By KRISTEN DOWD
In a move to make a greater impact on affordable housing options throughout the region, two local Habitat for Humanity chapters recently merged.
Habitat for Humanity of Burlington and Mercer Counties and Atlantic County Habitat for Humanity have joined forces, now serving 1.1 million residents in 75 municipalities.
“Ultimately, our mission is to provide decent affordable housing to our community,” Habitat BMC CEO Lori Leonard said. “And as our community grows, we’re able to offer more housing resources and more programs.”
Habitat BMC previously merged with the Trenton area chapter in 2017, and finalized a merger with the Millstone Basin Habitat for Humanity in January. Mergers can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months, although the Atlantic County piece came together rather quickly.
While Atlantic County Executive Director Amanda McGowan – who will now serve as Atlantic County’s Regional Program Director – was doing a great job, Leonard explained the chapter just didn’t have as many resources as Habitat BMC. Conversations started over the summer about bringing the two together.
“The affiliates become higher functioning and able to serve more people,” Leonard said of the mergers. “We can provide resources to them that they aren’t able to provide themselves just because of our size and our capacity.
“We have a deeper bench of team members to support them.”
Those resources include staff for the ReStores, help with grant writing, product sharing and more. The support will also free McGowan up to focus on property acquisition and how to better serve the community in building houses.
One of the more active programs with Habitat BMC which will be a focus in Atlantic County is Neighborhood Revitalization, which aids individuals who live in their own homes but can’t afford to repair them. These repairs can range from something simple, such as overgrown landscaping or a slightly dilapidated porch, to a critical need, such as a new HVAC system.
“To me it’s such a great program because when people think about Habitat, they think about someone hammering a nail into a study during the construction of a home. That’s historically what Habitat has been,” Leonard said. “But Habitat is willing to look at the needs of a community area and develop programs to support those needs. We created this program to provide support for homeowners so they will have a decent place to live.”
Of course, hammering those nails into a new home is still much of what Habitat is about. It’s an opportunity for volunteers to give back (although volunteering is largely on hold at the moment due to the COVID-19 pandemic), including skilled volunteers who can handle heating systems, electrical work and the like.
“We’re looking for people to donate the skilled trades. We also always can use labor and materials. I think a misconception is we get all of our materials donated,” Leonard explained. “We buy probably 90 percent of our materials to build our homes.”
This is why the Habitat ReStores are so valuable. All of the items inside are donated, and when the public shops it provides the revenue needed to build homes.
“I think it’s important to always connect that to our mission, to continue to do repairs and build homes for families,” Leonard said.
Habitat BMC currently has several homes available for applications, including a three-bedroom in Springfield Township and 10 homes that are going to built soon in Bordentown. Leonard said the income guidelines are surprising to most people, and many who may not think they would qualify for a Habitat home can.
“The mortgages are very affordable. I would encourage people to go to our website,” Leonard said.
Habitat provides educational and financial programs for new homeowners, as well as other free programs for the community. The Almost Home Program is an intensive course designed to help individuals repair their credit, start savings accounts and do everything needed to hopefully become a homeowner. There are requirements for programs available on the Habitat BMC website.
“It’s to be financially fit, to get yourself back on track,” Fox said.
For now, Habitat BMC is keeping its name, just adding “and serving Atlantic County” to the title until it decides on something that suits the current geographic area and any future mergers, which are not only beneficial to the smaller chapters. Merging helps all involved since it furthers Habitat’s mission to provide more affordable housing where it’s needed.
“Previously in our discussions with our board, it was more so if we don’t merge and don’t provide support, then we’re doing a disservice to the community,” explained Annie Fox, Habitat BMC Resource Development Director. “They need these programs and these services.”
To learn about Habitat BMC, visit www.hfhbmc.org.