ubbly and independent, Julie Brown has a smile you can hear. The mother of two has lived in her Habitat home in Florida since 1998. She began that year sharing a room in her stepfather’s house with her young daughter. By the end of it, she had changed everything. Her house, she says, was “really a new start for me. When I got the house, it made me want more. I was making my payments and everything, and I just felt like I could achieve more. It really motivated me that way.”
With encouragement from her Habitat volunteer mentor and the employees of Flagler Habitat for Humanity, Julie soon saved enough money to take a big chance on herself: She quit the job she’d had for 10 years in order to take the courses required to become a certified nursing assistant. She more than quadrupled her previous income.
She paid off her home in November 2011 and hopes to be able to return to school to become a nurse. For now, she’s concentrating on her children. Daughter Kathy is studying to be a dental hygienist, encouraged by all she’s seen her mother achieve. Brown also has a 10-year-old son, Dub, who is autistic. Thanks to her financial stability and the budgeting skills Habitat helped her gain, she can provide him with a nurse and the care he needs, as well as a safe, permanent home. The pride and empowerment she feels is unmistakable, but she simply says, “It’s a niiiiiice feeling, having something you can call your own, that no one can take away from you.”
Stories like Julie’s are exactly why Habitat affiliates make financial literacy classes part of the program for future homeowners, as well as home maintenance training. Homeowners spend time going over basic budgeting skills, learning about credit and credit reports, and learning about the components of a Habitat mortgage.
Lindsay Elliot, Flagler Habitat executive director, says that the affiliate consistently tweaks its Homeowner Training Series to give partner families the most valuable tools it can. “We do our best to always be available to our homeowners and expose them to as many community resources as possible to stay on track or get back on track if they have a tough month,” she says. “We strive for success with each homeowner, and our goal is to give them the tools to be as strong and independent a homeowner as possible.”
That goal is echoed by Cristen Incitti, family services coordinator at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.
“We believe that families will be more successful in their homes if they’re successful in three main areas: community engagement, home maintenance and lastly financial literacy,” she says. “Part of the reason why our underwriting criteria is pretty stringent is that we believe that sets up success — if they’re able to balance out all of their debt, their budget, their income and all of those things all together.”
Financial literacy and budgeting knowledge have incredible value, but the simple fact that Habitat homes are affordable is a huge asset to struggling families. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that across the United States, rents are rising, incomes are not, and the cost-burden for low and extremely low-income families is going up.
Twin Cities homeowner Drakeima Ingram had moved frequently from unsafe and unstable place to unsafe and unstable place, before ending up in an apartment that cost her $1,200 a month. Once she traded that exorbitant rent payment for a $350 Habitat mortgage payment, the trajectory of her whole family changed: Her daughter is in college, her younger sons are able to concentrate on school, her oldest son can focus on supporting his own young family, and Drakeima is able to provide childcare for her grandson.
Having the peace of mind Drakeima Ingram enjoys and the confidence Julie Brown possesses are two invaluable effects of the Habitat model. In an effort to give even more families a chance at that same kind of success, Twin Cities Habitat has taken a cue from the Habitat Detroit, adopting its Habitat Hope Program in 2010.
Habitat Hope is designed to help families who just miss qualifying for a Habitat home, due to small and resolvable issues like debt or minor dings on their credit. Those families can attend sessions through Habitat and are connected with credit counselors to come up with a plan to become eligible to be Habitat homeowners. So far, Incitti says, about 70 percent of families who’ve gone through Habitat Hope have become eligible for a Twin Cities Habitat mortgage, with several of them currently in the process of buying homes.
Rashon Cryer was an early participant in Habitat Hope, working with a counselor to resolve a credit problem preventing her from qualifying for a Habitat home. In March 2011, she closed on her house, one step closer to a better life for herself and her two sons. As she began her home-buying process, Rashon said she was excited about all she would learn and “being a part of our own destiny through hands-on work and participation, appreciating the things you work hard for.” Now, she has her own home and is working hard at finishing her nursing degree.
Low-income families face plenty of challenges. Habitat believes that a safe and stable place to live should not be one of them — and that, when a family feels comfortable and safe in their own home, a level of confidence and security can extend to all parts of their lives.
It has for Julie Brown, and she wants others to have that same feeling. She volunteers with Habitat and tells anyone and everyone how she feels about the program. “I say it’s the best thing, they’re the best people and the best houses, if you need one, you gotta do it!” she says. “They taught me all kinds of things I couldn’t do before. They show you how to save, how to budget, I do everything now! I cut grass, clean gutters, paint walls — I can do it all!”
For Brown, a Habitat home was the start of a whole new, financially secure life, for which she says, “I’m so thankful. I love Habitat!”