In mid-February, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco unveiled its 600th home, in Largo’s Ridgecrest neighborhood, and at the dedication ceremony president and CEO Mike Sutton optimistically announced plans to build 70 additional affordable homes during the year-to-come.
Then Covid-19 took out a long-term lease.
Sutton, who’s still recovering from a month-long personal bout with the virus, reflected this week on the impact Covid-19 had on the charitable organization, which allows families to buy homes with a zero-interest mortgage, after a rigorous application process and 350 to 450 sweat equity hours.
Habitat recently dedicated another home, its 41st since the pandemic began.
“We’ve made some great progress, despite the challenges of Covid,” Sutton said. “We have not been able to engage any volunteers at all since March. That means homes cost us more money to build, because we’re using sub-contractors on every aspect of the home. That’s probably where it’s impacted us the most. For evey house we build, we’ve got to raise more money.”
Volunteers make up a large part of the Habitat For Humanity workforce. “Our phone’s been ringing off the hook. I think a lot of people are bored and want to be outside,” Sutton explained. “The desire for people to volunteer with is has never been greater.
“But on the flip side, our insurance company – we have volunteer liability insurance – has been adamant about not having volunteers on site during Covid.”
And Habitat For Humanity International, the parent organization, “strongly” suggests volunteers aren’t utilized during the pandemic. “The hope,” Sutton added, “is that we can get volunteers back on site Jan. 1, but a lot of that will depend, obviously.”
Forsaking volunteers for sub-contractors, he explained, added between $10,000 and $20,000 to the cost of each home. “It threw our budget for a loop a little bit. When you’re looking at cost per home, and cost per square foot.”
The crisis, however, “hasn’t slowed us down. It’s created an opportunity for us, in a lot of ways, to be more efficient and much more creative in how we do things. We’re buying materials in bulk as a way to save on a per-house basis. The business aspect of our mission has probably been the hardest hit, because we’re continuing to build houses. We’re continuing to serve families, which is, obviously, our mission.”
Habitat’s current project is a 75-home Pinellas Park subdivision. “And we’re doing a lot in mid-town St. Pete, in Child’s Park,” Sutton said.
“We’re seeing a lot of investors coming into Childs Park and picking up individual lots that are for sale. And then just sitting on the lots.
“Or else they’re turning around and listing them for two, three times what they bought them for. And so quite frankly we’re at a crossroads, in terms of finding affordable property to build on in St. Petersburg.”
The organization has already been priced out of sections of St. Petersburg – “anything north of Central” – and the gentrification of Childs Park, Sutton fears, means that southside area will soon be closed to them, too.
But affordable housing – the very mission of Habitat For Humanity – continues to be a hot-button issue in Pinellas County.
“The need for a safe, decent home has never been greater,” said Sutton. “We spent the last six months, in a lot of ways, locked up at home. And a lot of the families we serve live in dilapidated housing situations, where they’re dealing with things like mold and mildew – bad air quality – and they’ve needed housing more now than ever.”