How Memphis Habitat works to make housing affordable and accessible

The importance of home

As a child, I grew up in the most loving and nourishing environment with a family who loved me.

I remember summers that involved fishing, climbing trees and running through the nearby woods exploring the forest with my cousins. Each winter, one of those forest pines would be cut down by me and my aunt for our annual Christmas tree. In no cliche manner whatsoever, I was a happy child.

There was something, however, that plagued my psyche from time to time. It was the fact that in the early ’80s with all the modern conveniences available to most people I knew my family did not have indoor plumbing.

For me, this wasn’t unusual. It was my life. But because many others did have a toilet and a bathtub in their homes, I often felt ashamed to have company or visitors. A heavy burden to bear for a young child.

When I was 16, that house burned, and we lost nearly everything. My family and I were devastated. Regardless of the condition of that house, it was ours — and we cherished it, regardless.

It was then that I began to realize the importance of home and the safety and security it provides. While my work today with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis is about homeownership, it, too, is about creating a foundation on which a family can grow, thrive and dream about a brighter future.

How Memphis Habitat helps making housing affordable and accessible

With Habitat, my personal story of growing up in substandard housing has made me a passionate advocate for this work. Since 2001, I’ve led the affiliate’s work in Memphis, and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.

In 2009, as part of our neighborhood revitalization efforts to salvage and repurpose abandoned and foreclosed properties, Memphis Habitat began to work more intently with community residents to define positive neighborhood outcomes that we might assist with.

Our revitalization work led us to our current focus on aging in place. After doing extensive research of our initial revitalization clients, we realized that most were senior citizens living on about $12,000 a year!

It was shocking — and we decided we needed to do more.

Soon after this discovery, a major local foundation also realized the plight of local seniors and decided to provide a large one-time allocation for senior initiatives. We applied and were awarded a $3.9 million grant and began to serve seniors in earnest. We were successful in leveraging that initial grant into more than $6 million and have now served nearly 400 seniors via aging in place modifications.

In seeing our work with senior housing interventions, we were then asked by a local children’s hospital to partner on their efforts to minimize household asthma triggers by leading the physical home improvements portion of their efforts.

Our work continued along the health and housing spectrum with our newest program called CAPABLE. This initiative teams a nurse or an occupational therapist with a construction/repairman to address both the home environment of the senior as well as the strengths of older adults to improve their own safety and independence.

As fate would have it, in 2017, a new unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose for local Habitats across the state of Tennessee to partner together to create what is likely the first ever statewide aging in place program led exclusively by Habitat. The $13 million grant provides the opportunity to serve 1,463 seniors over the next three years.

This year, 2018, is Memphis Habitat’s 35th anniversary! We will mark the celebration by serving our 500th family via our homeownership program.


A life-changing experience

We also, as a team, took our first ever Global Village volunteer trip to Esteli, Nicaragua. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.

We saw firsthand a family living in what was no more than a tin hut. There was no indoor plumbing. And the electricity that ran into the house was a major fire hazard of several tangled and worn wires.

On my trip to Esteli, I met Pablo — a 12-year-old boy who stole everyone’s heart from the moment we met him. Pablo currently lived in that tin hut.

But Pablo was so very happy and full of love and appreciation. He knew that we were there to help. His smile — his hugs — were our reward.

That poor kid living in poverty housing who simply needed a little help. An opportunity. A chance at a better life.

Pablo was me.

Dwayne Spencer, Memphis Habitat president and CEO

A world of equality, fairness and human decency

Habitat for Humanity is propelled by a vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. Join us as we pledge to work harder than ever toward making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a Beloved Community of justice, equal opportunity and love of fellow human beings a reality.

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