North Charleston resident and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Robert Martin will soon have a place to call home.
After paying increased rent for a cramped, two-bedroom apartment in a subdivision that Martin said "should have been torn down a long time ago," he will move into a new house that he helped build.
“I’m still waiting to wake up from the dream," said Martin, 36.
Martin's house was made possible through a program known as the Veterans Build, spearheaded by Charleston Habitat for Humanity with a sponsorship from Publix Supermarket Charities.
The Charleston Habitat affiliate started it last year to provide affordable housing to veterans who meet the family earning income level criteria between 35 and 80 percent of the area's median income.
Habitat, which builds homes for residents who need an affordable and decent place to live, felt it was necessary to increase the margin, slightly larger than Habitat's standard criteria of 35 to 60 percent, after receiving numerous calls from veterans in need of affordable housing, said Charleston Habitat Executive Director Lynn Bowley.
“We certainly did not want a veteran who was on 100 percent disability for his service to not qualify because he was making too much money," she said.
The mortgages for the homes are financed without interest with monthly payments averaging around $500 a month. Applicants are selected based on their ability to pay, willingness to partner and housing need. The veterans must be able to afford a $1,500 down payment.
When the program initially launched, Habitat had trouble finding a military service member to occupy the house.
“Even though we publicized it, we just didn’t get a lot of applications," said Dave Neher, a U.S. veteran who serves as construction manager for Veterans Build.
Eventually, Martin learned of the program and was accepted. He will live in a three-bedroom home located on a lot shaded by trees in North Charleston's Dorchester-Waylyn neighborhood, with enough room for his 12-year-old son, too. A U.S. flag blows in the wind on the front lawn. The home is about 95 percent complete.
Like all Habitat homeowners, Martin has put in "sweat equity" to help construct his house. But he's had assistance. Most of the volunteer hours came from armed service members at Joint Base Charleston, though some of the volunteers also have been devoted residents.
Mount Pleasant resident Herman Roden has worked on nearly 20 homes with the nonprofit since he started 10 years ago. After the veterans program struggled to find applicants, Roden is glad to finally see someone benefit.
He agreed that there should be more efforts across the region to provide affordable housing to those who've served in the Armed Forces.
“The more of these we can do, the better," Roden said.
Neher said Habitat soon will begin raising funds for the next Veterans Build home. Ultimately, the goal is for the nonprofit to have at least half of the homes it builds occupied by veterans.
Currently, hardly any veterans live in Habitat homes. Neher said its likely because many veterans simply don't know about the program. That's not unique to veterans, Neher said, and Habitat is always working to spread the word about its affordable housing initiative.
“It’s not just the veteran aspect," he said. "The general people, everyone ... A lot of them don’t realize these programs are here.”
In the meantime, the nonprofit is pushing forward with its repair program where volunteers fix air conditioning systems and roofs, repaint walls and perform other maintenance needs for veteran homeowners.
“We need to make the extra effort to find the people who could use a program like this to boost themselves up," Bowley said. "We’re really exploring all different options. I do feel that because of the service they've given to us, we need to find what their needs are and meet their needs. We wouldn’t be the county we are if they had not done what they did.”
While one veteran will have soon have a new home, there are still hundreds of others in the state who remain homeless. In South Carolina, 415 veterans were without a place to live in 2018, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
That number had fallen from 480 in 2017. In the Charleston area, there have been several efforts that have led to a small decline in veteran homelessness, said Karen Medbury, assistant manger for the homeless program at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.
The VA itself has increased the number of housing vouchers it issues and opened a new Community Resource and Referral Center in North Charleston.
The hospital works with several landlords in the area who remain committed to providing affordable housing for veterans in a quickly gentrifying region where rents are skyrocketing.
“Without affordable housing, we would have a much more significant homeless program here," Medbury said.