Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity (CFHH) is celebrating 30 years and Executive Director Steve Spain is planning a celebration for the fall. But first, CFHH holds its annual signature breakfast fundraiser-the Golden Hammer Breakfast-this Tuesday morning, May 2, 7:30am-9:00am at the Wilmington Convention Center. The breakfast is free, but Steve Spain hopes to inspire everyone to donate to the cause. Listen above to hear Spain talk about the breakfast and his reason for believing so strongly in this work. Below is an extended interview transcript.
Gina Gambony: We have the 16th [Annual] Golden Hammer Breakfast coming up on Tuesday May 2nd, 7:30 am at the Wilmington Convention Center. And also it's the 30th anniversary of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity. This breakfast-let me just make sure I understand: you don't have to pay to go.
Steve Spain: No.The breakfast is free. We have table hosts who invite people who they think would like to learn more about Habitat for Humanity and what we're doing in this community.
I'm not saying we aren't going to hope that you give us money because it is our biggest fundraiser of the year and people are usually very generous once they've heard what we're doing out in the community. But there is no cost to attend, and there's a nice breakfast, really can't beat it. You'll have a good meal, be inspired and help to strengthen your community. All before work starts.
GG: And so what is it that people will be inspired by? They get to come to breakfast for free and they don't have to give anything...what do you think is in your message or in the work that's going on with Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity that makes people want to give?
SS: Well, I think a lot has to do with the fact that we're like many agencies, we’re about the proverbial hand up, not a hand out. And for a lot of people they don't realize that Cape Fear Habitat homes are not given to people or you know an active charity. They're actually sold to our home owners who take on a mortgage and they have a much lower payment than most people do for an equivalent house because we make sure that they're affordable and less than 30 percent of our homeowners income. But they do pay a mortgage and they pay taxes and insurance just like everybody else. New folks who haven't been involved with us--they really don't understand that part of the program. They think that we're building houses for people who can't afford them. What we're really doing is helping people build houses for themselves who can afford a house, but they would not qualify for a bank loan and they would be stuck renting, because of their income level, for the rest of their lives.
Instead they get to enjoy the dream of homeownership that so many of us share and they get to build that equity and that wealth so that when they do pay off their mortgage, they have something of real value to hand down to their children. They have a source to draw on for emergencies. Just like most middle class Americans, your wealth is in your house. And we're just making that dream possible for people who it wouldn't be before.
So, if you want to know one of the most inspiring things about the breakfast- we always have one or more of the people who’ve completed their mortgage and had a mortgage burning party that year. And I think we have two this year. One will be speaking who completed their mortgage, they own their home outright and they are just happy homeowners with a real asset now.
GG: Are there any milestones over the past 30 years that are interesting to you that might be interesting to us?
SS: Well, there's a lot of them actually, one of my favorites will be coming up this year: in our 30th year, we will build our 200th house. So that's a big deal for us. Another milestone was building our first community, the Cottages at Cornerstone in the Maid's Park area where there are 40 Habitat houses all in a community with an HOA.
But you know what, really the milestones happen almost once a month when we dedicate a house. I mean, that's the greatest part of my job. It's usually either a Friday or a Sunday afternoon we go to a house and we're turning the keys over to the new owner. It's a brand new house and they've been working so hard, sometimes for up to two years, to get to that place that. Every one of those milestones is a huge thing in their life. And really I think it's probably the biggest thing we do.
GG: Steve, how did you get involved in Habitat for Humanity?
SS: Well for a longtime here in Wilmington I'd been working in homelessness and actually most of my previous professional career had been working in homelessness either overseas with refugees or in this country in homeless shelters.Which is very satisfying work and very important work. But after 20 years of that, I was really interested in something that seemed to provide a more permanent solution to people's housing issues. Part of working with folks who are homeless is you get them back on their feet. You help them get back on their feet-they really do the work-and get stable and settled. And then it is an emergency business, you got to say “great, good luck.” Shake hands and go help someone who really needs the help. And in Habitat, we're really working with people who are already doing well, they just want to take another step forward for themselves and their families. And it really changes lives for generations. What Habitat does-Habitat homeowners are often the first person in their extended family who's ever owned a home. And just the way that the first college graduate inspires nieces and nephews and cousins to say, “well if so-and-so could go to college so could I,” the same thing happens through Habitat homeownership. They say “Well, Aunt Irene got a house she can be a homeowner, why can't I. I don't have to pay rent my whole life.” And so it just has such a dramatic and permanent effect. And I was really drawn by the fact that part of our mission is to build wealth for the people we work with, that by owning their home and making their payments and increasing their equity, they're actually building wealth for their family. And there are not a lot of social service programs that take such a long view as that, to build wealth for a family for multiple generations of a family.
GG: Game-changing instead of just band-aiding.
SS: Exactly. And really and providing a model for others who are inspired by what someone they knew did in getting a Habitat house, and they'll go out and they'll get it through a bank or they may come to Habitat as well. But just knowing that what we've done reaches so much further and also helps to stabilize the communities where homeowners live because, you know, homeowners have a much bigger investment and a stake in the community where they live than renters. If the streetlights don't get fixed or there's guys running up and down the street with motorcycles with no mufflers and you're a renter--well when the lease comes up you say, “time to go.” But when you're a homeowner you say, "we've got to do something about this." And you talk to your neighbors you talk to the police you talk to the mayor if that's what it takes to get something done because you're invested in that neighborhood. So that's that's another overlooked part of what Habitat does.It's not just about the individual families who we help become homeowners, it's the communities that we put homeowners into that become strengthened by their presence.
GG: Is it economically possible in our country for everyone to be a homeowner?
SS: I don't know if it's possible but I'm pretty sure it's not desirable. We can be a very transient society right now, and especially for jobs for some people it's important to maintain that flexibility of renting. So yeah, I wouldn't endorse “everybody should own a home” because that would lock us all down in the communities that we're in, instead of people having the opportunity to move for a better job, to move for better prospects in education or whatever reason you might want to move. And that's one of the things we talk to our prospective homeowners about is that it is a commitment. Are you committed to being in New Hanover or Pender County for the long term because you're taking on a long term commitment and it's not that you can't sell, you can, it's just a lot harder to sell a house than it is to tell your landlord “oh, I’ve got to leave in June.” So it's not for everybody but you know, everyone who wants to own a home and works hard to own a home ought to have a chance. We’re aiming at those people who want it, understand what it means, are willing to work for it-but for one reason or another would not get a bank loan to buy a house. And we just want to connect them up and make sure that they can have the house they want.
You know, this is our 30th anniversary and we're very excited about that. The breakfast, it’s just the first of several events that we're planning to commemorate that winding up with a really big party in the fall. So we're really looking forward to it. Traditionally, the 30th anniversary is pearl. So we're thinking about all the ways in which you know, Habitat can be a pearl in this community and we will beat that metaphor to death before the year is over--and the pearl metaphor--well I can't say, Lynn will get mad at me-- but we have some beautiful centerpieces.
GG: Is that a surprise?
SS: Yes...but the centerpieces are around that aspect of our 30th anniversary.
One of the things that really excites me as we get to be 30 is our greater engagement with other organizations. I think that's almost like people: in their 20s, are very much about themselves or their little clique, and then you get to your 30s you start thinking about your community or your church and other social organizations maybe even just a bowling league but you interact with people more.
So I'm very proud that you know habitat starting to do that. We have partnerships with so many different non-profits in town and I'm trying to encourage us to do that more and more. And that's a big movement among nonprofits is to be less siloed and to try and interact with each other.
I would be very remiss and get in big trouble if I didn't mention our ReStores. Another big announcement for our 30th anniversary is we will be opening our third ReStore in downtown Burgaw. And that will open June 1st in time for the Blueberry festival. And we're very excited, not just about opening another store, but about what it means for our involvement in Pender County. We are working hard to do more building there and especially in the Burgaw and Rocky Point area where there's a huge need for affordable housing and a shortage of it. So we're very excited that our ReStore is kind of leading the way into that community and we look forward to turning around the receipts we get at that store into housing in Pender County.