The doors to affordable homeownership opened a little wider for residents of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties Tuesday after the area’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate received a record $11 million donation during a crucial time.
American author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated $436 million to Habitat for Humanity International and 84 of its U.S. affiliates. According to the Associated Press, the nearly half-billion-dollar gift represents the largest publicly disclosed donation from the billionaire philanthropist since she pledged to give away most of her wealth in 2019.
Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties directly received $11 million of unrestricted funding. Mike Sutton, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco, called the sum “transformational.”
“It’s the largest gift we’ve ever received,” he told the Catalyst. “And, you know, it comes at a time where the cost of homeownership is becoming so far out of reach for so many people in our community.”
While an exact breakdown of each award is not yet available, Sutton said he believes his organization’s amount is “on the higher side.” If split evenly, a quick calculation shows that each entity would receive roughly $5.13 million.
“It’s about $10 million more than the largest gift we’ve ever received,” said Sutton. “Actually, the largest gift we ever received was six figures – so, it’s significant.”
Sutton stressed the timeliness of the large donation as area housing demand continues to outpace supply, and soaring rents lead to the ongoing displacement of many residents. Additionally, developers are watching as the cost to construct new homes dramatically increases.
At a St. Petersburg City Council meeting in early March, George Smith, director of economic and workforce development for the city, referenced the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing lumber and plywood prices increased by 18% between December 2020 and December 2021. Fabricated structural metal and rebar are now over 57% costlier.
Sutton added that land costs are also rising dramatically, and labor shortages and supply chain issues combine with the price of materials to make providing affordable housing for deserving residents a much more challenging endeavor. He said a Habitat home cost the organization $30,000 more today than before the pandemic, resulting in a $2 million increase to meet this year’s goal.
“This is just a phenomenal time that it’s going to really help us to ensure we can continue the work that we’re doing,” he said. “And then some.”
The gift will help over 200 area families secure homes in the next three years alone. Habitat of Pinellas and West Pasco’s strategic plan calls for building 65 new homes this year, followed by 70 in 2023 and 75 in 2024. Additionally, the organization plans to build a 57-unit subdivision in Largo, a 25-unit subdivision in Clearwater and a 30-unit subdivision in New Port Richey.
Habitat also recently submitted a proposal to acquire city-owned land in South St. Pete to build an affordable townhome development. Habitat’s homeowner candidates all earn between 30-80% of the area’s median income. Sutton said the new gift would allow the organization to expedite its network of projects.
“I think with the three subdivisions, we’ll be able to get started on those immediately,” he said. “Whereas we would have been fundraising for each individual one, to raise the funds in order to build.
“So, it’s probably going to put us … at least two to three years ahead of schedule.”
Sutton said the organization built 732 homes since 1985, with around 500 completed in just the last decade. The number continues to increase, which he said is a testament to the need for affordable housing also growing exponentially.
Sutton credited the generosity of a “tremendous community” that continues to find ways to support the organization. He now hopes such a large gift will spur other philanthropists to help provide families in need with a place to call home.
“We hope it’s a catalyst to encourage others in our community to step up and really help us to make a dent,” he said. “I wish that costs were the same as they were two years ago – that would have allowed us to do that much more – but we’re excited to deploy the $11 million and find ways to continue impacting local families and do more than what we planned.”
Over the last month, Sutton said he has struggled to keep news of the donation a secret. He said Habitat’s affiliates were under strict guidance from Scott not to release any information, and they decided the 85 organizations would simultaneously make the announcement Tuesday afternoon.
He added it was a challenge not to scream the news from rooftops.
Sutton said he has frequently thought about what he would say to Scott, noting interactions with her team but not her personally. Half-jokingly, he said that if given the opportunity, he would hug her and not want to let go.
When he first heard the news, Sutton said his jaw dropped. He was unsure how to respond, and then he became choked up thinking about how the transformational gift would impact families for years to come.
“She’s using her wealth to make the world, our country and our local community stronger and better,” he said. “And she’s setting an amazing example that I hope so many others follow.”
For more information on Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, visit the website here.