COVID-19 has Habitat for Humanity playing catch-up

Team members of Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity at the third annual hearts 4 homes fundraiser event at 84 Lumber on Friday morning. From left, Danielle Santos (director of Homeowner Services); Heather Kline (resource development coordinator); Tim Bailey (executive director) and Dylan Gurines (public relations coordinator). Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

DOVER — The whirring sounds of drills and the thump, thump, thumping of hammers onto nails fell silent for the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity after Delaware was overtaken by the coronavirus outbreak back in March.

However, things have started to turn around for the nonprofit organization recently as the CDHFH is now running at around 80 percent capacity for home construction and its ReStore, located at 2311 South Dupont Highway in Dover, reopened for business earlier this month.

Tim Bailey, executive director for CDHFH, said the virus has left a great impact on his group’s mission. Between a temporary closure of the CDHFH’s ReStore and impacts that have taken place with fundraising events that were forced to be canceled, he estimated the organization is probably close to being down $200,000 in its budget.

“It’s had some pretty negative effects, actually,” Mr. Bailey said. “The biggest of all is the loss of ReStore revenue because our store was closed for two months. So, already that’s about a $150,000 deficit right there. Construction had to slow down a whole lot, too, because we had to stop our volunteer program. There was about six weeks that we didn’t have any volunteers at all.

“Fortunately, we have a regular group of volunteers that come out and help us on Wednesdays and Saturdays and they were able to start coming back in small groups after that six-week period (starting in March). So, as of (Friday), we are probably running at 80 percent capacity for construction, just trying to get back to normal.”

He added, “Our store has been open since early June and day after day we get a little bit better. More customers lead to better sales and things like that, so we’re starting to (turn it around), but we’re definitely in a hole.”

Habitat’s goal is to complete eight houses around Kent County in 2020, but that number appears a little bit lofty now since it is about three months behind schedule.

“In 2020 we hope to complete eight houses and we’ll probably miss that by a couple,” said Mr. Bailey. “Just in general, we’re probably 90 days behind. We’re still partnering with new families and we’re still accepting applications. We hope to ramp our building back up by the end of the year.

“Another issue is that the strain on the construction supply chain overall is also causing delays in manufacturing of things like cabinets, flooring and things like that. They’re all behind, so it’s really causing delays everywhere.”

Kathy Bertts, among a dozen volunteers who are dubbed CDHFH’s ‘Habitat Heroes,’ said she is just glad to see that things are finally creeping back to some sense of normality. She relishes the chance to help people in their quest to achieve home ownership.

“It’s been really kind of quiet until the past five weeks or so since we’ve been back,” Ms. Bertts said. “We are back again and we started out with just Wednesday work and then they expanded the schedule and they allowed for Thursday and Friday construction work, which was something we hadn’t done, but we can split the group that way so we didn’t have a lot of people in one place at one time. We would sign up for shifts.

“It felt really strange (during the pandemic) not to have Wednesday and Saturday committed to — being retired all the days seem alike to me anyway — so we always knew what days we worked, Wednesday and Saturday. Now we’re back to the normal schedule and the same crew is back.”

CDHFH is a multi-faceted nonprofit

The CDHFH was founded in 1990 and over the past 30 years it has either built or sold more than 115 affordable homes to first-time homeowners in Kent County. Since 2009, the organization has increased its capacity from serving an average of one homebuyer a year to partnering with eight to 10 annually.

Habitat does not give homes away. To qualify, families must live in substandard housing, earn less than 60 percent of the local median income, contribute 250 sweat equity hours into the construction of their home and purchase the home through a no-interest loan.

The CDHFH’s mission is to provide affordable homeownership, neighborhood revitalization and operate the ReStore, which helps fund a lot of its building projects.

“There’s so many different fingers to our hand,” said Mr. Bailey. “We’re impacting families, and it’s a multi-generational impact, because most families that we’re serving are first-time homebuyers and they haven’t had home ownership in their family in generations.

“So, we’re impacting the families but we’re also impacting neighborhoods. We’ve converted streets like North New Street in Dover from a sub-10 percent home ownership rate to upper 70 percent home ownership rate just by building the seven houses we’ve built on North New Street. That can really further expand once we talk about the community and how it impacts the whole sector of Delaware.”

Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity heroes Kathy Bertts, left, and Rosalie Collins wait for community members to support the third annual Hearts 4 Homes fundraiser event at 84 Lumber on Friday morning.

Mr. Bailey said one of the most difficult challenges his organization has faced amid COVID-19 is the ability to successfully fundraise.

CDHFH and Exit Central Realty partnered up for the third annual Hearts 4 Homes fundraiser on Friday and Saturday. They were trying to raise money in Dover at the 84 Lumber on Friday and at Lowe’s on Saturday to support affordable homeownership opportunities in Kent County.

Community members were provided the chance to buy something off the special CDHFH shopping list or make a monetary donation.

“We normally would have had a 5K (fundraiser) done by now,” he said. “This event (Hearts 4 Home) has kind of suffered a little bit and we’re having to plan completely different events in the future because they’re going to need to be virtual. It’s tough, but we’re getting there.”

Managing to stay afloat

While Habitat for Humanity International announced in late April that it would have to lay off around 10 percent of staff at the organization and several others would have their work hours reduced. Among other expense reductions, senior leaders at the organization took a pay reduction.

“Habitat for Humanity is a ministry of people who share a vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live,” said Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, in a statement. “For so many of our team, Habitat is not merely a job — it is a cause. It breaks our hearts to take these significant, but necessary, actions. We are compelled by the economic realities of this global pandemic, and by our responsibility to steward Habitat for Humanity so that we can resume serving our communities as quickly as is safe to do.”

Fortunately, Mr. Bailey said that his organization has not had to undergo such cuts.

“At Central Delaware Habitat we have been very fortunate to not have to lay anybody off,” he said. “I made a decision early on that we would attempt to retain all staff, which we did. We reduced the ReStore employees’ hours slightly. We still allowed the ReStore staff to come in, clean and disinfect and reorganize to try to keep everybody financially stable. We’ve really done that.”

“We were able to secure PPE funding, which was the ideal funding to kind of help us weather that storm.”

Just reopening the ReStore alone earlier this month was a huge positive step in the right direction. The store is currently running at 60 percent capacity and can accommodate up to 80 customers at a time.

Plus, with all the recent down time, the volunteers have learned how to efficiently keep the store safe, clean and sanitized.

As for Habitat’s home construction efforts, it is picking back up slowly but surely. Around 80 percent of all the labor that takes places on CDHFH’s jobsites is from volunteers. The organization has had to halt scheduling corporate groups and external groups that want to come in a have a Habitat day and experience building with the organization — for now.

There is still hope that CDHFH homeowners will be able to cut the ribbons from the front of their brand-new homes in the near future.

“We’re very excited,” Mr. Bailey said. “A lot of people don’t realize how critical our program is to the local community. We’re one of the only solutions for affordable home ownership, so if Habitat isn’t able to operate and to serve our families in the way we’ve done then it could have a huge adverse effect on the community.

“Affordable housing is an epidemic in this country and Habitat is one of the few organizations that are constantly trying to move forward with providing these opportunities. We’re very fortunate to be able to do this kind of work and we’re very excited to get things back to normal.”

Sussex Habitat in similar situation

The Sussex County Habitat for Humanity has found itself in a similar situation as the CDHFH, according to Katie Millard, director of development and advocacy for the Sussex County nonprofit.

“The COVID-19 crisis has had a profound impact on our organization,” Ms. Millard said. “We temporarily closed our ReStore and build sites for about two-and-a-half months. The ReStore closure alone caused a loss of $165,000 in revenue. The impact on our volunteer program was just as big.

“March, April and May are our busiest volunteer months, and we lost more than 10,000 volunteer hours while our build sites were closed to volunteers. Without our normal construction operations, our build schedule has been pushed back an average of three months delaying settlement for many families in the Habitat program.”

She added, “But we are working through these issues, and have been very grateful for all of the support the community has given us. The ReStore and build sites have recently reopened with new procedures and restrictions so we are slowly getting back on our feet.
“If there is one thing COVID-19 and quarantining has shown us, it is how important a safe and healthy home is.”

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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