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Sharon Ellis, President and CEO, Habitat for Humanity of Orange County

This mother and former educator talks about why she now builds homes here and overseas to help solve chronic poverty.

Sharon Ellis likes to travel. But don’t look for her in the plush resorts or spas of the world. At least not always. Because often, instead of sampling sun-dried tomato dishes in the Med, she’s building homes from sun-dried bricks in the mud. That’s because Ellis is more than just a figurehead for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County. She – literally – gets down in the trenches here, and more notably around the world, to practice what she preaches, which is that everyone deserves a safe place to live.

And though Habitat for Humanity and Ellis’ work in third-world countries may be more headline-worthy, the work Ellis does right here at home is every bit as important. In fact, Habitat for Humanity of Orange County builds at least 20 homes a year for low and very low income families who are living in dangerous or unhealthy conditions. And it helps many more gain both dignity and a decent place to live.

As a former high school teacher and principal, Ellis says her work with Habitat for Humanity is as much about helping children with their education as it is about helping families get a decent place to live. That’s because, she says, if kids don’t have a safe, secure and stable home life, it’s much harder for them to succeed in the classroom. It’s something she saw during her years in education and something she’s trying to help in her current role with Habitat for Humanity of OC.

So we got in a long-distance chat with Ellis – she was in Singapore – to ask about her work here and abroad.

Where did you grow up and did your parents instill a love for education and/or philanthropy?
I grew up on a small island off the coast of southern New Jersey, a summer resort. My parents were very involved in the community. My father was president of the school board and had a high regard for academic excellence. And both of my parents valued education and community involvement.

How did you get involved in Habitat for Humanity?
It was truly a leap of faith as I began to understand the significant importance of a stable home setting as it relates to academic success. I saw that when children have five or more unscheduled, unstructured moves between kindergarten and 12th grade, the chances of graduating from high school are greatly diminished. I began to wonder, What impact does that have on us as a community? As a society?

Do you ever help build the homes?
Yes. I love to do builds around the world with Habitat. I have taken teams to Nepal where we built homes with bamboo, Cambodia where we built homes with sun-dried bricks, Mongolia where we built homes with blocks made of a Styrofoam/concrete compound and four trips to Nicaragua where we built out of sun-dried brick or cinder block. Each time, I am inspired by the volunteers who join us, the families we serve and the incredible feeling that comes with knowing more about cultures around the world. The story is the same: families want a safe, decent place to live and they are willing to work very hard to help make that happen.

I would assume that houses can impact people in different ways in different countries. Do you have an example?
In Nicaragua, there is a parasite that lives in the dirt. Mothers do not allow their children to crawl for fear of contracting this parasite and dying. However, the need to crawl is a critical step in the developmental process. The eye-hand coordination of crawling is directly linked to learning how to read. Those children who do not crawl are forever limited in their ability to learn. The solution: a concrete floor that cost about $1,000. How simple is that. Yet, what a transformational moment for a family and for that child.

If humankind was serious about ending poverty, what would we concentrate on?
If we truly want to eliminate poverty throughout the world, we need to address clean water, land rights, education, income opportunities and health care, and housing.
You require families to put in “sweat equity.”

What does that involve?
Sweat equity is actual involvement in the construction of the homes being built. Families are expected to contribute 250 hours per adult. Consideration is given for limitations an individual might have, and accommodations are made to meet the hour requirement in different ways. But the spirit of the requirement is to have families working directly on the homes under the supervision of a licensed staff member and working with thousands of volunteers.

For poor working families, that sounds like it can be tough. Yes, but it’s important. A special story is a recent one of a mother and father who were undertaking the 500 hours of sweat equity. This was in addition to their jobs, which certainly consumed a minimum of 40-plus hours per week each. The three children understood that their parents’ additional undertaking would have an impact on them as a family. The end result would be an extremely positive one, but the work to get there would take a toll. So, one by one, they volunteered to take on tasks. One agreed to do the laundry, one agreed to help with cooking dinner, and one agreed to clean their house. Based on this “team” effort, Mom and Dad finished their sweat equity in record time. My sense is that this entire family did “sweat equity” and I believe they all learned the importance of having a goal and working toward it as a team/family.

Most people think of Orange County – the OC – as a wealthy place. Why is there a need for Habitat for Humanity?
There are over 130,000 people living in substandard, unsafe housing right now in Orange County. You are right; this is seen as a very wealthy place, and the poverty is often hidden – inside a garage, in a cramped apartment or in a hotel. Although Habitat of OC cannot meet this challenging situation on our own, the opportunity for some hard-working families who need “a hand-up, not a hand-out” can be transformational.

What do you say to those who believe that if people can’t afford a home in the free market, they shouldn’t be given a chance to get a “charity” deal?
Everyone deserves a decent place to live. In order to have a community where everyone can live, there is a need for housing at every economic level. Many of the families who become Habitat homeowners have tried for years to save enough money, establish/maintain good credit and be able to find a home for which they will qualify. However, the cost of housing in Orange County is one of the highest in the country, and for some – without a “hand-up” – this will never happen. Yet we know that families who own their own homes take pride in their homes, remain in the community and get involved. So rather than “charity,” I see the investment in Habitat as an investment in the community in which we all live.

What do families have to do to get a home from Habitat for Humanity?
The process begins by attending a family orientation to get a better understanding of the process of becoming a program family and, ultimately, a homeowner. Each family candidate must qualify at a very low or low income level as defined by HUD and, one, be willing to partner through sweat equity, classes, etc.; two, have the ability to pay, which means having a job as they are assuming a mortgage and are responsible for a down payment and closing costs; and three, have need. That means they are currently living in an unsafe and/or overcrowded environment, and/or paying more than 50 percent of their gross income on housing. Finally, those who qualify will ultimately have to have approval from the Habitat for Humanity of Orange County board of directors.

Many people believe these homes reduce the property values of a neighborhood. Is that true?
Quite the contrary! In many cases, the homes built by Habitat increase surrounding property value. And due to the positive impact of these homes, others in that neighborhood are often inspired to improve their homes as well.

Who builds the homes?
Under supervision of a licensed contractor who is employed by Habitat of OC, families and thousands of volunteers construct the homes. Subcontractors are used for specific tasks. All homes are built to the same standards and requirements as any other builder.

You retain a right of first refusal. Why and how does that work?
When a family decides they are ready to move to a market-rate home or are moving to another area, Habitat of OC will repurchase the home, refurbish it and sell it to another qualifying family. This process allows for an ever-increasing inventory of affordable homes for families in the very low and low income ranges.

Where do you find the land for the homes you build?
This is becoming more of a challenge. Before the demise of the redevelopment agencies, most developments were done in partnership with the redevelopment agency as they used the 20 percent set-aside funds specifically designated for affordable housing.

Did the economic crisis affect your supply or demand in any way?
This is an interesting question. The need continued to grow, but our ability to meet that demand diminished as it coincided with the demise of the redevelopment agencies.

People can help in more ways than volunteering or donating. Tell us about the ReStore and the DeConstruct service.
The ReStore is a win-win-win opportunity. You are ready for some upgrade in your current home but what you are getting rid of might have many years of good use ahead of it. Rather than taking it to the dump, you can call Habitat ReStore and donate the product, such as full kitchen, bathroom or building materials that are no longer of use to you. We will pick it up.
You have just made a donation to Habitat and that product will be brought to the ReStore, be purchased by someone looking to improve their own home, and the product stays out of the dump. All proceeds are used to build more houses. Recycle. Reuse. ReStore. 

:: habitatoc.com

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