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Middletown Life

Building houses and hope

Aug 30, 2016 03:10PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Kevin Smith, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County, at the site where five new homes are being built in Middletown.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

On tiny Elizabeth Street in Middletown, there are some big dreams growing.

Five homes will soon be built on the site, adding up to 31 already built by Habitat for Humanity since 2000. Each one of the houses represents a family saved from the spiraling chaos of poverty, a neighborhood revitalized, and generations yet to come who will have stability and a decent place to call home.

For Kevin Smith, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County, the group's partnership with Middletown began some 16 years ago when he met with community advocate Irv Brockson. Brockson was seeking an end to the blight of the East Lake Street area, and getting the attention of Habitat was the first step.

Over the years, support from Middletown businesses, citizens and officials has been consistent and enthusiastic, Smith said. “By building in the older part of town, along East Lake Street, we're helping that part of town that has had some issues with crime and drug sales. But we are also knocking down abandoned structures,” he said. “In 2010, we built six houses, and across the street were two houses where there were active drug sales. We negotiated with the owner, bought those houses and knocked them down.”

According to figures supplied by Habitat, a minimum-wage worker in New Castle County would need to work 120 hours a week to afford the average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment, $1,135. That figure is more than 60 percent of the county's renters could afford. That leaves families in crisis -- either stretching a salary too thin to cover rent and living expenses in a decent location, or settling for lower rent in a neighborhood that could be full of drugs and crime. Either situation is not good for children, who grow up feeling that nothing is secure.

Habitat finds families for their homes after a thorough interview process and background check. Families work alongside volunteers during construction, pledging to commit 225 hours of “sweat equity” to help build their home. They must attend financial counseling and work to repair their credit. “We also train our homeowners to be the future leaders in these neighborhoods,” Smith said. “To show them how to be a good neighbor, be involved in the civic association. That benefits the whole neighborhood, not just our individual families.”

The Habitat model works so well that, since 1986, the New Castle County branch has built more than 225 homes in Wilmington, Middletown, Newark, New Castle and St. Georges. Families who move in feel that they have earned their home, not been given a handout. Volunteers get to see the joy that owning a home brings to a family. And the effect of putting good people into decent housing benefits the whole town.

But serving at the helm of an organization with so many ties to so many companies and nonprofits means that Smith spends most of his time fundraising and managing, rather than on the ground at the work sites. Visiting the new Springlake site in Middletown last month, he saw where the concrete footers had been poured for the first two homes. “In a week and a half, we'll start the framing, and the homeowners will be here, earning their sweat equity,” he said.

Pulling off the miracle of a new home requires an orchestrated effort that Smith is very familiar with.

“Usually it's easier to build new than renovate an existing home, because you never know what you're dealing with when you start a renovation,” he said. “And it's easier to have one site person overseeing five or six houses at a time. That's a better experience for volunteers as well. If you bring 15 people out, it's easier to put them to work on a couple of new houses and spread them out.”

It costs about $165,000 to build a Habitat home in New Castle County. Of that, $65,000 is for materials. Some $60,000 goes to sub-contractors, $15,000 for buying land, and $25,000 for program overhead costs. Volunteers supply much of the labor at no cost. Smith proudly noted that 93 cents of every dollar donated to Habitat goes directly towards building a home.

“We have very low overhead. The challenge is that we sell the houses at the fair market value,” Smith said, “but the construction cost, depending on where we build, can be anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000 greater than that fair market value. It's hard to lose that much money on every house you build.” So that means that fundraising is a big part of his job.

“We don't consider ourselves a charity. It's a partnership with the families,” he said. “We tell them, 'You have something to contribute that's valuable. We're not going to build a house for you, but with you.'”

A decade ago, Habitat found that it had more materials than it could efficiently use, and opened ReStore locations where surplus supplies could be sold at a fraction of their retail cost. In May, a ReStore opened in the Middletown Shopping Center at 600 N. Broad Street. Stocked with new, used and donated furniture, appliances, windows and doors, paint and hardware, the huge store is packed with bargains – a set of six dining room chairs for $20, a like-new refrigerator for $300.

“We give every Habitat homeowner a $100 voucher to come and shop at a ReStore,” Smith said. The extra money goes to either a necessity for furnishing a home, or for a little luxury item that makes a family feel settled in their new space.

But anyone can shop at a ReStore, and all the money raised goes to support more home building by Habitat.

While the New Castle County branch of Habitat has its hands full, the Habitat International organization is working in 80 countries, Smith said. In some third-world countries, it can cost as little as $4,200 to build or rehab a home. That means a cement block building with a tin roof and a concrete floor, “but it's still a major upgrade from what people have been dealing with,” Smith said.

In February, Smith accompanied a team of workers to Costa Rica, where the project started with digging holes for the home's support beams and continued with a week of dirty, hands-on work. “It was great,” Smith said with a smile. He added that, while the young woman and two children who were moving into the new house were overjoyed, the surrounding homes of her family members were little more than shacks. “It kind of broke our hearts. We wish we could do more,” he said.

But toward that goal, Habitat groups can send any undesignated donations to overseas projects, where the money goes much further than in America. “For example, Habitat New Castle County, in our 30th year of operating, has sent over $1 million in tithe money to El Salvador, Africa, India, Egypt and Costa Rica,” Smith said.

Even in Delaware, “many of our homeowners are the first in generations of their family to own their own house,” he said. “That's most impactful for children. That means stability. The purpose is not only to give families an affordable place to live, but it's also an opportunity for asset building. We give surveys to all our families every other year, and they tell us that their children are doing better in school, their health improves, there's no emotional stress of trying to survive. And their financial situation improves. Out mortgage is sometimes half of what they would be paying in rent.

“So we see ourselves as a general contractor, retailer and lender,” Smith said of the Habitat organization. “We see ourselves as a social service agency, but we're clear that what we're doing is creating an opportunity. We can't solve the whole list of problems a family may be having, but let's at least check off the housing box. That gives them one less thing to worry about. And it's so empowering for the homeowners to get through this and be able to say, 'Look what I did.'”

For more information on Habitat for Humanity of New Castle County, visit

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