By: Jeff Schwachter
On the morning of March 24th, Rosa and Carlos Gonzalez and their two daughters woke up in their new Vineland home for the first time.
“The kids couldn’t sleep that first night,” says Rosa Gonzalez, of Vineland. “They were too excited. They couldn’t believe that we were finally here. And then we woke up in the morning and prayed and we thanked God for the amazing opportunity to be a part of an amazing organization.”
That organization, Habitat for Humanity, happens to be celebrating its 30th year in Cumberland County this year. And Rosa Gonzalez and her husband, Carlos, along with their two children, moved into the 30th home Habitat has built in the county during that stretch of time.
Habitat for Humanity has been around since the early 1970s, but launched in Cumberland County in 1989, according to Bill Gonzalez (no relation), executive director of the local Habitat for Humanity (HFH) chapter.
“The first home was built in 1989 in Bridgeton—it was actually a renovation,” says Bill Gonzalez.
“Currently we are in over 60 countries, we’re in all 50 states, and we are the largest contractor in the world—Habitat for Humanity International, which we belong to.”
He says the primary function of HFH is to build homes for those in need and provide them with an affordable way to purchase the homes. HFH doesn’t give away the homes they build for free.
“Everything that we do has an actual value and a cost to it,” says Bill Gonzalez. “We also do the financial education courses; we partner up with local banks to do that. We also do mortgage educational courses where local banks or mortgage professionals come in to teach the course for first-time homebuyers.”
So, what goes into getting a family into a home?
“It’s the exact same process that you or I would go through to buy a home on the conventional mortgage market,” says Bill Gonzalez. “And there’s an extensive process from there. They have to apply; there’s an application process directly related to Habitat for Humanity. It’s very competitive. In that process they have to not only provide us with their full income documentation and prove to us that they can afford the home and maintain it, but they also have to provide us with a dissertation as to why it is that they are in need of the home as well.”
Once all the applicants are categorized based on need and affordability then the HFH’s Family Selection Committee goes and visits the families and interviews every person that is going to be living in the house.
“They go over their application process, they go over their need, and then the family has to come in and they go through a first-time mortgage program, and they go through what we call Finances 101,” says Bill Gonzalez. “We teach them the basics of owning a home, maintaining a home, maintaining savings, and also maintaining the ability to have good credit and the ability to pay for this home, and manage all those things, including their credit history. So, it’s a pretty extensive program.”
And then after that, the family still has to provide HFH with 250 hours of what they call “sweat equity”—where the family members, alongside dedicated volunteers, help build the family’s home.
“That’s 250 hours of sweat equity for each adult who lives in the household,” says Bill Gonzalez. “So, a two-adult family would be 500 hours.”
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, Habitat for Humanity—I can get a free house.’ And it’s the furthest thing from it,” says Jeff Sanders, who runs the ReStore (on Delsea Drive in Vineland) for the local HFH chapter. “And it’s important because that family has true ownership stake in it—they’re not getting something for free. Especially with the sweat equity; that really drives that point home.”
“And during the sweat equity they’re learning the basics of home repair while they’re building the house,” adds Bill Gonzalez. “They’re learning how to use tools, they’re learning how to measure, they’re learning how to cut pipe. So, at the same time, they’re learning just enough so that they don’t have to call someone and pay someone to make small repairs that need to be done.”
Over the past 30 years, Bill Gonzalez says the 30 homes have been a combination of rehabs and new constructions. The most recent house—in Vineland—was built from scratch.
“The land was donated to us by a local bank and we built this home from the bottom up,” says Bill Gonzalez. “But, like I said, the home that we did in 1989 was a renovation. We still do renovations, but, then again, those homes are ones that are owned by Habitat. We’re going in and renovating them and then we’re selling them to our homebuyers.”
Volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization.
“The reason why Habitat is so successful is because of our volunteers,” says Bill Gonzalez. “If not for our volunteers we would not be able to compete and provide these homes at these affordable mortgage rates.
“They are an intricate part of what we do here. Not only on the construction side, but also in administrative services and in the ReStore. Having volunteers in the ReStore allows us to sell items at an even more reduced price.”
The local HFH chapter employs a total of nine people, only three of which are full time. Nearly everybody else—in construction, administrative services and the ReStore—are volunteers. They get about 500 hours a month of volunteer service time from the community just at the ReStore alone.
“And there are months when it’s much higher than that,” says Sanders.
After a family moves into their home, they remain connected to HFH in most cases.
“Even after they become homeowners we encourage them to stay involved with Habitat and to continue to assist Habitat in our New Homeowners program,” says Bill Gonzalez.
For Rosa and Carlos Gonzalez, staying involved with HFH was a no-brainer.
“When you buy a house it’s a big step in your life, a big blessing in your life,” says Rosa Gonzalez. “But when you help to build it from its foundation, it’s different. Because there’s hard work, there’s a lot of sacrifice. You build another family with the team that’s building your house. You meet people who are willing to volunteer with love and without looking for something in return. It’s not just building a house, it’s building a family, building memories together, and looking forward to the future to join and help other families.”
“For the next one, I’m going to be there and helping because in some way I want to pay them back with something and I want to help,” says Carlos Gonzalez, who was born in Puerto Rico.
“Home ownership is life changing,” he adds. “There are no words to explain how we feel right now. Because when you leave your [home country] and you come to this country you want to build your future. We’ve been here for about 10 years and we’ve been waiting for that moment to show up. We tried and tried, but it was hard. Especially with language barriers. But I feel so thankful that they helped us get one of our dreams to come true.”
Every Saturday, for just under 12 months, Carlos and Rosa Gonzalez, along with their fellow church members, co-workers, family members, and friends helped volunteers build their new home. Carlos also worked on the house during the weekdays.
Rosa says she misses the Saturday build days already.
“Yeah, you’re done when you finish your equity hours, but you’re never really done if you’re committed to something,” she says. “That’s how I feel. These people impact your life in such amazing ways that it can never end; it’s a bond.
“We are involved, and it’ll be never ending for us from now on. I’m already looking forward to the next build.”