Local Real Estate Pros Serve as Partner Family Advocates for Habitat


The Charlottesville area is fortunate to have many real estate professionals who selflessly give back to the community through volunteer work. One of many local non-profits that benefits from this generosity is Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International. Habitat’s mission is “to create simple, decent, affordable housing in partnership with low-income families, volunteers and the communities of greater Charlottesville.” The organization utilizes volunteer labor to build new homes that are purchased by qualifying families using a combination of sweat equity plus a zero interest first mortgage. 

Local REALTORS® and associates serve Habitat in a number of different ways, including hammering nails and hauling shingles at a job site. In addition, however, they serve through an innovative program called Partner Family Advocates. In this role, REALTORS® and others work with Habitat families by answering their questions and advocating for them in everything from selecting their lot, to navigating the loan process, choosing the perfect paint, carpet and vinyl, and attending their closing.
Ownership Through Sweat Equity
A big part of Habitat’s successful formula is the use of sweat equity in the form of volunteer labor. Once families qualify for Habitat’s program, they participate on an ongoing basis, explained Shelley Cole, Habitat’s Family Services Coordinator. The total number of hours required depends on the number of adults in the household. A single adult household must contribute a minimum of 200 hours, which increases to 300 if there are two adults. Families are expected to volunteer time every month until their home is ready for move in. They contribute sweat equity to their own house, but they participate in building other family’s homes as well. Individuals with health or physical limitations can work at the Habitat store, which sells building products and other donated materials.
The time from when a family first qualifies as a Habitat client until they move into their new home depends on a number of factors including the availability of a suitable lot. While Habitat helps secure the lots, each situation is different. For example, Julie Holbrook, an agent with Charlotte Ramsey Inc, Realtors, is a Partner Family Advocate who has worked with several different families. Her first family was a single woman caring for the three grandchildren she adopted when her daughter died.  She is disabled and does not drive, and while she needed a home for her new, larger family, the local real estate market put ownership out of reach. Holbrook learned about acquaintances who had a five acre lot and helped persuade them to sell the property to Habitat at below market value. “This is not the usual situation, she was lucky,” Holbrook explained in telling her first partner’s story, “but she was one of those people you just had to keep fighting for.” 
All of the effort finally paid off. The family members now enjoy living in their new home on five acres, thanks to the combined efforts of their sweat equity and help from all of the parties including Holbrook, Habitat, and many other volunteers.
Habitat also requires families to participate in financial counseling. Like any new home owners, they must first have their financial affairs in order so they can qualify for a mortgage. Tammy Wilt, a loan officer with New American Mortgage and a Partner Family Advocate, said that her involvement in the Habitat program was motivated in part by her frustration with our local housing market. She found that often families seeking the benefits of homeownership and who are good credit risks may nonetheless be unable to afford a home. 
Wilt works with her Habitat families using a check list to assure they have all of their documents in order and answering their questions about loan approval. Qualifying Habitat families receive a zero interest first mortgage plus possible grant funding from sources such as the city, the county, or Piedmont Housing Alliance. Often the loans from grant funds are forgivable. 
The amount of the new homeowner’s monthly payment, which includes principle, taxes and insurance, is income based and cannot exceed 27 percent of the family’s gross income. This means the mortgage pay back period varies with the size of the loan and the borrower’s circumstances, explained Cole who said some loans may be as short as 20 years, others as long as 30.  The program allows families to own a new home and have payments as low as $600 a month, less than a lot of rents, said Tammi Campbell, a Partner Family Advocate and REALTOR® with Roy Wheeler Realty in Greene County. As the mortgage is paid back, funds are recycled and available to finance other Habitat homes. 
The Special Role of the Advocate
Advocates are volunteers, most of them homeowners themselves, who form a special relationship with families answering their questions and advocating for them throughout the home building process. They check in with the family at least once a month to share information and make suggestions. They may also work on the job site alongside family members. Time involved averages about two to three hours a month with more intensity required as the closing and move-in dates approach. The relationship is a long term commitment, sometimes requiring several years depending on when an appropriate lot becomes available and how quickly a family’s financial picture allows them to qualify for a loan.
Tammi Campbell advocates for a family with five children who have been waiting to move into a new home since 2007. Today everyone is excited about the possibility that after such a long wait they may get to spend Christmas of 2011 in their new home.  Originally with another advocate, the family switched to Campbell who was a better fit for their situation. 
Shelley Cole explained that while they do their best to match up advocates and families, sometimes the comfort of all parties is served by a change. She stressed that good communication between advocates and their families is critical as these first time home buyers are inundated with information about everything from home and yard maintenance, to homeowner associations and financing. If family members are not native English speakers there may be cultural and language barriers as well and an interpreter may be required. 
While two to three hours a month is an average amount of time advocates spend with their families, the actual number of hours increases as the process moves along. Campbell described the time spent helping her family choose their paint colors, countertops, cabinets and floor coverings as one of many high points of the experience. Before the process is completed she will also assist them with steps such as their final walk through of the property and the actual closing where all the papers are signed. Advocates also stay in touch with families after move-in for as long as an additional 18 months, Cole reported. She enjoys working with real estate professionals who are comfortable with the home buying process and have flexible schedules that allow them to attend meetings and functions during a work day.
Why Become an Advocate?
Why do these REALTORS®, lenders and others choose to advocate for Habitat families? Campbell first learned about Habitat some years ago when the real estate company she worked for sponsored a Habitat build day and agents volunteered time to work on a job site for one of the families.  As far as becoming an advocate, she explained that she grew up in a family with eight brothers and sisters in a home that had only one bathroom. She remembers how excited she was when, at age 30, she moved into her first house and had a bathroom all to herself. “I can really relate to what these families are feeling and I am excited for them,” she said. “Habitat is a great program and it makes you feel good to be part of it” she continued. 
Tammy Wilt looked for a volunteer opportunity after she moved to Charlottesville in 2006. She chose Habitat in part because she has always enjoyed home projects, but also because she soon learned how hard it was for low income families to qualify for enough loan to purchase a house in our area if they followed the usual route to becoming home owners. She appreciates all the work the Habitat families devote in order to make their new home a reality and complimented the Habitat staff and the Partner Family Advocate program. “As long as you have an hour a month it’s a great way to give back to the community and help people become homeowners,” she said.
Julie Holbrook’s first Habitat family was someone she knew personally. Her involvement at that time was due in part to her conviction that the lady deserved a new home. “She was worth every second of my time. You just go to bat for them, that’s what advocates do,” Holbrooke said. Since then she has worked with two other families including a single mom with two teen-aged kids who waited almost seven years to get into their new home.
Holbrook related that as a result of her experience working as an advocate she is calmer and more patient than she once was. “Everyone has a story,” she said, “and I have learned to help them where they are. The program changes your perception about people,” she said. “I’m a lot less judgemental than I used to be.” 
Become an Advocate
If you like the idea of helping deserving families become homeowners, consider becoming a Partner Family Advocate. Family Services Coordinator Shelly Cole screens new volunteers and spends time with them to get a sense of who they would best serve. New volunteers also attend training sessions to learn more about how the program works and what is expected of them. In addition, Tammy Wilt explained newcomers can rely on more experienced advocates to share their experiences with this special program.
There is a huge payoff for the volunteers. Holbrook stated that after working with her partner families she realizes “there is nothing we can’t do. When you work with these families you realize they need for you not to give up. They count on you.” As a result, when facing her own challenges, Holbrook said she is much more likely to persevere.
All the advocates had high praise for the Habitat staff and volunteers calling them kind and giving people who are doing an incredible service for the Charlottesville community. 
For more information or to volunteer, send Cole an email at: FamilyServices@cvillehabitat.org.
Celeste Smucker is a writer, editor and author of Sold on Me, Daily Inspiration for Real Estate Agents. She lives near Charlottesville.