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Community Voices: Habitat steps up homebuilding, advocacy with $11M gift

Karen Chassin

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A Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties home. Photo provided.

Welcome to the Catalyst’s Community Voices platform. We’ve curated community leaders and thinkers from all parts of our great city to speak on issues that affect us all. Visit our Community Voices page for more details.

MacKenzie Scott’s $11 million gift to Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas & West Pasco Counties is helping the organization advance its mission to build houses and advocate for affordable housing.

Even before the transformative gift, part of a total $436 million unrestricted donation shared with 83 other Habitat organizations nationally, the local affiliate was a standout: it’s been the second-largest Habitat among the nation’s 1,100 affiliates, based on new home construction volume, for three years running.

But like everything else, the cost of building is going up – a typical Habitat home costs about $30,000 more than it did before the pandemic.

According to Mike Sutton, president and chief executive officer for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco, the nonprofit is taking a leadership role on the issue of housing affordability. This includes policy advocacy and speaking up about the perennial diversion of the state’s housing trust fund, known as the Sadowski Fund, away from its intended purpose of building housing for low- and moderate-income Floridians.

There’s also work to be done at the local level to educate communities on the benefits of adding affordable housing to existing neighborhoods. The Habitat team is adept at addressing misconceptions about the homes they build and the families that occupy them.

“We serve an important part of the workforce,” Sutton says. “Bus drivers, home healthcare workers, bank tellers, grocery store employees. People who earn too much to receive government assistances but not enough to manage a traditional mortgage.”  

Candidates for Habitat homes earn 30 to 80 percent of the area median income. In Pinellas County, median income was $59,050 for a family of four in 2021. Habitat homes are not given away, they are sold at no profit and are paid for via a zero-interest loan in monthly payments. Homeowners go through a rigorous education program and invest 350 to 450 “sweat equity” hours.

Although they often face initial opposition from neighbors, Habitat homes actually have a positive impact on surrounding property values. And the success rate of Habitat families at sustaining home ownership is nearly universal. Out of 900 families served in Pinellas and Paco counties there have been only six foreclosures – and none in the past 15 years.

“There’s no better way for families to build intergenerational wealth than through home ownership,” Sutton says. “The stability that housing provides is also reflected in improved academic performance and high school graduation rates.”

The scale of the MacKenzie Scott gift will enable Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties to move forward ambitious plans to build complete subdivisions, including a 57-unit community in Largo, 25 units in Clearwater, and 30 units in New Port Richey.

In addition to revenue from its mortgages (about 60% of the affiliate’s budget), Habitat generates income through its Restores, nonprofit retail centers where new and gently used building materials are donate and sold at discounted prices. On May 13, Habitat will open a new Restore in New Port Richey.

 

 

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