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Habitat homeowner on the hill

Monica Hodnett, a Habitat homeowner, talks with a staff member of Rep. John Sarbanes during Habitat on the Hill 2010.

Homeowner joins voices for Habitat on Capitol Hill

Monica Hodnett didn’t know becoming a celebrity activist came with the keys to her Habitat house.

But less than two weeks after she moved into the rehabbed foreclosure in Silver Springs, Maryland, she found herself in Washington, D.C., with more than 240 others from Habitat for Humanity getting lessons on how to talk to a congress person.

“You need more than a love fest, “Chris Vincent, director of congressional relations for Habitat, told Hodnett and a roomful of other would-be advocates in a conference room at the Washington Marriott. “They’ll just want to tell you how much they like Habitat. Pin them down on their answers. Will they support us? Head nodding is not an answer.” 

Then buses loaded to unload the Habitat delegates at the bottom of Capitol Hill. Habitat advocates crisscrossed from Senate to House office buildings to meet in small groups with representatives, senators or their staff members in 225 congressional offices. 

It was lobby day of the annual advocacy conference called Habitat on the Hill. That name comes from Habitat lobbying Congress on Capitol Hill to support Habitat’s legislative needs. 

As the only Habitat homeowner amid a sea of Habitat staff, volunteers and board members, Hodnett was a celebrity. And she made sure Habitat was heard. 

In the office of Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Hodnett set an urgent and serious tone to start the meeting, telling the senator’s staff: “All of the things you will hear about today are life-changing. I want other families to have the chance I have.”

Staff from Montgomery County HFH, her partner for the Habitat house and other Maryland affiliates, added details about funding and legislation. The senator stepped in briefly to say hello. And, then, the Habitat delegation from Maryland was on to the next meeting. Delegations of Habitat supporters from other states were doing the same thing in meetings with their representatives and senators.

Because her Habitat house “had touched me deeply, and changed everything,” Hodnett wanted her story known. 

Montgomery County in Maryland is among the most expensive places to live in the United States. Hodnett, who was born and grew up in the county, couldn’t afford to live there after she got homesick and moved back from Atlanta in 2007. She rented a one-bedroom apartment for herself and her sons, DeMarco, 8, and DeTuro, 4, for $1,100. She put a bunk bed for the boys in the bedroom and slept on a futon in the living room. She struggled to stretch her paycheck as a federal employee to cover all the costs.

“It never quite worked out. I had to be creative,” she said.

Then she stumbled across Habitat on the Web and applied for 10 foreclosures which were being rehabbed. More than six months later, she got a call at work.

“I got the house. I just had to go out in the hall and, well, I had a moment,” Hodnett said.
It took more months of working six days a week: five days at her job in HR at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and another day of sweat equity on Habitat construction sites starting at 7 a.m. every Saturday. But between snow storms in February, she moved into her rehabbed house with a fenced backyard. 

“The children have their own room, a backyard to play in, a basement. I insulated my own house, installed door knobs, used a tape measure and learned what studs really are. And my mortgage, house insurance, taxes are $400 a month less than the apartment.”

Her son, DeMarco, helped her with the 200 hours of sweat equity she needed to complete. He worked at getting O’s (outstandings) on his report card at school, as they count as sweat equity hours. “He’s just so proud of himself,” his mother said.

When Hodnett had returned from her day in Washington, she said, her boys acted “like I was just somebody who had been somewhere. De Marco wanted to know what it was like seeing the president. I had to tell him I didn’t see the president, but what I did do was cool. 

“And I thought I possibly made a difference, didn’t I?”