Lifelong renter Brenda Montgomery had become increasingly dissatisfied with apartment living.
“I had a two-bedroom apartment,” she said. “The music was always loud. You could step out your door and smell marijuana. It really wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
Then, Montgomery received the phone call that her application with Habitat Tuscaloosa was approved. “I screamed when they told me I had been approved,” she said.
Partner families with Habitat for Humanity must fulfill "sweat equity" hours of volunteer work, both on construction sites for their new home and other partner families' homes, working at ReStores, and participating in required workshops and educational classes. One-adult households, like Montgomery's, must complete 250 hours of sweat equity.
Montgomery pitched in, learning how to help with painting, blue exterior wrap, wood, and window installation. It was going great, until the pandemic happened. “We were supposed to come back on a Monday. Then they shut everything down,” she said.
Ellen Potts, executive director of Habitat Tuscaloosa, said, “Ms. Montgomery’s house was started in late January 2020 and was about a third of the way done when we shut down on March 17, 2020. We opened back up to volunteers in late May, but only to those volunteers who come every week, not to general volunteer groups. Also, volunteers and staff stayed masked and distant, even outside. We suspended homeowner sweat equity requirements during that time. We finally completed Ms. Montgomery’s house in August 2020, since work was slowed greatly with the decreased number of volunteers.”
Despite the COVID protocols and delays, Montgomery stayed as involved as possible in her home build and remained upbeat about progress. “I would stop by with my mask on just to check on everybody,” she said. “We can’t rush God. I really do believe that when it was time, it was time. It wasn’t my season then.”
Working with Habitat for Humanity, AHFA purchases mortgage loans, like Montgomery's, from the local affiliates. This process allows the affiliates to receive the loan amount up front in a lump sum while AHFA receives the monthly payments for the life of the loan. The affiliate then uses the up-front funds to build more housing for low-income families.
Nearly a year since receiving the keys to her home, Montgomery is still excited to finally be a homeowner. “It’s like people look at you differently when you tell them that you own a house,” she said. “I appreciate everything. I enjoy getting out and walking around my house. It’s not just one thing. I love everything. I just love it. I really do. I am in love.”
Montgomery’s house is located in Habitat Tuscaloosa’s West End development, a neighborhood Montgomery preferred for its proximity to her elderly mother she cares for. Potts said, “Our new initiative is called ‘Operation Transformation.’ On July 1, we purchased 40 lots in Tuscaloosa’s economically depressed West End neighborhood. Twenty-six of the lots are contiguous and the others are ‘in-fill’ lots within an older neighborhood.”
All of the lots are located within a half mile of the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy (TCTA), which is the high school construction trade school for both the Tuscaloosa City and County School Systems. Habitat Tuscaloosa plans to use these houses over the next 3-5 years to train TCTA students studying electrical, plumbing, and carpentry trades. In addition, Habitat Tuscaloosa plans to partner with the Dannon Project, a non-profit organization based in Birmingham that works with young, non-violent offenders coming out of the criminal justice system.
“For their participants who have both interest and aptitude for construction, they will work on these 40 Habitat Tuscaloosa build sites to learn all the things we normally do with volunteers — framing, roofing, window installation, flooring, cabinet installation, sheetrock, etc.," said Potts. “Our goal is to positively impact as many people as possible — homeowners, high school students, and at-risk young people — while still staying “in our lane” of building and repairing homes.”