By Toni Stauffer
Connie Ramsay-Austin took over as the Executive Director for the Phenix City Habitat for Humanity office in May of 2017, moving from the Columbus office where she’d worked for five and a half years as an event and volunteer coordinator. Her only staff is a part-time contractor and a part-time bookkeeper. This year, Ramsay-Austin has had the distinction of winning the first ever Building Investment Award presented by The East Alabama Chamber of Commerce.
She said that a lot of people seem to be under the impression that Habitat for Humanity closed shop altogether when they closed their retail store, a shop that sold donated items for profit to be used for building houses in Phenix City. Ramsay-Austin wants the Phenix City community to know that Habitat for Humanity is still here and still in need of community support. That support can come in the form of monetary donations, professional services, item donations (furniture, appliances, etc.), construction materials, home and land donations, or volunteer hours. You don’t necessarily have to be able to use a power tool, or even a hammer, to volunteer. There are many ways to serve the cause.
Ramsay-Austin’s background as a mortgage loan officer has come in handy in her new job. She said there is a misconception that Habitat gives away houses, which is not the case. The new owners who buy the home through a special Habitat program for the cost of the build, plus 500 hours of sweat equity, must pay a monthly mortgage payment just like any home buyer. Mortgages usually run from $400 to $500 with escrow on a 20-year interest-free mortgage, depending on square footage.
Habitat houses are built by Habitat staff and volunteers with grants and private funding from individuals and businesses in the community, the typical Habitat house costs about $75,000 to build. Aflac is one of the biggest corporate supporters in the area. Habitat does hire contractors for sheet rock, plumbing, electrical, and heating and air because of city and state inspections and regulations. A Habitat home can be built in just 16 days with 20-25 volunteers per day, but it’s the getting funding that takes so much time.
Ramsay-Austin said that anyone who fits income and residency requirements can apply for a home. The minimum income for one person is $18,700 and the maximum income for up to a house size of five is $31,000. New owners help to choose the look of their new home inside and out with colors and finishes.
Phenix City Habitat for Humanity has an all-new working Board of Directors. In addition to helping with event planning and fundraising, the Board is also working with Ramsay-Austin to modernize options for homeowners.
The Board members are: President Scott Drew, owner of Fall Line Environmental; Vice President Chris Lammons, Association Executive of the Phenix City Board of Realtors; Treasurer Dennis Beson, CEO/President of the East Alabama Chamber of Commerce; Secretary Victor Feliciano, owner Vicinity Tours; Media Director, Mark Clark, Sports Correspondent for The Citizen of East Alabama, and member Randy Knowles from Synovus, Commercial Lending, and member Sam Malloy, Marketing Representative of Servpro of Phenix City.
The Phenix City Habitat office will be relocating to 1500 14th Court in a couple of weeks when they get their occupancy certificate. The new office is a blessing to Ramsay-Austin. The new location was built by Habitat and is also a model home with minor modifications to make it an office.
Fundraising is an ongoing battle. Ramsay-Austin is planning on having a warehouse sale before the end of the year to raise funds for the program. Habitat is always in need of volunteers, 16 and older—no experience necessary. She also hopes to open another Habitat “Restore” retail store in the future. For more information, e-mail Connie Ramsay-Austin at email@example.com, call 334-291-5220, or visit the Phenix City Habitat for Humanity Facebook page.
Habitat process was ‘life-changing’
Kiara James, 29, is a hard-working single mom to a two-year-old daughter. She is also the proud owner of a Habitat for Humanity home.
“It is a true blessing. The land that I have is wonderful, and my daughter can go outside and play,” said James. “I am at peace. That was the most important thing. I can actually raise her and have security. I would tell anybody who wants a good start to go through Habitat, if possible.”
In 2011, James saw a commercial for Habitat for Humanity and applied for the program. However, as an underemployed college student at that time, she didn’t meet Habitat’s income requirements.
Five years later, she’d given birth to a baby girl, and they were living in a small apartment with relatives. Desperate for a home of her own, James remembered Habitat for Humanity, decided to apply again, and this time she received approval.
The approval process, which can vary, only took about a month. From the approval in May, it took less than four months for Habitat to find a location for her new home. Each future home owner is required to put in 500 hours of sweat equity. With the help of family who contributed to that equity, James was able to move into her new home in May 2017. James loves the area where she lives, which is quiet with mostly older neighbors.
Her house is 1,200 square feet and has three bedrooms and one bath. The total cost was approximately $90,000 and the monthly mortgage with insurance and taxes is $422, interest free, to be paid over 30 years. There is a late fee applied if payment is received after the tenth of the month.
James said the experience of helping to build her own home was life-changing.
“I am definitely not an outside person,” said James. “I got to learn a lot of new things where I now can do it myself. If something were to go wrong, I can just go to home depot and actually know what to get. The contractor with Habitat taught me a lot.” James added, “Helping to build my own home, made me appreciate it more. I worked to get that. I worked to build that house. It wasn’t easy work, but when I finished, I could call it my home.”