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Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County Builds a Community for Locals

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Photos by Jim Coarse

The local Habitat for Humanity chapter helps lay the foundation for a brighter future by providing homes to Delawareans who need them.

Marlise Carr and her three children are eagerly counting the days until they can move into their new Habitat for Humanity home in Wilmington. This marks a life-altering chapter with myriad opportunities.

After a decade of rental restrictions and subsidized housing, their dream of homeownership is finally coming true. While the 33-year-old single mother is moving her family only 2 miles from their rental of seven years, this is the culmination of major life changes that Carr has made to give her kids—a 14-year-old son and two daughters, ages 7 and 12—a better life.

Carr’s eyes well with tears when she shares her kids’ plans to decorate their rooms, host family barbecues and make friends with their neighbors on the block.

“It is extremely emotional for me,” she says. “This is our new three-bedroom home, [where] everyone will have his or her own space.… Owning my own property and educating my children about homeownership and what solid financial health looks like is an important gift that I can give to them.”

Carr says her older daughter wants to use the garage for a hair studio and her son has already claimed the basement. Her younger daughter asks, “Now that we are not renting, can we please get a puppy?”

The family often walks by their new home to see the construction progress and to peek in the front door.

“Habitat for Humanity doesn’t just want you to buy a house; they want you to learn how to keep a house, something that I was not taught when I was growing up,” Carr explains. Her inquisitive children accompany their mom to meetings so they can participate and ask questions.

“We are so excited,” she says.

Carr’s move was made possible through Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County’s (Habitat NCC) advocacy program, which focuses on providing financial preparation and other guidance to local families as part of a national effort.

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Marlise Carr and Habitat NCC volunteers who are helping to build her three-bedroom home. Weekly volunteers generate good will in the community and also acquire useful construction skills along the way.

Over the past 35 years, Habitat NCC has made homeownership a reality for some 256 families; 14 more homes are currently under construction.

This month, a 35th-anniversary celebration culminates with a dedication ceremony for the 12-unit Amala Way I Project on the east side of Bennett Street in Wilmington, as well as Amala Way II, which sits across the street from the first project and consists of five affordable housing units. Homeowners, volunteers, contractors, partner organizations and the local community will celebrate the hard work that has brought them together.

Groundbreaking on Amala Way took place in 2019, and despite COVID-19 restrictions that critically cut back volunteer hours and raised construction material costs, the 12 units at Amala Way I will also be dedicated at the site late this month.

Through Habitat NCC’s guidance, Carr, a full-time resource coordinator at a health insurance company, says she has learned better money management, how to pay off her debts and how to live on a budget.

She first applied to Habitat NCC in 2010. Two and a half years later, after establishing good credit, she was accepted into Habitat’s program.

“A lot of people don’t know that these resources exist,” she says. “Even though all of this is hard work, it is worth it.…When I didn’t get accepted the first two times, I felt rejected, but instead of giving up, it prompted me to get my finances in order. It’s all going to be worth it in the end.”

This program isn’t only important to families but also to the community at large.

“Creating homeownership is important for families for a number of reasons,” explains Kevin L. Smith, CEO of Habitat NCC for 25 years. “It gives our families an opportunity for financial stability because, in most cases, the mortgage is less than they were paying for rent.”

For example, Smith says that in New Castle County, a typical two-bedroom apartment costs $1,200 a month, plus utilities. Habitat homes—which come with zero percent interest—cost $650 to $750 per month, including taxes and interest. “It’s a major game changer,” Smith says.

He adds that homeownership helps stabilize neighborhoods. “The more homeownership we put into a neighborhood, the more the area becomes stabilized, which decreases the crime rate and improves other quality of life issues.”

To end poverty, you first have to look at what low-income families face, Smith explains. “You either have to figure out how they can make more money—through education or employment—or lower their expenses.”

Currently, housing is getting more expensive, Smith points out. “So, if we make it affordable like this, whether someone gets a better job or not, they can start to thrive instead of just surviving.”

While Smith acknowledges that an affordable rental makes more sense for some people, for “folks who initiate the contact and come to us saying, ‘I am ready, and I want the stability of owning my home, I need help figuring it out,’ we are here to help with an affordable mortgage, support and a plan. In the end, homeownership creates a platform to improve the education, health and everything else for the family.”

Impact studies reveal overwhelmingly positive results. “After a family has been in their house, they tell us their children perform better in school. Many go on to college, and their overall finances are improved,” Smith says.

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For 33-year-old Marlise Carr, a single mother of three, Habitat for Humanity was the path to first-time homeownership and financial independence.

“But we are starting to realize that there is also long-term positive impact throughout the generations,” he adds. “Some 10, 20 and 30 years down the line, what these parents have modeled for their children is that homeownership is normal. That’s what they want to maintain because they saw it happen with their mothers and fathers.”

Smith wants people in the community to understand the important role Habitat NCC plays in providing an opportunity to give back, both through volunteering their time and raising money for costly materials. “We are not just providing a house,” Smith explains, “we are giving them an opportunity to change their lives.”

Diane Berbick, a Habitat homeowner of 13 years, jumps at the opportunity to share her story of how the agency transformed her family’s life. Berbick recalls moving around a great deal, and almost becoming homeless before applying to Habitat NCC’s homeownership program.

Although the 45-year-old was accepted at the first application, she became pregnant during the process and was worried she would not be able to provide the “sweat equity” needed for working on her new home. She enlisted the help of her ex-husband.

“I still put in my hours, but my ex-husband would do the physical work for me, and that’s how we got in,” she says. “It was rough, but you remember the people who looked out for you. My address is on Faith Way, and it took 100 percent of my faith to get us where we are today. I want to be able to help our community grow, do better and provide more for all of our kids.”

Berbick says that after being helped by Habitat NCC, she is even stronger than ever in her belief that each one of us needs to pay it forward. “When we go to the grocery store, we are eager to pay for someone’s groceries because people did it for us. There is no shame in needing help. We want to give hope to people.”

Normally shy, Berbick wants to share her story in appreciation for what the Habitat for Humanity “family” did for her and her children. “I would tell anyone who needs help not to let fear or embarrassment stop you from living your life and accomplishing your goals. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for it.”

“After a family has been in their house, they tell us their children perform better in school. Many go on to college, and their overall finances are improved.”
—Kevin L. Smith

In addition to its homeownership program, Habitat NCC also has a refrigerator replacement program and a program to sustain homeownership through major repairs, such as replacing tattered roofs and addressing HVAC problems.

“It is not uncommon to see families living without heat or under leaky roofs,” Smith explains. “We are able to provide them with $10,000 to $15,000 of free repairs so they can stay in their homes and live well there.” They are also provided with financial education so they can understand budgeting in order to stay out of financial trouble.

Amos Ortiz, a civil service accounting specialist, saw a flyer for a free meal to learn about Habitat NCC’s home repair program in the summer of 2019 and attended with low expectations.

To his delight, he says, his home and family (wife Erika, 18-year-old son Eric and 15-year-old daughter Amy) qualified for roof repairs that had been plaguing them for years. The home was built in 1952, and during the 18 years that his family has lived there, he always kept a bucket handy because the roof was old and prone to leaks.

“I would go up there every spring and patch it up, [but] it needed to be replaced. If they hadn’t fixed it, I would still be going up on that roof to patch it up,” Ortiz explains.

“I didn’t know if they would be able to help us, but I knew it was worth filling out the application. They said it would get done and it got done. If someone offers you help, you should always apply. You never know what the result will be.”

Carr hopes more people will get involved in Habitat NCC, whether or not they have financial or “sweat” resources to give.

“It makes you feel good,” she says. “I’m also a Habitat volunteer, and this is so fulfilling for me that I will never stop doing it because I love being able to say that I helped build up our community, and wow, all of that hard work paid off. I urge others to give anything that they can. It will truly make a difference in the lives of so many local families and the entire community.”