Part two in a series.
A small sinkhole has opened up outside the front door of the Largo apartment Jade Zadar shares with her six children. Management straddled the crater with a Bob’s Barricade and told the family to walk around it.
Inside the decades-old four bedroom, two bath apartment, the upstairs floor slopes precariously, there are cracks in the ceiling, the paint is peeling and the old pipes leak water into the walls and floors. Not so long ago, a plumber reluctantly hired by the landlord ripped up the downstairs toilet, and the resulting sewage spill ruined every piece of furniture in the living room.
Zadar, in her mid ‘30s, is a single mother raising a Brady-sized brood – the oldest is 10, the youngest (twins) approaching 2 – on the miniscule salary she brings in working in a medical office, along with a $500 monthly subsidy for food stamps.
With six kids, none of it goes very far.
In mid-August, construction will begin on a new, five bed, two bath home, not far up the road, built especially for her by Habitat For Humanity. She applied to the program in 2016. “It’s not a huge lot, but it works for us, and my finances,” Zadar beams.
“Because I’ve been homeless twice in my life, I look at it as a very big blessing to have a roof over my head. I have morals, and respect, and values.
“I told Habitat ‘Listen, I’m not trying to complain on these people. It’s not about that – it’s about putting my energy towards a good thing and a good cause.’ I don’t spend my energy fighting with the landlord, because I don’t think that’s gonna get me anywhere per se. It’s more about speaking a truth.”
Despite the oppressive conditions, Zadar’s current home is tidy and well-organized. The children are well-behaved, respectful of their mother, and they all look out for the twins.
The Zadars could be the poster family for Habitat for Humanity, the largest nonprofit homebuilder in the world. Habitat’s mission is to provide “simple, decent and affordable” housing for low-income families.
The organization buys the land and builds the home; the homeowner still pays a mortgage, but at a zero percent interest rate.
And that’s a pretty big deal. Mike Sutton, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County, says that today’s homeowner spends the first four years paying off the interest on the mortgage, before putting the first dime towards the actual home.
It’s an uphill climb for low-income families, however you look at it.
“Three years ago, the cost for an affordable home in Pinellas County was about $145,000,” Sutton explains. “Today, the average is about $185,000. These are just rough numbers.
“On the flip side, the people who can afford those homes’ salary has only increased $100 over those three years. I think that’s what you’re starting to see – people who are paying up to 70 percent of their monthly income towards rent.
“And that’s really where Habitat comes in and tries to make it a situation where these families can build generational wealth through home ownership. That’s kind of the big focus for us.”
Available land in St. Petersburg itself is evaporating rapidly because of gentrification, Sutton says (in other words, it’s becoming too expensive to purchase for low-income housing).
Because Jade Zadar and her family live in Largo, and need to stay there because of her job, it was easier to find a suitable spot for building.
Zadar says she spent six fruitless years on the waiting list for Section 8, the government-funded housing program, before applying to Habitat. She didn’t hear from the organization for another two years. “The day that I got the call, I was so ecstatic,” she remembers. “I felt like I won the lottery.”
Meanwhile, things at home just kept deteriorating.
“The roaches are a huge issue at the moment,” she explains. “They are all over the place. You can’t set a bag or anything down, because they’re everywhere. When we move into our Habitat home, I’m not going to be able to bring anything with me.”
Management, she says, came in and “over-sprayed,” which left one of the twins hacking and coughing with asthmatic fits.
“I’ve had to throw out microwaves because they’ve exploded. Because the roaches have eaten through the wiring. It’s been going on for years. You try to fix problems with Band-Aids, and that doesn’t work.”
Last year, the breaker box in the downstairs hallway exploded with no warning. “I’m in the kitchen cooking dinner, and the next thing you know the door flies open – pop! – and smoke is pouring out. I get all the kids outside, and soon there are six fire trucks lined up, up and down my street. Everybody’s outside and it’s a big fiasco. We had to spend five days away from the apartment.”
Jade Zabar has completed nearly 300 of the “sweat equity hours,” putting in time at other homesites, required by her Habitat contract. She intends to be actively involved, too, in the construction of her own house.
“This,” she says, “is the moment I’ve probably been waiting for my entire life. Because as a child, I grew up with not a lot of stability. We moved from apartment to apartment to apartment. It was very anxiety-ridden for me. I had a lot of stress.
“I’m trying to pave the way for the rest of my kids’ lives, and their kids’ lives. So it feels like a major accomplishment for me, and for them. I do it for my children.”
NEXT: Local experts talk about solving St. Petersburg’s affordable housing crisis.
Read Part One of the series here.