For 30 years and more than 300 homes, Habitat of Humanity of Greenville has helped break the poverty cycle one family at a time

The reality of a decent, safe and affordable home can be elusive for those with limited income and limited savings for a down payment. For 30 years, Habitat for Humanity of Greenville County has been making it possible for residents to own homes through their own labor or “sweat equity,” volunteer builders and affordable mortgages.

Habitat of Greenville County launched in 1985, with Greenville civil engineer Joe Barron leading an effort to found an Upstate chapter of the organization created in 1976 in Americus, Ga., by Millard and Linda Fuller.

The early years

Barron, who still works locally with H2L Consulting Engineers, said he served as board president for the first two years, followed by volunteering and serving on the board ever since.

Based on his experience with Habitat in Columbia, Barron presented a program at a local gathering of churches and nonprofits during the 1980s, when government housing programs were scaling back.

He said many people were interested and soon formed a volunteer board. Providence provided board volunteers in the form of a builder, marketer, banker and volunteer coordinator, he said. “It was like a preordained group with the needed talents.”

The chapter’s first project was the renovation of a mill house in the Poe Mill area. Building got a jump-start in 1988 when a Habitat walk from Maine to Georgia was due to stop in the Upstate, and walk organizers wanted to know how many houses the local affiliate could build.

“Until then we had completed one and started two or three. I volunteered us to build eight houses,” Barron said. Those eight were completed in about two years, he said.

Barron recalls a faith build when eight denominations worked together that “could agree on a hammer when they couldn’t agree on anything else.” WLFJ radio broadcast from the site for two weeks. Whenever supplies were needed, the station spread the word and the items were donated, he said. 

Growth continued steadily and the chapter hired its first staff members and director, Barron said. In the 1990s, director Ron Geyer lent structure and organization to the local chapter, which at one time was less intentional than it is now, he said. “We’d step out on faith with $2.”

The ripple effect

Providing adequate housing that is safe, stable and affordable not only meets a basic need for a family, but creates extra cash flow which can be used for bills, school fees, medication and other expenses, said current Habitat Greenville president Monroe Free.

“That makes the rest of life affordable,” he said.

Secure housing also allows residents to focus on education, staying healthy and raising their families, he said. When asked about the biggest difference in their new homes, Free said homeowners reported that their new houses “don’t smell.”

Staff didn’t know what that meant until realizing “mold and mildew, they smell – and many of the families’ former homes had water running down the walls,” he said. Family members also start to feel better, with many reporting upper respiratory infections and asthma symptoms disappearing, he said.

“If everyone in the family is feeling bad and can’t afford medicine, it’s harder to think about higher goals in life,” he said.

For a mother who is stressed about making ends meet or allowing her children to play outside because the area is unsafe, a secure and affordable home allows her to “create a home life with joy and discipline,” he said.

Habitat’s goal goes beyond simply building houses, Free said – it seeks to break the cycle of generational poverty. Housing is the greatest expense for families, and easing that burden allows families to make other changes, he said. Barron recalled one man who said his family had been in the country for 300 years and he was the first to own a house.

Another positive effect is the eye-opening experiences for young volunteers who may not realize that some families live in a space the size of their recreation room, Barron said.

New homeowners benefit because the volunteer building crew creates a different and beneficial network, he said. Barron cites an executive who was seeking an administrative assistant who met a homeowner who had recently completed her degree. She was hired.

Greenville resident Kristen Whitworth, who grew up in a Habitat home, wrote in an essay in 2014, “I do not know where I would be without the comfort of knowing that my mom as a single mom has an affordable mortgage payment and a place to call hers, and our family had a stable home during our childhood.”

Whitworth, now 24, credits the stable environment for allowing her to graduate from North Greenville University, along with the success of her two brothers. She and her husband “completely grasp and understand the importance of homeownership,” Whitworth wrote.

Responding to the market

With changing regulations and requirements for building and mortgages, Habitat Greenville has evolved and changed, Free said. Following the most recent housing crash, new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules added mortgage requirements, he said.

Other changes have included requiring 26 hours of financial education for homeowners, adjusting how families are selected and using volunteer mentors and coaches for homeowners. Municipalities are now interested in Habitat as part of their overall housing programs, and that partnership comes with additional requirements, Free said.

The next 30 years

What hasn’t changed, Free said, is volunteers building homes alongside the new homeowners. Volunteers do everything from building walls to laying shingles, he said. Licensed contractors do electrical, plumbing and mechanical system work. Volunteers also teach classes, conduct home visits for prospective homeowners, perform office tasks and work in the Habitat ReStore resale stores.

In the last three years, Habitat’s program that renovates and weatherizes homes has grown, now completing up to 20 homes yearly, Free said. This work is just as important as new homes, he said, because it reduces expenses for homeowners who may be paying up to $600 per month for utility bills. “We’ve made a similar cash flow impact as a new home,” he said, and allowed the owners to stay in their homes.

Free sees the organization becoming part of a community development model that helps transform neighborhoods through building homes and bringing in partners like municipalities and other nonprofits to maximize impact. He cites a partnership with Homes of Hope, which helped complete the Abigail Springs development in Taylors and created a mixed-income neighborhood.

What is most exciting, said Free, is seeing “the difference it makes in the lives of children who grew up in Habitat homes.” That impact is a visible indication of breaking generational poverty, he said, and inspires him to continue the work. “And to do it more and do it better,” he said.

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