By Joe Lee
MADISON – How hard has Habitat for Humanity/Mississippi Capital Area (HHMCA) been hit in 2021 by the ongoing COVID pandemic and the skyrocketing costs of building materials? The numbers are sobering.
“It cost $80,000 to build before. Now it’s $120,000,” said HHMCA executive director Merrill McKewen. “None of that (increase) was in our 2021 budget.”
That’s a whopping 50 percent leap, and over a very short period of time. When combined with COVID safety measures reducing on-site volunteers at builds from 15 at a time to only seven, McKewen and her board of directors faced serious challenges in keeping their tradition of bringing people together to build homes, communities and hope.
The way forward, at least temporarily, lies in touching up previously-built Habitat homes.
“This was an unusual year,” McKewen said. “We had a cluster of homeowners who wanted to live in recycled Habitat houses. Not much big stuff is involved in recycling them – not much gutting – we’re getting the home up to standards with electrical, painting, plumbing, and clearing the property.”
HHMCA hopes to close on five safe, recycled homes before Christmas. Among them is the annual Catholic build, located this year on Gentry Street off Bailey Avenue in west Jackson. Hard-working volunteers have spent several Saturday mornings on the property and will wrap up before Thanksgiving.
“I started volunteering on the Catholic builds about 12 years ago,” said Allen Scott, incoming HHMCA board president and a parishioner at Holy Savior of Clinton. “For several years that was my total involvement — a few Saturdays a year on the Catholic build.”
“The staff at HHMCA asked me to chair the Catholic Build committee for a couple of years. When I met the families that were going to live in the houses – especially the children – and saw how happy they were, it just gave me a real feeling that I was helping somebody.”
The Catholic build tradition goes back more than three decades, as parishes in Jackson, Pearl, Madison, Clinton, Gluckstadt and Canton have all contributed monetarily as well as providing volunteers.
“HHMCA informs us of the amount that will be needed to do the work, and in turn we ask our parishes to contribute at the level that is feasible for them, depending on the population of the parish community,” said Bishop Joseph Kopacz.
“Most parishioners are familiar with the annual project and the invitation to contribute and respond generously. The Habitat for Humanity organization is a trusted brand, and all know that the prospective homeowners are carefully screened to assure success with their lifelong dream of home ownership.”
“We don’t give houses away,” McKewen said. “But anyone, regardless of income, can apply with us for a home if they’re willing to do the work and pay for a thirty-year zero-interest mortgage. We function as a mortgage lender with a Christian attitude.”
What drives McKewen is getting people out of poverty and into safe homes, where they have greatly improved chances of putting roots down, learning marketable skills, attaining an education and, ultimately, giving back to the community.
In addition to the thorough vetting the homeowners receive before being approved, all help physically build their new Habitat homes. That sweat equity is crucial in developing the pride the owners have in their new residences, and it’s not uncommon to witness deeply touching moments when families take ownership.
“I would encourage all HHMCA volunteers, and anyone interested in the ministry, to attend a house dedication,” Scott said. “The new homeowners are so genuinely appreciative that it is hard not to feel their emotions. My favorite memory was a house on Greenview (in south Jackson) where the four-year-old ran into the master bedroom and shouted, ‘This one’s mine!’ I truly believe that anybody who ever volunteers one time and meets the family will be hooked.”
McKewen has high hopes for a smoother 2022 and plans to return HHMCA to the beloved Broadmoor neighborhood in north Jackson, where a number of the memorable homes built during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations have fallen into disrepair and been abandoned.
“We are changing the neighborhood and will be completely rehabbing those houses, as in gutting to the studs,” she said. “We are putting homeowners into homes for $650/month and getting people out of deplorable conditions where they were paying as much as $800/month.”
“This commitment has endured the test of time,” Kopacz said. “We want families to have a place to call home, and in the process see the restoration of the blighted areas of the City of Jackson, one house and one block at a time.”
Want to help Habitat?
“There are many ways to help in addition to volunteering on a worksite,” said incoming HHMCA board president, Allen Scott. “Pray for the families and the ministry. Encourage your parish council and finance committee to financially support HHMCA. Individual donations add up, so no gift is too small.”
“The volunteer crews have to be fed so meals have to be prepared and delivered to the home site. Basically, if a person wants to be involved, we can find some way to include them in a build.”