East Cooper Habitat for Humanity celebrates 30th Anniversary

A local nonprofit founded to provide strength, stability and self-reliance to East Cooper residents through shelter is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

East Cooper Habitat for Humanity (ECHFH) was officially incorporated on Jan. 31, 1990. Since its inception, the nonprofit has built 75 homes and completed 35 major home repairs.

The nonprofit was formed by a group of five individuals that attended Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church (MPPC). The founders had been assisting building homes with Sea Island Habitat for Humanity on John’s Island. They wanted to set something up to help residents living on the east side of the Cooper River and began looking into how they could create a Habitat affiliate.

The founders started conversations in 1989 and continued planning through Hurricane Hugo. Shortly after the storm, in January 1990, they incorporated ECHFH as a Habitat for Humanity affiliate and were 501c-3 certified.

ECHFH assists families by building safe, well-constructed homes. Working in partnership with low-income families, ECHFH utilizes volunteer labor and donated funds to provide a “hand up,” not a “hand out.” Upon completion, Habitat homes are purchased by the homeowner with monthly payments under an affordable mortgage over 30 years, and those payments are directed toward future homebuilding efforts as received.

According to the organization, the town of Mount Pleasant helped ECHFH get started. Some of the first few homes the organization built were built on land donated by the town.

ECHFH’s territory is made up of the East Cooper area and select areas of Berkeley County; including Mount Pleasant, McClellanville, Isle of Palms, Sullivan’s Island, Daniel Island, Wando, Huger, Cainhoy and the Clements Ferry corridor.

Of the 75 homes built over the past 30 years, 64 were in Mount Pleasant, six were in Awendaw, three were in McClellanville and two were in Huger. Currently, ECHFH has three houses under construction in Huger.

ECHFH typically has several houses under construction to give them flexibility with their building schedule and inspections. Generally, it takes the organization six months from start to completion of an individual home.

While most people may not know, ECHFH does not serve a homeless population or individuals in extreme poverty. The organization serves low-income individuals that are generally employed or receiving disability income.

Twice a year, ECHFH hosts an orientation seminar for individuals interested in learning about the process of their program, how individuals are selected, how much money it will eventually cost to purchase a home, etc.

Then, ECHFH gives out applications, which are due back in a few weeks. A volunteer committee reviews the applications and evaluates the most deserving candidates.

There are three main criteria to determine if applicants qualify. The first is the candidate’s ability to pay the mortgage on the home they’d be receiving. The committee confirms the applicants are financially responsible and capable of making payments. The second is their willingness to partner. Part of the Habitat program requires individuals getting a home to contribute 350 hours of sweat equity into building their own home. The third criteria is their need. The volunteer committee uses a system to assign values for the needs, such as the number of children, number of bedrooms needed and other important factors.

Of the 75 home mortgages, only 45 mortgages that are currently outstanding, according to ECHFH Executive Director Bob Hervey. He shared that this shows that over time, people they help have been able to pay off their mortgages and now the homes are fully theirs, free of debt.

“For all of those 30 years, and for those years I’ve been here; the thing that is most important to me is seeing the homeowners who get these homes, watching their family grow and watching them gain their financial independence as they pay off these mortgages,” Hervey said.

Hervey assumed his position in 2008 after retiring and moving to South Carolina. He quickly realized he wanted to make his spare time meaningful. He started volunteering with ECHFH and eventually was on the worksite for almost four days each week.

Hervey joined the Board of Directors for a few years and applied for the executive director position when David Barnard retired.

“I would say that we’re very proud of our financial history in that we have not incurred debt in order to grow. We’ve been enabled to grow and expand and pay for everything as we built it. And so we feel we’re on a solid financial footing and we have cash to take to take advantage of opportunities to buy additional land,” Hervey said. “Right now land is our big issue; trying to find affordable land.”

Hervey anticipates the next homes the organization will build will be back in Mount Pleasant because, when possible, ECHFH tries to build homes where there is access to public water and sewer.

“We think it’s much better for our homeowners. They don’t have to worry about maintenance on septic systems 10 years down the road and that sort of thing,” he said.

The ECHFH team is comprised of five individuals. Hervey, Assistant Executive Director Christine Pinson and Development Director Gabrielle Yarborough work within the office. Construction Manager Kevin Brokes and Assistant Construction Manager and Volunteer Coordinator Maria Davis are on the worksite.

Brokes as the construction manager supervises and gives instruction on the site. Hervey explained that Brokes knows all the building codes and arranges for building inspections.

Davis takes all group volunteer requests and assigns different site and building days for churches, businesses, students and all groups to work on a site. Some days there are 45 volunteers on a worksite, but typically they maintain a max of 20 so they’re able to supervise all building.

Yarborough just recently joined the team a few weeks ago. Prior to her joining, the team consisted of four people for the past 10 years.

Over the years, ECHFH has relied on the continuous support from members in the community, including homebuilders, business professionals, board members, church parishioners, school groups, bankers and others to operate. Most of ECHFH’s 75 homes have been built within the last 15 years, Hervey said that’s in part due to the overwhelming support from volunteers in the community.

ECHFH’s core group of volunteers that come out to help build homes one day a week, every week, every month for many years are what the organization calls their “regulars.”

Hervey said aside from regulars, volunteers typically come in groups from local businesses. He said that Blackbaud, Boeing and JEAR Logistics are all local companies that frequently sends various departments to help build.

ECHFH also has a vast number of volunteers on worksites from various churches in the area. What started with a single church has grown to multiple churches across all denominations throughout the East Cooper supporting the organization.

“We couldn’t do what we do, and we couldn’t do it as inexpensively as we do without the volunteer labor. We generally are buying all the materials, we’re buying the land and we’re paying for permits and impact fees and things like that. It’s really the volunteer labor that really allows us to produce a house at a lot lower cost than other builders can,” Hervey said.

Several of the churches that assist the organization have also donated ‘whole houses’ to ECHFH. MPPC, which is considered the nonprofit’s founding church has donated five ‘whole-house donations’ over the past 30 years. Typically, the organization will name a home after a church that donates an entire home.

Hervey said if a church doesn’t donate an entire house, they’ll accumulate donations from several churches and the religious community to create what they call an “Apostles Build” home.

He said although the homes are built through volunteer labor, they have to maintain the quality of any other builder because they have to pass building inspections and meet professional standards.

“What makes our homes very affordable is not only do we have volunteer labor, which allows us to produce a house for a lot less money; but we also don’t charge interest on our mortgages or we charge a very low interest depending on which exact program we use,” Hervey said.

He said there are some government programs that charge their home owners a low interest rate.

The nonprofit organizes donations into a money market account to track what dollar is supposed to be spent where. Hervey explained some people ask that their donation be put toward kitchen cabinets or the foundation of a home and ECHFH makes sure the money is used to fund those items.

“Whatever the donor asks for, that’s what we try and deliver on,” Hervey said.

ECHFH’s home repair program assists neighbors in the community that need siding, roofing, painting and other needs. Hervey explained they work with other nonprofits and groups in the East Cooper area, including East Cooper Faith Network (ECFN), East Cooper Community Outreach (ECCO) and East Cooper Meals on Wheels (ECMOW).

The organizations work together to address needs for each other’s clients when they can, whether it be sending volunteers to an ECFN home repair project or improving the home conditions for a ECMOW recipient or ECCO patient. Hervey said that they’ve collaborated with Housing For All Mount Pleasant and Operation Home for home repairs.

ECHFH’s single largest source of funding comes from the East Cooper Home Store on Long Point Road, which gives a portion of their profit from selling donated items back to the organization.

ECHFH’s Board of Directors is made up of 14 East Cooper residents who meet on a monthly basis. Some specialize in banking or building, others have architecture and law experience or other professional skills.

Hervey explained that the staff and board can talk about buying land and arranging for materials to build a home, but that it’s the homeowners and seeing the change in their lives that they continue to focus on.

“In the end, it’s really how many homeowners can we help and, and not only our homeowners but also our repair program where we try and help others in the community, “Hervey said.

Local bank branch manager Betty Jo Sneed is serving her sixth annual term on the ECHFH’s Board of Directors. She explained that the current board is focused on raising money to buy land in the East Cooper area so they can build new homes. She said as land gets more expensive, they’re trying to figure out how to find affordable land and keep housing down so they can continue their mission.

Sneed shared that when she joined the board, she didn’t really know how she was going to help ECHFH grow. She said that changed when she watched a home get dedicated to a family for the first time and she realized how much it meant to them.

“To be a part of dedicating homes to families makes everything that you do on the board worthwhile,” Sneed said

She suggests everyone get involved or volunteer with the organization at some point so they can see that experience for themselves at least once.

Sneed said she’s proud of the hard work by the Board of Directors to ensure that they haven’t incurred any debt so they continue with operating cash to buy new land. She said obtaining affordable land is their board’s biggest obstacle.

Isle of Palms Mayor Jimmy Carroll is a former member of ECHFH’s Board of Directors. He is also very proud of the hard work of all individuals involved with the organization to expand the organization’s exposure as it reaches its 30th anniversary.

“They’ve gone from right next to nothing, into a full grown organization. The new board of directors and all of their partners have done incredible in making it grow,” Carroll said.

Carroll got involved in the very early days of the nonprofit while he was serving as the president of East Cooper Top Producers Real Estate Club. He said they took on building one home per year as a real estate project. He remembers this as a unique opportunity for real estate agents in the area to help people build and buy homes that were affordable.

Carroll remembers the time they spent with family members that were working toward and building their own homes. He said they’d sit and laugh together over lunch on the worksite and really get to know one another. This encouraged him to join the Board of Directors in the 1990s.

Carroll said in the early days of the nonprofit, the board really had to think outside of the box for how they’d afford to build homes. He said he and others would go around to vendors and ask for contributions; everything from termite companies, lumber suppliers and volunteers to come out to worksites.

Carroll recalls the many giving hearts that came together and made ECHFH take off. Now, he’s hopeful that people with land for sale in the East Cooper will consider taking a lower amount or consider accepting a tax write-off for some of their lots so ECHFH can continue building affordable homes in the area.

“It’s not always about money. And there are so many people and so much property out here. Sell it (property) to them for a nominal price and take the rest of it off as a tax write-off,” Carroll suggests.

Carroll said that he believes giving a family private homeownership increases their awareness of community and helps kids do better in school.

“The words I always use when I talk about this (organization) is ‘a hand up, not a hand out’. That’s what I love about it. When you give somebody something, they don’t appreciate it. But when they earn it, they appreciate it,” Carroll said.

Carroll still gives significant monetary contributions to the organization that he was too humble to disclose. ECHFH has dedicated a home in loving memory of Carroll’s mother. He encourages anyone who can to consider giving back to ECHFH, even if it means an afternoon on a worksite.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit held a kickoff event to celebrate its 30th anniversary on Gold Bug Island. The party brought homeowners, board members, staff, dedicated volunteers and staff together to reflect on the milestone celebration.

At the event, one of the founding supporters, Bruce McAdams, shared that in 1990 he could never have envisioned where the organization would be in 30 years. He said that it’s been so satisfying to see the organization make an impact on the community.

The nonprofit has planned additional events to help celebrate past achievements and plan for the future. At this time, due to the coronavirus, ECHFH is discussing cancelling the 11th annual Golf Tees to House Keys Benefit Golf Outing, which was scheduled for May 18 at Charleston National Golf Club.

The second event, which is still scheduled as of now is ECHFH’s major 30th anniversary Gala set for Saturday, Oct. 3 at the Blackbaud Customer Operations Center on Daniel Island.

“We do a lot of fundraising, but we also do a lot of friend-raising. These kinds of events may not give us enough money to build the next house, but indirectly they do because these people are all partial to Habitat and supportive of Habitat. Not only in their personal donations but in their businesses too. So we like friend-raising,” Hervey said.

Hervey said this year they are purposefully having their gala in a larger facility to allow for more auction items, several bars and more room for the band and dancing.

Sneed said that the board is working hard to make this year’s gala event special to get as many people in the community as they can to realize what the organization does to build affordable homes for deserving families.

Hervey said that he’s looking forward to how the organization will continue to grow into the future. He said they hope to increase the number of homes they build annually, and that they will create a strategic plan for the nonprofit at their next board retreat to determine their goals for annual production. Currently, the organization is under contract for a piece of property that Hervey said they’d be able to build nine or 10 homes on.

Yarborough said that she’s hopeful they will be able to resume more Builder’s Blitz as the nonprofit grows, where builders contribute an entire home and they build them within 24-hours or a week span, depending on how many volunteers they can get out to a worksite.

For more information on updates regarding ECHFH 30th anniversary events or how you can get involved, visit eastcooperhabitat.org.

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