking applications for our next year’s class of Americorps that begins in October. It’s a great opportunity for people of all ages to get involved with Habitat for an intense, meaningful year of service.

CSW: One of the big challenges for all nonprofits is fundraising. You’ve been successful, but the need is so great. Talk a bit about those efforts and what you have going on.

KG: Fundraising is key to the success of any nonprofit. When you build houses, it costs a lot of money. We believe that this mission is an important part of our society in Sussex, and I believe everyone should be contributing in one way or another, whether that’s writing a check for $10 or showing up to an event like we’re going to have this week. Thursday at the Starboard there’s a silent auction beginning at 5:30. Come, buy something and let that money go to a good cause. Friday, May 1st, we’ve got our fourth annual golf outing, which is organized by Shaun Jones, who is a great example of a volunteer giving his time to raise money for Habitat. Shaun is trying to raise enough money for a whole house, so his goal is $100,000. So come on out and support this event.

If you can’t make it, think about other ways. Do you want to organize your own event? Do you want to write a check or do you want to come out and volunteer?

CSW: What do you see coming up in the next year or so for Habitat?

KG: In recent years as a nonprofit we’ve gone through some growth. We opened our ReStore which is a retail facility for building surplus materials. We’re getting ready to break ground on a new office. Basically, our spatial needs for organizing have outgrown our space. Not just in staff but volunteers, training with the families, so we’re getting ready to build an office here in Georgetown as a center of operations for Habitat.

In addition, we continue to build more homes. We’re getting ready to finish our first subdivision near Seaford and focusing some efforts in the Laurel area. The new program on the block for us is looking at buying foreclosed properties and turning them into affordable housing. Buying them, fixing them up and selling them to the public. There’s some federal stimulus funds that will help us with that. We’re also looking at some repair programs as well. There is a big need in this area for people who can’t afford to fix up their house. That’s something that we’re exploring.

What we’re trying to do is provide simple, decent, affordable housing solutions to this area. If that means new construction, that’s what we’ll do. We need to look at other ways to do that, and that’s what we’re doing.

CSW: You briefly touched on it, but tell people more about the ReStore facility.

KG: It’s something that can be of interest to all sectors of our society. Whether you’re renovating your kitchen, getting rid of perfectly good cabinets, but you need a new style, you can donate those to the ReStore and get the tax write-off. We then take them and if we can put them in a Habitat house, we will.  If we can’t we sell them to the public. We have all sorts of building materials. A lot of it is brand new, from box stores who change their inventory lines to things that people are donating that are in perfectly good condition but are no longer of use to them. So we sell these building surplus materials at least 50% off what you would find in a retail store. And we use that money to build houses. This past year is the first year of the ReStore, and we were able to raise enough money to build one additional Habitat house. In addition to that, all of the people who improved their quality of life by putting in a new furnace, a new water heater, new cabinets, doors, windows, all of the types of products that we sell here in the ReStore.

CSW: People who want to volunteer, how do they go about that? And what else do you have for people besides banging nails?

KG: When people think of Habitat, they think of banging nails, swinging hammers, going out on the job site. But for every hour on the job site, there’s about 10 hours of other work that goes into making that possible. That’s done by volunteers, too. Like Shaun who’s organizing the golf event this weekend. We have committees who are organizing other events, working with our families. Just managing volunteers is a volunteer job. We operate with a committee structure. There are about 70 people every week who are organizing Habitat so that it functions. We’re looking constantly for volunteers for that area. The ReStore has a group of 20+ volunteers who run that business. Even on the level of our Board of Directors, where we’re looking for people in the community, community leaders, who are looking to direct our future.

If you want to volunteer on the job site, go to our website. There is a schedule where you can register online to volunteer. If you want to help in one of these much-needed capacity areas – organizing, planning, helping the organization to be stronger and run better – call the office at 855-1153 an let us know what skills you have and see how we can find a fit.


marjorie & patricia shields November 1, 2009 at 3:38 am

dear habitat humanity, me & my mother patricia need help with our house because the 2 porch is rotting, we need our electric done done in our house even the electric box , the bath room it is really cold in there and the bath room need dry wall ,painted, we need a need a new gas furance because it,s 30 yrs old and it shut off , on all time when it gets cold out and i am 47 and i am disable and i h ave alot of health troubles and my mother have alot of health troubles too and she is 74 yrs old and we don,t have the money to fix our house so please if you help us leave because we been trying too get someone and we call places and no can help. my phone number is 724 599 7168 -cell and my home number is 724 254 2065. please help. marjorie & patricia shields,my address is 960 sage clymer pa 15728-1044.

marjorie & patricia shields November 1, 2009 at 3:47 am

can you help us we really need help.

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