Celebrating 500 Homeowners

Last month we reached a significant milestone – celebrating the home dedication of the 500th Habitat Kent homeowner! Whittley was beaming amidst four generations of her family there supporting her, Habitat Kent staff, volunteers and donors.  

While it was a time to reflect on the organization’s 40-year history, it was more so a celebration of all that Whittley has accomplished on her journey to homeownership. Whittley learned about Habitat Kent almost two years ago through a friend and decided to make her dreams of homeownership a reality for her family. She was highly motivated and set her sights on providing a safe home with more living space and place for her kids to play and grow. 

While working her way through the program, Whittley most enjoyed learning the ins and outs of home maintenance and how to build a home from the ground up, and the financial classes. She formed and cultivated friendships with other homebuyers in the program, creating a great sense of community. At times, it was difficult for her to balance all her responsibilities – being a mother of two, working full–time, and completing the homeownership program – but she was inspired by the opportunity to build wealth and stability for her family. Alongside these dreams, she most looks forward to decorating a home that is hers, hosting gatherings, holidays and birthdays, and gardening in the yard. Knowing that her family will not have to worry about increasing rent and having to move provides a sense of peace.  

Whittley would like to thank all the volunteers and donors, and all her friends and family who supported her through this process. She is excited to own a home to call her own! 

Why I Volunteer: A three-part series of stories from Habitat Kent Volunteers

Each year, over a thousand members of our community dedicate their time, talents, and hearts to helping further our mission of building homes, communities, and hope. They help on our board of directors and committees, on construction sites, at ReStore and community events, and more.  Each of these individuals has their own “why” for showing up and getting involved. We recently sat down with several of them to hear their stories that we’ll be sharing with you on our blog over the coming weeks. We hope you enjoy reading a little bit about them and getting to know their “why”. 

Time, Talent and Treasure: An Interview with Eric Fischer, Tax Principal, BDO USA, LLP & Chair of Habitat Kent Board of Directors 

Eric Fischer (middle of picture above) began volunteering on Habitat Kent construction sites over a decade ago. After several years serving in that capacity, Eric joined our Board of Directors and is currently the Board Chair. Read the conversation between Eric and our Communications Manager, Sarah, to learn about his experience as a board member and why he’s passionate about housing. 

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Sarah: What inspired you to get involved with Habitat Kent? 

Eric: I originally got involved with Habitat Kent about twelve years ago after going on a tour with another volunteer and a staff member. I became hooked after seeing different ways that affordable homes can be achieved by putting community around it. I am an accountant by day, but serving on the board of directors lets me use other skills and learn new things. 

 

Sarah: What’s something you’ve accomplished as a Habitat volunteer that you’re proud of? 

Eric: One of my tasks has been to help organize the board. I’m proud of the fact that the organization has adopted new ways to help people get into affordable homes. Adapting and looking at various ways to achieve homeownership must be part of the solution to our community’s housing shortage. For example, Plaza Roosevelt [Habitat‘s largest project to date, a 17-unit condo association completed in 2019] was messy, hard, and took a lot out of a lot of people, but it showed that we can be creative with solutions. 

  

Sarah: After twelve years of serving, what keeps you coming back? 

Eric: Housing is a messy and complex issue. However, volunteering with Habitat gives me purpose and I believe housing is the biggest issue right now. When you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, everyone’s housing needs must be met first. It impacts everything else – your health, education, your ability to provide for your family. 

As for my time on the board, I hope to continue that mission and bring more people to committees and the board so they can see the importance of that work and get involved. 

 

Sarah: What would you tell someone who is considering getting involved with Habitat Kent? 

Eric: If someone is considering supporting Habitat financially or volunteering, I would tell them to picture one more family having a home and how that can change their lives. It takes time, a lot of different talents and treasure to build a house, so why not use yours to help someone thrive? 

Celebrating National Volunteer Month

In honor of National Volunteer Month, let’s take a moment to recognize the power of volunteerism and celebrate the individuals who dedicate their time and energy to support our mission of building homes, communities, and hope.  

Volunteers are the backbone of our organization, and their commitment plays a crucial role in everything we do. In 2023, over 1,800 volunteers donated nearly 25,000 hours of time. From swinging hammers on the construction site to assisting customers at our ReStore, each of these volunteers brought their unique talents and passions to the table, making a lasting impact on our community. 

Why Volunteer
Volunteering has many benefits, not only for the organization and greater community, but also for volunteers themselves. According to Habitat International, volunteering can lead to living longer, learning something new, seeing your community in a new light, and finding a job or improved employment. Volunteering can also improve physical and mental health, provide a sense of purpose, and help people develop their relationships. (Mayo Clinic). 

Join Our Mission
At Habitat Kent, we have many volunteer opportunities for groups and individuals. If you want to pick up a hammer or paintbrush, consider joining us on a build site! No experience is necessary. Our experienced staff and regular Carpenter’s Club Volunteers will help guide anyone interested in a variety of construction tasks such as: demolition, framing, siding, installing windows, doors and cabinets, painting, landscaping and gardening, cleaning, and more! 

Volunteers at ReStore, our retail center for discounted home improvement materials, help clean and sort donations, stock and organize the store, and assist with donation pickups. 

We also have hospitality opportunities, community engagement, and landscaping and gardening in our learning garden at our main office. 

Learn more about all of our volunteer opportunities here. 

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To all our volunteers, whether you’ve been with us for years or have recently joined our team – thank you for your hard work, dedication, and compassion. You are the heart and soul of Habitat Kent, and we couldn’t do this work without you! 

Together, we’re helping families and our community build brighter futures. 

Shanika’s Journey Goes Beyond Homeownership 

Shanika’s journey to homeownership with Habitat Kent began with a desire for stability and growth for her family. After moving back to Michigan from Mississippi in 2021, increasing rent and inadequate space for her daughters prompted her to seek a better situation. 

Shanika’s co-workers introduced her to Habitat Kent, inspiring her to learn more about our mission. Shanika decided to start her homeownership journey with Habitat to give her daughters a safe and loving place to live. 

Throughout the process, Shanika immersed herself in the Habitat program, participating in construction activities and financial education classes. She enjoyed learning how to use tools and being actively involved in constructing her future home. Fueled by her determination to provide a better life for her family, Shanika balanced challenges like having a full-time job and being a single mother with grace. 

Now that she’s closed on her new home, Shanika plans to pursue her nursing degree. She is confident Habitat Kent has provided the stability and support she needs for her educational aspirations and a brighter future. She also anticipates hosting celebrations and dreams of starting a garden to grow fresh vegetables and flowers. 

Above all, Shanika sees her journey with Habitat Kent as a testament to the power of hard work and perseverance. She hopes to inspire her daughters by showing them that with faith and dedication, dreams can indeed come true. Grateful for the support of Habitat Kent staff, volunteers, donors, and her loved ones, Shanika is ready to begin this new chapter and leave a lasting legacy for her daughters. 

Shanika’s journey with Habitat Kent is not just about homeownership — it’s about creating a foundation of stability and hope for her family’s future.

General Motors Supporting Resident-Led Projects in the Baxter Neighborhood

Pictured above: Marvin Martin of Grand Rapids Urban League and Kenneth Cortez are part of the Baxter United Coalition. They are leading a group focused on improving economic opportunity for residents in the Baxter neighborhood in Grand Rapids.

In 2022, Baxter United formed to help “build access, creativity, equity, and unity in the Baxter neighborhood.” 

Baxter is a historically underserved neighborhood on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. Residents have long come together to build community, laying the foundation for Baxter United to continue improving the quality of life for all those living there.  As one of our three focus neighborhoods where we partner with the community to build affordable homes, we are proud to support this resident-led initiative because a safe, stable place to live goes beyond the four walls of a home. 

With generous funding from General Motors for our Neighborhood Revitalization efforts this year, Baxter United is taking a significant step toward achieving its goals.  A neighborhood planning consultant helped the group survey the community and develop a ten-year vision plan. The plan focuses on four key areas for growth identified by Baxter residents: housing, economic opportunity, safety, and relationship building. 

Another outcome from the survey is the newly formed Baxter United Coalition comprised of Baxter residents and representatives of several organizations and businesses in the neighborhood – the Baxter Neighborhood Association, Grand Rapids Urban League, and Wealthy Theatre. Each area of growth listed above is being addressed by groups of three to four coalition members, all of whom live or work in Baxter.  Through General Motors’ support, each of the four groups has a $10,000 grant to use by this June to improve their focus area.  

Coalition groups are beginning to meet and big plans are underway in each category. Because all coalition members live in Baxter, residents have ownership and decide what they need and want for their community. We can’t wait to see what the coalition does over the next few months and its impact on the neighborhood. Stay tuned for updates on projects and initiatives they’re working on! 

Housing Disparity in the US and How We Can Create A More Equitable Future

Background 

 African Americans have struggled due to systemic racism for centuries and the policies that restrict them from a better life. The blatant racial differences in the U.S. are ongoing – education, employment, health, and wealth are connected to black families’ lack of opportunities for rightful homeownership. 

Affordable homeownership wasn’t always an urgent issue. After the Civil War, African Americans owned little land. Still, they acquired it gradually through purchases, homesteading, or leading a self-sufficient lifestyle. Approximately sixteen million acres of land were owned by African Americans in 1910 — the largest amount of land owned by African Americans in history.  

Unfortunately, violence, intimidation, and immoral law slowly stripped African Americans of their rightful ownership. By the 1990s, they owned only about 2 million acres of land. Industrialization occurred throughout that period in the US, but the results shouldn’t have been so extreme. Today, black landownership is less than one percent. 

 

Redlining 

Government programs promoting homeownership during the New Deal created the practice of “redlining.” As part of its color-coded maps, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation identified areas where households of color lived and considered those “redlined” areas risky for lending — resulting in a nationwide agreement between the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the private lenders to avoid insuring loans in redlined communities. 

Affordable mortgages assist homeowners in saving more, investing in education, and being more financially stable. Throughout the 19th century, millions of white families benefited from low-down-payment loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). As a result, white families could build strong communities and plan for their futures. However, black families did not get the same opportunities to experience the same life-changing benefits. 

Redlined communities were also controlled by racially restrictive covenants, or clauses, in deeds. FHA subsidies for subdivision construction in the 1940s accelerated the use of restrictive covenants. Under restrictive covenants, white families were the only ones allowed to buy or resell the new homes. Nationally, private lenders followed suit. 

 

G.I. Bill 

Black World War II veterans were not exempt from housing discrimination. Following the war, the federal government provided veterans with low-interest, federally guaranteed home loans with no down payment. Several private lenders practiced redlining these loans. Mortgages for white veterans allowed them to have stable housing for their growing families. In contrast, black veterans were outright rejected by lenders or prohibited from buying homes due to restrictive covenants.   

 

Communities Are Still Facing These Issues Today 

Redlining 

In the modern era, redlining has diminished the property value of homes in African American communities. In addition, it is forcing African Americans to pay higher interest rates when they can’t qualify for government-backed mortgages. Higher interest rates mean higher mortgage payments, making it difficult to acquire affordable homeownership.  

 

G.I. Bill 

The original G.I. Bill ended in 1956. However, since ending, it has not only widened the wealth gap between white and black communities, but academic opportunities and employment skyrocketed for white communities. In contrast, the black community still fails to receive the same benefits. 

 

Post – Pandemic 

Housing, healthcare, education, and financial stability are among the many racial injustices further worsened by COVID and its economic impacts. In 2021, a White household had significantly more wealth than a typical Black household – $250,400 compared to $27,100. The wealth gap resulted in fewer black homeowners between 2019 and 2021. Furthermore, it created the widest homeownership gap since the last decade, with White homeownership at 72.7% and Black homeownership at 44%. 

 

Habitat Kent, Creating a More Equitable Future 

Our key value at Habitat Kent is to advance racial equity by advocating for homeowners to build homes and pay affordable mortgages. We understand that we cannot solve this problem on our own. By fostering partnerships and advocacy within our communities, we can address systemic inequalities and support a better quality of life. 

Learn more about our vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. 

What We Learned in 2023 

Habitat Kent’s 2023 – our 40th year – was a time of celebration, reflection, and planning for the future.  

Through three lunch and learns, we explored the key components of our mission: 1 – putting God’s love into action; 2 – bringing people together; and 3 – building homes, communities, and hope.  

We celebrated the start of the house that would be home to the 500th Habitat Kent homeowner family. This milestone was made even more significant as the house sits just down the street from the very first Habitat home!    

And almost 40 years from the groundbreaking event for that first Habitat Kent home, 340 people gathered this fall at the Goei Center to celebrate the organization’s birthday and all of the achievements we have made together as a community.  

Throughout this year, I often wondered if our founders ever dreamed of the day this organization would partner with the five hundredth family? Did the handful of people who attended that first groundbreaking ever dream of the hundreds who would gather to celebrate our 40th, or the hundreds of thousands who would volunteer in the intervening years?   

I think they did, because I am dreaming of the day in 2030, when we serve the 1,000th homeowner (and yes, we are working on a plan to get there!).  

More important though, 2023 was a year of reflection.We interviewed our founding board members, early homebuyer families, volunteers, and past executive directors. If there is a single truth that came out of all those conversations it is this:   

When Housing Becomes a Blessing – Instead of a Burden – Families Flourish   

We’ve used this phrase throughout the year because its truth has been reaffirmed to us over and over again. When we interviewed Sharon, the third Habitat Kent homeowner, she proudly showed us her home and the many diplomas and certificates her children had earned prominently displayed in her living room.   

When we interviewed Linda, Sharon’s daughter who is now a Vice President at a multi-national corporation, she said that growing up in her mom’s Habitat house opened her eyes to possibility! She began to realize her future could be one of opportunity.   

For Tamela, she and her husband each opened small businesses, after just 10 years of having an affordable home!   

These success stories could go on and on (to see just a snippet, please visit this video). With 500 families served, imagine how many more stories are out there, waiting for us to tell them.   

Earlier in this post I admitted to wondering if people from 40 years ago could have imagined Habitat’s longevity and productivity. I’d like to ask you to use your imagination right now.   

Can you imagine how much potential has been unleashed by the 1,500 or so children who have grown up in a Habitat Kent house? 

We know that homeownership makes families stronger and gives them more resilience. We know they live healthier lives, both mentally and physically. We know their children perform better in school.    

All of this lends itself to families flourishing, which leads to neighborhoods flourishing and a healthy and growing Kent County. That’s what we’ve learned from 40 years of service.   

Another thing that has been reaffirmed to us is that we live in a wonderful community. All Habitat homes are a result of the resiliency of the homebuyer families and the generosity of our community. Those homes would simply not exist if it were not for that generosity.  

When we started the 500th family build, we asked local vendors and subcontractors to join the celebration by donating labor or material to the build. Did they ever respond! Over $55,000 in labor or material donations were given. We are so blessed to be in this great county!  

So, as you can see, we’ve learned A LOT this year. But there is one other item on our list that we know:   

We’re just getting started!!  

Warmly, 

Bev Thiel, Executive Director

 

Check out this great video to see all we accomplished together over this past 40th-Anniversary year!

A Celebration to Remember: 40 years and 500 Homeowners

Photo credit left and top right: Mojet Photography

On October 26th, we gathered with over 300 community members at our 40th Anniversary Event celebrating 500 homeowners! It was an incredible evening reflecting on our history and the impact we have made as a community. 

We were uplifted by the many stories shared by and about our founders, volunteers, supporters, and Habitat Kent homeowners. Quanette, a Habitat Kent Homeowner since 2019, shared about her journey to homeownership and said she was moved by the outpouring of support. “The volunteers working on my house didn’t know me, but they were out there every single day. Knowing that people care and are trying to get community back – it touches me a lot.”  

Keynote Speaker Majora Carter, an expert on neighborhood revitalization, inspired us to continue working toward building thriving communities: “Instead of building an idea that you have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one, help others see the power of investing in your communities. That is what helps create stability.”  

Dr. Linda Smith emphasized this message. Smith grew up in the third Habitat Kent home and is now Corporate Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at a large global company.  She gave a testimony of hope and opportunity, and encouraged guests to invest in their communities by supporting local organizations like Habitat as her family does. 

We were also honored to recognize the recipients of the 2023 Habitat Kent Awards and thrilled to have so many of them celebrating with us at the event: 

Hope Award – Habitat Kent Founders: Honoring those who emulate hope in our community 

Jonathan Bradford – Inner City Christian Federation, Federal Home Loan Bank; Alistair Brown – Scott Christopher Homes; George Heartwell – Heartwell Mortgage, Mayor – City of Grand Rapids; Dave Jacobs – Home Repair Services; Betty Zylstra – Salvation Army Booth Family Services, Community Food Club 

Stability Award – Van Haren Electric Inc.: Honoring a long-term supporter with roots in our past and a vision for the future

Opportunity Award – Mercantile Bank: Honoring a partner who provides opportunities to give back to their community and opportunities for community growth

It was tremendous being surrounded by so many supporters who care deeply about building a world everyone has a decent, affordable place to call home. We are grateful for what we’ve accomplished together and are incredibly optimistic about the next decade of working together with a passionate and dedicated community! 

Watch Linda and others share their Habitat stories! 

Check out more photos from the celebration! 

Welcome new board member, Rich Cherry

We are pleased to welcome Richard (RichCherry to our Board of Directors! Rich joined the board earlier this fall and is a proud product of Southwestern Michigan.  He attended Kalamazoo College for his undergraduate degree in Political Science and earned his law degree from Wayne State University Law School.

Rich is currently a partner at Miller Johnson – a full-service law firm in Michigan.  Prior to joining Miller Johnson, he served as the Deputy City Attorney for the City of Kalamazoo. Rich is a member of the Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys, and is on the Kalamazoo Choral Arts Board of Directors.  He also served as the President of the Judge Charles A. Pratt Bar Association and the Board President for the Douglass Community Association. In his legal career, Rich specializes in litigation, municipal law, and labor and employment law and also has extensive experience in the areas of community and economic development.

In his free time, Rich spends quality time with his wife, Katie, and his three kids, Austin, Norah and Miles.