Where are They Now: Homeowner Edition

There are many misconceptions about Habitat for Humanity, including that it’s strictly a low-income program. The reality is that Habitat for Humanity can be for anyone who income qualifies. One of the biggest advantages of the program is its down payment assistance, which doesn’t require potential applicants to have 10 percent of a down payment already saved. 

This was the situation for Rachel Needham, who thought she would be doomed to rent forever, even though she had a decent and stable income. Rachel, 43, was born and raised in Monroe. She has 17 year old twin sons, who are seniors at Monroe High School. “We love it here, we don’t plan on going anywhere,” she said.  

Needing a fresh start after a rough time in her life, Rachel and her sons moved into an apartment. It was only two years before the apartment complex started raising Rachel’s rent. This wasn’t even the worst of her worries. “I couldn’t stay where I was at, with two teenage sons, and there’s people selling drugs in the parking lot,” Rachel said.

She knew she had to make a move. With her apartment situation weighing heavy on her mind, she drove by a house for sale and was inspired to make a trip to her bank.  Imagining herself in this beautiful house, Rachel considered how she had a steady, well-paying job as an office manager. She also had good credit and no debt. She was sure that she would be pre-approved for a mortgage loan. She went to multiple banks and they all told her the same thing: she could not be pre-approved for anything because she did not have a ten percent down payment in her savings. “I couldn’t save,” she said, “anytime I would, something would happen.”

Rachel was devastated and didn’t see an out to her situation. “It’s like I was stuck in this cycle where I was going to have to rent, because I wasn't going to be able to come up with $10,000, if not more,” she said.

Frustrated and at a loss, Rachel only had one way to cope. “I went home and I prayed,” she said. “That’s all I knew to do.”

It would appear that her prayers were answered. Within a few weeks of her bank visits, she came across an advertisement for Habitat for Humanity of Monroe County on social media. She had never heard of the organization before. The advertisement was for homeownership through Habitat. Upon reading the requirements to own a Habitat home, she realized that she qualified. “I was ecstatic,” she said. “It’s one of those moments where you’re like ‘thank you God.’”

Shortly after seeing the ad, she hand delivered her application to the Habitat office. Once she had applied, Rachel was approved within two weeks. She quickly began to consume every article and piece of information about Habitat that she could find and made many question-filled calls to Habitat’s director of homeownership, Julie Walsh-Destrampe, “She’s an angel,” she said of Julie. “This was really an answer to my prayers.”

Rachel had been working full time when she entered the program in 2014, so she worked on the build sites on weekends. It took her about a year to complete her required sweat equity hours. “It’s doable,” she said of the required work. “I juggled two kids. who are very active in sports, and working full time myself." 

Despite her busy life, Habitat worked into Rachel’s schedule. Her situation was not uncommon among Habitat homeowners; the program is primarily self-paced, so Rachel managed to work when she could, and Habitat was flexible with her. "I was able to complete the program with the unending support and encouragement of my fiance Jack and my family." 

“I think it’s intimidating to people if they don’t know about it,” she said. “They [Habitat] don’t get down on you if you can’t work one week.”

The home that Rachel ended up purchasing was the first build site that she worked on, which created a connection between her and the house. She described the experience of building on her own home as “freakin’ awesome.”

“I had overcame so much anxiety,” she said, of her first building experience.

Rachel had helped to build a couple of houses by the time she completed her sweat equity hours, but it was that first build that allowed her to become confident in her physical abilities. She said that building allowed her to grow as a person.  

“My experience on the job sites were a hoot,” she said.  “I learned a lot; I learned so much from volunteers.” Since she was a frequent builder on the sites, Rachel said the regular volunteers and staff were friendly and welcoming to her. 

“One of the things that touched me the most was the amount of volunteers,” she said.

In addition to completing sweat equity hours, the homeownership program requires its applicants to keep Habitat up to date on their finances and to track their savings, to help future homeowners to take control of their financial situations. People in the homeownership program take financial capability and home ownership classes and work one on one with Habitat’s financial coach, Jeanette McDonald.  

“They help you become accountable,” Rachel said. “It’s very helpful in that regard.”

Habitat also offers home maintenance classes for the homeowners, which is something that Rachel was grateful for. “They don’t just throw you in a home, they educate you as well,” she said.

Rachel still has her homeowner’s checklist, hung up on her fridge, to remind her of all the things she needs to keep up on in her home. She as taken pride in this aspect of owning a house.

“I get so tickled when I change my air ventilator thingy,” I wash it every six months,” she said. “They taught me that.” Rachel is referring to her energy recovery ventilator, or ERV, which cleans and filters the air in her home. It helps to keep her energy bills down while freshening the air she and her family are breathing.

Today, Rachel has the household that she had always dreamed of. “My home is full of love,” she said. “It’s safe; anyone is welcome.”

Rachel currently works as a mail carrier for the Post Office and no longer has to worry whether something will go financially wrong every month.

Her sons continue to be active in sports and enjoy having their own rooms to themselves. Rachel said that all of their friends always want to come over to “Mama Rachel’s” house.

“Here we having a loving home, we have a safe home,” Rachel said. “When you don’t have a safe home, you live in fear. When you live in fear, it affects your growth as a person.”

She said that without Habitat, she wouldn’t have been able to achieve the warm, comfortable household that she has now.

“They offer an opportunity for someone to be able to leave behind a legacy of homeownership, for the kids,” she said.

“They knew I put in a lot of work,” she said of her kids. “But once we got in here, they saw why.”

When they first moved into their house, Rachel said that privacy was one of the things that she was looking forward to the most. At her apartment, she always had people living above her or next to her, and she couldn’t stand being able to hear her neighbors’ every move. She is also grateful for the larger space and her garage, as she used to have to keep her bicycle in her apartment living room.

Perhaps the most important advantage of her home though, was being able to adopt her dog Shadow. That was the first thing that the family did, once they moved in.  

“It’s unbelievable to me,” Rachel said. “I can’t believe more people don’t take advantage of the program.”

“Habitat offers an opportunity for your average person,” she said. “I know there’s a big population of people living just like I was.”

Habitat prides itself on building strength, stability, and self-reliance through homeownership and Rachel’s case was no exception. “It’s simple, you just have to do the work,” Rachel said. “What you get for your work is a safe, beautiful home.”

Rachel said that she would encourage potential applicants to just look into the program, and give it a chance. “It’s intimidating at first but once you learn about the program and what it has to offer,” she said, “it’s so worth it.”