Long road to home: Central Delaware Habitat offers rigorous path to housing

Dover’s Tamara Rodriguez, left, goes over paperwork along with Jennifer Cordova, of the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, during an introductory meeting toward affordable home ownership on Tuesday. (Delaware State News photo/Mike Finney)

DOVER — Jennifer Cordova does not like to use the word “dream” when it comes to describing what the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity does in relation to providing affordable home ownership to families.

Ms. Cordova, the family services director for the CDHFH, said her background is similar to many of the individuals who apply for home ownership with the organization she works for.

“I hate saying the word ‘dream’ because I think that affordable home ownership should be available to everyone,” she said.

It is Ms. Cordova who first meets with those interested in applying to become a part of the CDHFH program, which is far from being a hand-out when one looks at the rigorous requirements involved.

“As a child I know my mother thought about applying to Habitat and she never moved forward because she had a lot of fear about the application process,” she said.

“So, it’s definitely empowering to go out into the community and answer those questions because we’re not shutting the door. We’re giving as much information as possible so that people can make those decisions and empower themselves.”

She hosted two of those informational Tuesday at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Dover.

“I would say it’s the first step for them believing that there’s hope out there for them, that they can be homeowners,” said Ms. Cordova. “After going through the presentation, they find out there’s a lot of requirements that they have to meet, but if they’re willing to partner with us and meet those requirements, then that hope could turn into a reality.”

Taking those first steps

The first step toward qualifying for CDHFH home ownership is for an applicant to be in the 30 to 60 percent area median income level for Kent County and have a minimum annual borrower income of $22,750.

Maximum income limitations are based on the most current U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines.

If an individual meets those requirements, they must then provide an initial application for a home mortgage through CDHFH. That is followed by verification, program disclosures and a blind review of ability to pay by the finance committee.

Potential partner households are then scheduled for a home visit where a need for housing is evaluated by the CDHFH’s homeowner selection committee and they are then presented anonymously to the CDHFH board, who approve eligible households through a board voting process. The CDHFH committee and board meet every month.

There is no waiting list and there are many time-sensitive factors that are gauged during an application review and selected households will begin the CDHFH program once notified.

Tamara Rodriguez, a single mother of three children, was among the attendees at the informational session at St. Anthony’s Lutheran Church.

“I have a couple of friends who own their homes through Habitat,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “I’m ready to get into the program. I’d be happy to build and move wherever they’d like to put me.”

Sharmetta Watkins, a single mother of four, also attended last Tuesday’s meeting and left with lots of hope for her family’s future.

“I’m very excited,” Ms. Watkins said. “It looks like they’re going to be able to help me and my family and I’m definitely looking forward to it.

“What got me excited about it is that I know that they can help me make my dream come true. They know that I’m going to be successful and I know I’m going to be successful and I feel like I just walked through the doors of heaven.”

A ‘hands-up, not a hand-out’

Filling out an application and being selected by the CDHFH board as a program participant is just the beginning.

Dan Simpson, the executive director for the CDHFH, has a line that he routinely says about his organization: “We say often this is a hand-up, not a hand-out, and it is not an easy road. It’s not a gimme and you earn it.”

Jennifer Cordova, the family services director for the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity, discusses the organization’s affordable home ownership program before interested individuals at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Dover Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

That’s because those applicants who are selected must complete a sweat equity requirement of 250 hours per adult in the household, which include 100 hours of being at the build site working side-by-side with volunteers, while other hours are completed in financial literacy courses, volunteering in the CDHFH ReStore and at local community events.

Stephen Johns, who moved into his new Habitat home on North Kirkwood Street in Dover in December, didn’t think he would survive the program as well as working full-time in the culinary field.

“At one point I wanted to give up,” Mr. Johns said. “I did not want to complete this process because it was just too much — my job required way too much from me. I wanted to give up but I’m grateful to Habitat for putting up with me and encouraging me to push forward and see it to the end. I don’t regret it at all.

“When I first came to Habitat it was about two years ago and I didn’t want to see it through. I just wanted to see what would happen out of it and you know, they saw my embarrassing credit score and I just didn’t have any hope at all. But they gave me hope and they let me know that it can be done — it’s possible.”

So far, dozens of individuals and families have taken advantage of CDHFH’s affordable housing projects, which provide a zero-percent interest, 30-year mortgage upon successful completion of its program.

Considering that the average rental rate in Kent County for a one- or two-bedroom apartment is around $979 (2015) and the current rental rate in Dover’s Downtown Development District is 72 percent, the CDHFH is working wonders by being able to take a $165,000 home and turn it into a $438.33 monthly payment for participants.

The payment can vary based on several factors, including size of the house and the number of people living in the household.

Giving hope to communities

Over the past 25 years, CDHFH and its army of volunteers have built and/or renovated 40 homes and provided housing solutions for more than 170 adults and children.

The organization is scheduled to build more than a dozen homes this year, including 10 within downtown Dover and four in Frederica.

A pair of homes that had wall raisings on North Kirkwood Street earlier this month will be the 23rd and 24th new houses completed by Habitat in downtown Dover.

Denise Freeman, a housing counseling director for NCALL Research Inc., a supporter for the Restoring Central Dover initiative, believes in what Habitat is doing for the downtown area.

“It’s just wonderful to have an opportunity to bring back home ownership and bring back life to downtown Dover, especially when it comes to looking at some of the buildings that are dilapidated or that they are in unlivable conditions,” Ms. Freeman said. “We have the opportunity to buy these properties, renovate them or tear them down, and make them into homes for families that never dreamed that they could become homeowners.

“It means everything when you bring a family that has stability and they have roots in the community and they care about what happens in their community. We’re definitely seeing the change in downtown Dover.”

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen is a regular attendee at home openings by the CDHFH in downtown Dover.

Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Dan Simpson, right, along with Michelle Statts with her children and volunteers, raise a wall of the Statts’ new home in Frederica. in December. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Mayor Christiansen said he has witnessed a transformation in some pockets of downtown due to the pride of home ownership.

“It’s going to cut down on crime and all the other things that have been going on in these neighborhoods because people have their vested interest here,” he said. “It’s not just some place to hang their hat, so the neighborhood is going to stabilize and regenerate the heart of the city and the downtown area and that’s what we’ve been aiming for.

“It’s happening sooner rather than later and I’m really happy that we’re going in the direction we are and we’re going to continue to forge ahead.”

Loving what they do

The staff and volunteers who make up the CDHFH are a dedicated group of people who work in all sorts of weather and conditions. Most consider it a labor of love.

“I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we come every day and thankfully we have the opportunity to love what we do. But we never really feel like we’re working because we are people that want to serve the community and help as much as we can,” Ms. Cordova said. “If we have the opportunity, we take it.”

Mr. Simpson agreed.

“I’ve noticed that with my job there are many hats that you have to wear,” he said. “The one thing that I really want to drive home is that Habitat for Humanity’s mission starts with a very simple phrase – ‘We’re seeking to put God’s love into action.’”

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