When COVID hit and Habitat was faced with significant headwinds caused by material cost spikes, supply chain shortages, rising subcontractor labor costs and health and safety restrictions which limited the use of volunteers, the organization faced an existential crisis.
“Our choice was to either batten down the hatches and stop building or to push forward. So we pushed forward,” said Habitat President and CEO Dan Rosensweig. “The obvious and safe thing to do would have been to wait it out. But there were families involved, families who were struggling disproportionately because of COVID, families who needed housing and they needed it more than ever. And so we stepped up in faith.”
So, in the midst of the pandemic, Habitat didn’t just maintain its building pace of 18 homes a year, but dramatically increased it — first to 26 this year then to more than 50 next year. It also began site work toward redeveloping the Southwood Mobile Home Park, a $500M community investment that will provide safe, affordable and permanent housing for as many as 700 local low-wealth families.
Then in February, Habitat got word that its faith to move forward was being rewarded.
Rosensweig received a call notifying him that writer and philanthropist Mackenzie Scott had quietly researched the organization and decided to reward its pioneering work with an unsolicited grant of $5.75M, announced today as part of Ms. Scott’s overall $436M gift across the Habitat network.
“To say I was overwhelmed by the gift would be an understatement,” said Rosensweig. “Not only does Ms. Scott’s gift validate the incredible work that the team has done, the courageous spirit of our board, the brilliant vision of the community, the generous contributions of funders and the hard work of partner families and Southwood community members, but it will help us offset the ‘Covid Deficit.’”
Habitat has seen the cost to build homes and develop land more than double in the past couple of years. With this gift, the organization will be able to withstand the pandemic-related cost shocks in order to maintain its homebuilding pace and continue with redevelopment of Southwood, putting hundreds of local families on the path to a safe, secure future.
Prior to last year’s increase in activity, the Charlottesville organization was already the Country’s most productive Habitat affiliate for a service area of its size, but given the intense need in the region, it committed to more than doubling its homebuilding while beginning the national-precedent-setting work at Southwood, increasing critical home repair activity in Louisa and Greene Counties and continuing its groundbreaking work in developing mixed-income communities.
Over the course of the next 15 years, successful redevelopment of Southwood – transforming an aging and without displacement — will require Habitat to continue to work with local and national supporters, government officials and others to identify and secure additional sources of support like this one. Southwood redevelopment is a multi-year and complex endeavor with an anticipated phased build out occurring over more than a decade in order to allow families to remain in their mobile homes until new homes are constructed.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Rosensweig. “But this gift helps sustain critical momentum as we keep our promises to the hundreds of hard-working families we are partnering with.”
The gift corresponds with a series of important milestones at Southwood. This month, Habitat started construction on the first two new homes and is preparing lots for the next 68 homes. Additionally, Habitat is nearing the end of a successful $15M capital campaign, has sold 100% of the market rate lots in the first phase of the project to cross subsidize the affordable homes, has entered into a contract with the Piedmont Housing Alliance to build 121 additional income-restricted apartments, has received roughly $6M in public funding commitments for the first phase of development and is working side by side with the first 39 Southwood families who are making down payments on their new homes.
This gift is a welcome addition to the complex funding puzzle necessary to achieve this national-model, humanitarian transformation.
“We’re looking to build on the momentum of this gift,” said Rosensweig. “We’re not there yet. But we look forward to continuing to work with Southwood residents, donors, government officials and other stakeholders – all of whom have been very generous with their time and financial support thus far. There is still a funding gap, but we feel affirmed by Ms. Scott’s trust in our work and are more determined than ever to develop further funding sources to fill out the necessary capital stack so that each and every family can move into a permanent, sustainable, healthy home.”
About Habitat: Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville brings people together to build and rebuild homes and communities while catalyzing new pathways to safe, decent affordable housing. Our work has evolved from building one house at a time to developing vibrant, sustainable, mixed-income communities, where local families can achieve their dreams of homeownership. Since our founding in 1991, we have built over 225 new homes and safely housed 2,000 neighbors, thanks to the commitment and dedication of our thousands of volunteers and supporters.