Habitat for Humanity of Burlington County aims for further reach into the community

Volunteers from Trip Advisor generously donated their time at a Habitat for Humanity construction site in Evesham Township, Burlington County.
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Volunteers from Trip Advisor generously donated their time at a Habitat for Humanity construction site in Evesham Township, Burlington County.

Habitat for Humanity of Burlington County and Greater Trenton-Princeton is not just in the business of building houses – it’s in the business of building hope.

“The need for affordable homeownership, especially in New Jersey, is immense. It’s unbelievable the amount of need that is out there,” Ashley Griffiths, director of family and volunteer services, said. “These people are hard-working individuals living paycheck-to-paycheck, and they just need that hand-up to boost them into the position of being able to own their own home.”

Burlington County Habitat for Humanity was established in 1987 as an outgrowth of the United Way after a study found homeownership was a huge need in the county. The Trenton-area Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1986. The two chapters merged in January 2017 and now serve all of Burlington County and most of Mercer County. In total, the merged affiliate has built more than
150 homes across the two counties.

“Owning a home is putting an investment not only in your family’s future, but also in your community,” Griffiths said. “You’re establishing roots in that community.
You’re going to be a lot more invested in that community and in life, honestly.”

Becoming a homeowner

Habitat sells homes to low-income families. The loans have zero interest and no down payment is required. The mortgage is also based on income; it will not exceed 30 percent of the homeowner’s gross monthly income.

Once someone applies for a home with Habitat, there are three pieces of criteria an individual must meet to be considered: need, ability to pay an affordable mortgage, and willingness to partner and build their own home. Once the board approves an application, the sweat equity hours can start, which typically total 250 to 400 hours depending on the size of the family. These hours can encompass volunteering at the construction site of the new home, Habitat office or ReStore in Maple Shade. There are also ongoing educational classes offered to prepare people for homeownership.

“Upon completion of those hours and, of course, when the home is completed, they’re able to close on their brand new home,” Homeownership Coordinator Taquana Wright said.

The mortgage payment is based on income, making it affordable for the new homeowner. Habitat also provides additional support and resources if needed.

“We build a great relationship with our families throughout the whole process, even before they get the keys,” Wright said, explaining anyone is welcome to come back to Habitat for more classes or secure help from other nonprofits that offer supportive services.

“We don’t want to enable our families, we want to empower them,” Griffiths said. “We stay with them. If they do run into an issue – maybe they weren’t prepared for it or don’t know how to address it – we’ll walk them through it.”

Homes may be built from the ground up, or they could be donated buildings the Habitat crew essentially flips and renovates into something new. The organization also will buy homes for the same purpose.

Griffiths said studies have shown homeowners are in better health, have more of a net worth, more money and more opportunities of wealth-building. Children of homeowners have shown to do better on reading and math tests than those of renters.

“You can also go back and say it’s stability. It’s investment in the future,” Griffiths said.

Habitat for Humanity of BCGTP is currently accepting applications for homes at multiple properties – in Princeton, Hamilton, Ewing, Palmyra and Springfield. Deadline is Sept. 30.

The homes in Palmyra are under the organization’s Veterans Build program, which provides volunteer, homeownership and employment opportunities to U.S. veterans, military service members and their families.

“It’s an arm of the homeownership program. We basically do the same thing, but we slate individual houses for sale only to veterans,” Griffiths said, adding Habitat recently closed on its first Veterans Build. “It’s more than just building houses for veterans. It’s a commitment to serve the veteran community.

Looking to volunteer?

Volunteers are always needed. There are opportunities across the board – at building sites, in the office and at the ReStore. The majority of the group’s volunteer base is unskilled labor, although it is seeking skilled labor, too.

“Right now we’re in need of what we call key volunteers. These are typically retired people who have a little more time on their hands,” Griffiths said. “These are people who can dedicate 20 hours a week, 40 hours a week – just a regular, consistent commitment to our organization. That’s really what we’re in need of right now.”

Volunteering with Habitat can be a learning experience, too. Managers, supervisors and construction staff will teach on-site.

“Honestly, a lot of people come to us to learn skills,” Griffiths said.

The minimum age for volunteering at a construction site is 16, while it is 15 at the ReStore, however Griffiths said Habitat has vibrant youth programming. The organization has gone to schools and built birdhouses with children to teach them what Habitat is all about. Girl Scout Troops have donated “welcome home” banners that are used at new home dedications.

“It’s very creative, very flexible,” Griffiths said.

Upcoming events

Habitat for Humanity of BCGTP has a number of events in store for the coming months.

A nine-week course called “Take Control of Your Money” will teach budgeting, how to identify triggers as a spender, how to eliminate debt and more. This course is every Wednesday from Sept. 12 through Nov. 7 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Maple Shade office.

Also on Sept. 12, an Affordable Homeownership Program will be held at 6 p.m. at the Burlington County Library, 5 Pioneer Blvd., Westampton. This one-night class is designed for households earning between $17,472 and $89,760 and will discuss current homes available through Habitat.

Building on Faith Month runs from Sept. 16 to Oct. 14, and Habitat is interested in having church groups come out to volunteer.

A number of other events and volunteer opportunities, as well as registration and contact information for the above events, can be found at the Habitat website (www.habitatbcgtp.org) and Habitat Facebook page (www.facebook.com/HabitatBCGTP).

Future plans

Habitat for Humanity of BCGTP is looking to continue its mission – building stronger communities by providing affordable homeownership to those who need it.

“Now you’re a Habitat homeowner. Now you own your own house. Now you’re an invested member of the community and you want to make a difference,” Griffiths said. “You want to make a positive impact on these communities.”

Habitat for Humanity of BCGTP is located at 530 Route 38 E., Maple Shade, with a satellite office at 120 John St., Princeton. Learn more at www.habitatbcgtp.org.