Melissa Jones, a single mom with four kids, has a good job at a major corporation. But like growing numbers of Miamians, she has struggled with rising rent — and forget about hoping to ever own a home. Or so she thought.
But then she was turned on to Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit renowned for its hard-nosed “sweat equity” approach to getting low-income families into new homes of their own. These are high-quality houses with low prices, in part because they’re sawed and hammered together by a squad of volunteers and the homeowners themselves.
And so one warm morning last week, Jones found herself on her knees gluing dark wood laminate to the floors of what will soon be her new Habitat home in the south Miami-Dade neighborhood of Goulds. That’s after she spent much of the previous nine days helping to nail down the roof, put up drywall, frame and install doors and windows, paint inside and out. Still to come: attaching cabinetry to kitchen and bathroom walls and planting grass and landscaping.
This is the house Melissa built (with a lot of help from a volunteer crew of fellow employees from insurance giant Assurant, which has a big operation in nearby Cutler Bay): A tidy, pastel-colored three-bedroom house with a nice-sized yard and a prime location, a few blocks from U.S. 1 and a short drive from work.
It will cost her $175,000, or under half the $380,000 median price of a home in Miami-Dade County.
The Jones house is one of eight new homes in the neighborhood set to be finished this weekend as part of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Miami’s annual, two-week Blitz Build. The Miami affiliate just marked 30 years of operation in the same quiet, under-the-radar fashion in which it’s produced about 1,340 low-cost houses across the county — a mission that’s become only more critical amid a ballooning affordable-housing crisis.
While local government’s attempts to respond have by necessity focused on fostering development of affordable rentals, Habitat has been the only entity consistently filling the key niche of home ownership, providing stability for struggling neighborhoods and low-income families with not only shelter, but a way to build wealth. The Miami affiliate puts 30 to 40 families in homes every year, said CEO Mario Artecona.
“We want to put families in a position to succeed,” Artecona said. “We change their world. We don’t pretend Habitat is the solution to Miami-Dade’s housing crisis. But every drop helps. So we keep plugging away. Through housing booms and housing busts, we’ve been here, going slow and steady.”
Founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller as a Christian nonprofit organization, Habitat for Humanity operates in all 50 states and 70 countries around the world. Based in Georgia, it’s perhaps best known as the charity that for years has drawn former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn to do real labor at home construction sites. Habitat claims to be largest nonprofit builder in the world, responsible for millions of homes.
Local affiliates like Miami’s operate independently, responsible for raising funds, finding land and undertaking home construction, not to mention finding prospective homeowners who can clear the program’s high bar for participation.
The eight soon-to-be homeowners in this year’s Miami blitz include a garbage-truck driver, a Publix deli worker, a truck-driving instructor for Miami-Dade public schools, a store manager and a pharmacy tech. They are backed up by about 1,200 volunteers over the two weeks of construction from companies and charities, including Goya and its owners’ Ortega Family Foundation.
Jones, a 39-year-old account management support worker, said earning her way into a home in such a hands-on fashion hasn’t been easy. But she couldn’t be happier.
For Jones, born and raised in Goulds, move-in day a few weeks from now will mark a return home from Homestead, where she had been renting a cramped apartment for a budget-straining $1,300 a month. In her own house, the monthly mortgage will be just $746, all of that going to principal because there is no interest charged. Even with insurance and taxes she’ll be paying less than she’s been doling out in rent, while saving money and building equity she can pass on to her kids.
“This is home,” Jones said, taking a brief break amid a buzz of construction activity and deliveries of cabinets and dump trucks full of soil for the yard. “I came back home. It’s been a journey. But it’s been a great journey.”
As a bonus, the location of her new home will mean a dramatically shorter commute to work. It now takes her 45 minutes each way during rush hour to and from Homestead. From Goulds, it will be 10 minutes, if that. So the move also means more time with her kids and even more savings. Long commutes and the cost of tolls and gas can add significant stress and financial strain to families forced to live far from work to find housing they can afford.
Jones said her housing and commuting costs were making her despair.
“The cost was so high, I thought we would have to leave Miami,” she said.
She learned about Habitat when she volunteered for a company-supported Assurant crew helping build homes. But, until she was encouraged to apply, she said, Jones didn’t think she could qualify for the program, given its rigorous requirements.
Applicants must pass strict background and financial checks to ensure they can make their mortgage payments. Those who are approved undergo a dozen different training workshops on household finance and budgeting, preparing a will and other related matters, Artecona said. They also have to rack up a total of 250 hours of construction work by laboring on their own homes as well as houses for other Habitat participants, not a simple equation for someone working full time or raising kids.
The results are little short of remarkable, especially given the low incomes of participants, who can’t make more than 80 percent of the county median income — a cap that works out to $67,750 for a family of four. Over 30 years, the default rate for homes built by the Miami affiliate is less than 1 percent, Artecona said.
Habitat prefers to counsel homeowners who run into financial problems, but won’t let anyone abuse the program and will foreclose and evict if it has to, Artecona said.
“We will, but it’s very rare,” he said.
Participants receive zero-percent financing from Habitat, which acts as both lender and builder. Like Jones, 90 percent end up paying less in monthly payments for their homes than they previously paid in rent, Artecona said.
The Habitat formula is not magic, he emphasized. One reason prices are so low is that lots for homes are donated, in most cases by Miami-Dade’s infill program. Typically those are long-vacant lots seized for back taxes or other reasons.
Corporations, meanwhile, sponsor individual homes with donations to Habitat at $75,000 each. Baptist Hospital, a leading donor, has sponsored 81 homes, Artecona said. The Miami affiliate raises about $3.5 million a year, he said, most through corporate donations, although a substantial portion also comes from individual gifts.
Habitat hires contractors to build slabs and exterior walls and install plumbing and electrical systems, something volunteers aren’t equipped to do, Artecona said. The homeowners and volunteer laborers do just about everything else, though.
For the volunteers, it’s a labor of love. Ed Jones started volunteering in 1995 while working at Assurant, where he was employed for 21 years, and was on the Miami Habitat board of directors for a time. He’s now retired, but continues to come out. This week, he’s the volunteer coordinator on Melissa Jones’ (no relation) home. The Miami native says he finds satisfaction in helping others.
“I don’t profess to learn anything. I’m just a laborer,” he said. “The Lord leads you to do anything you can for others.”
Once costs for permitting, approvals and plans are built in, the Habitat homes are sold pretty much at cost, Artecona said. To save money, Habitat relies on three basic house designs that fit most lots, though sometimes changes are required to conform to non-standard properties, something that can add to the construction budget.
In Goulds, for instance, zoning rules requiring an “urban” design meant that some corner houses had to include enclosed yards and a proliferation of expensive windows along one side, Artecona said.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Dennis Moss, whose district includes Goulds, has been instrumental in obtaining county-owned lots for Habitat over the years, including those in the current blitz, Artecona said.
Moss said Habitat has proven reliable when others have failed to deliver.
“I know that if I give a lot to Habitat, they will build a home on that property,” Moss said. “This is a diverse group of individuals who end up with those homes. And that’s very impressive. The community really benefits. They do an absolute wonderful job.
“In the past we had given lots for development, and sometimes it wouldn’t happen. So I always try to give first dibs on a lot to Habitat.”
Moss stressed that Habitat does more than build homes and put people in them. He said the group has played an important role in revitalizing places like Goulds, a historically black former agricultural community that has struggled since the loss of farms and packing houses and the severe blow it took from Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Last year, Habitat built 10 homes on one block in Goulds, and previously built a community of 65 homes in abutting South Miami Heights, another adjacent historically black neighborhood.
“They build great homes. But it’s not just about the house. It’s about the families, because of how they help to build up the families and the communities as well,” Moss said. “Working on these houses, it brings the family and the community together. They develop bonds and friendships and it’s a good thing for the community.
“Habitat goes into distressed areas, and that changes the whole dynamic of the neighborhood. Now you have homes owned by folks who are going to protect their investment and push to upgrade the community. You can really build wealth and transfer that on to your children. And now we have properties paying taxes and contributing to the economy.
“I can’t say enough positive things about what they do.”
But Artecona says lots are getting harder to come by. Not only is supply dwindling as the county gets built out, but some remaining lots may be unbuildable because they’re too narrow or oddly shaped. Most of the lots Habitat is getting from the county now require significant investment to prepare for construction, in many cases because they have no water connections, or the existing ones have to be completely redone.
It’s also getting harder to snag contiguous lots, meaning Habitat can’t always aggregate enough to build adjoining homes. Instead it must build on scattered lots, as in the current blitz, making it harder for new owners to bond and connect.
Now Habitat Miami is considering introducing new house templates, possibly townhomes or more two-story homes, to fit more families on a lot.
Though most of its land now comes from the county, Artecona said Habitat Miami could easily ramp up more construction if someone were to donate or sell a large parcel to the group at a good price.
“The only thing that keeps us from serving more families is access to land,” Artecona said. “But we are competing against the private home-builders for the same dirt, and they have more capacity than we do.”
For Habitat blitz participant Maribel Gonzalez, owning her own bit of dirt is the fulfillment of a dream. She and her 16-year-old son have been sharing a futon in her mother’s Hialeah apartment. Her mother sleeps on a couch.
“It’s very tight quarters,” Gonzalez, 41, said.
At the construction site of her home, Gonzalez, who works for a loan-servicing company, is in her element. She loves doing household repairs, maintenance and do-it-yourself projects, having picked up basic skills from her grandfather. Noticing her avocation, a family friend suggested she apply for a Habitat home.
She did, last June, and has been sharpening her skills since November, when crews broke ground on her house. She calls the volunteers swarming over the house in the race to finish the job “amazing.”
“The message here is it’s hard work, but it can be done,” she said, cracking a smile. “I do this for fun, actually. I’m the only one here probably that’s having a blast.”