Kina and Brittani: Women Build Homeowners

Kina Henry knows that, inevitably, living next door to her cousin Brittani Frank will mean waking up to hear singing in the middle of the night.

“I anticipate hearing her sing karaoke at three in the morning through the walls,” said Kina. “I know I’m gonna hear that. It’s gonna be great. It is the God honest truth, yes. I have video to back it up. It’s in her blood. Her family loves karaoke. Her mom and sister, they love it. I woke up out of my sleep and I said, ‘This is what I have to deal with. It’s three in the morning, and Brittani is in the front singing in the mirror to herself.’ It’s great. I know I’m gonna hear it through the walls, though. I anticipate this. She does it so well that she makes you want to sing. She makes me sing with her. She has two mics. She has a karaoke machine that lights up and has a screen on it.”

Brittani started the habit as a way to relax after coming home from her job.

“For the last couple of family events, I’ve been getting on the mic,” Brittani said. “I was pretty good at it. So I started going to karaoke. Sometimes, I work pretty late, so when I get home, I wanna have a little fun. So I just love music. I get in my room. This is my second karaoke machine. I just love getting on the mic. I’m not a singer. I’m a performer. I just enjoy it. I sing from my heart with my eyes closed. It’s so much fun to me. And everybody knows I love to karaoke. I do it at my house with the music on in the mirror.”

The two cousins lived together for years before joining the Habitat program. This May, they will be working alongside hundreds of New Orleans women at Women Build 2018 to build their homes, right next door to each other in the Lower Ninth Ward.

“I tell everyone, everywhere I go,” said Brittani. “I am thankful. I feel like for people to want to help people, I know how much of a fulfillment it is, and how much of a sacrifice that some people don’t even know what you go through to give your time and your effort. I been in school, and we been talking about women’s rights, and how women didn’t have certain opportunities. Just to think of women being able to build a house. My uncle made a joke, he’s like, ‘Make sure it stands up, all women working on it.’ I’m like, ‘Oh you something else, you know.’ I’m so excited to prove it, to tell my kids, ‘Oh do you know women built our house?’ Just let them know. Especially my girls, let them know that women are able to do just as good a men. I’m excited about these women. I know they’re gonna be down from grandmothers, mothers, daughters. I’m ready to see a woman build this house because this is unbelievable for me, too. Just to know that all women are doing it, that’s incredible.”

“I know women are as capable as men because I feel like women are smarter than men sometimes,” said Kina. “We are very equipped to build a house, to do things men do. I’m looking forward to it. I think the house is gonna come out just the same if men were doing it. I like that they have women contractors. I love that. I may be that one day. I’m looking forward to seeing the twelve working days. I can’t wait to see walls and floors. I like when I work on it when it has walls. It’s a vision you have to imagine. It’s like a mirage in a desert, and illusion, but you know it’s gonna be true.”

“I’ve got my mother coming down from Lafayette,” said Brittani. “I have my best friend coming down. I have two girl best friends. My guy best friend, I think he can come June 2. Everybody’s coming down for the dedication. I have a couple of friends coming down. This is big for me. I think every conversation I have is talking about my house.”

When they joined the Habitat homeownership program, they did not expect to still be neighbors. But after looking at the lots, they found the perfect spot.

“I think Central City was my first choice,” Brittani said. “When I got the list, I drove around the city. Kina told me, first she got the list. She knew she was going to the Lower Ninth Ward. So when I drove around the Lower Ninth Ward, I said, ‘I think I like this.’ I liked the history of New Orleans and the area is just so close. I work in the French Quarter, and I live in Chalmette. That’s only a couple of minutes away. People don’t know that if they don’t live down there. Once I did see the lot, I told Kina, ‘They have a lot right next to me.’ And I had to wait for her. I never wanna force her on anything. I was thinking about how I’m gonna be living by myself, being a single woman. She came around and said it would work out perfect. ‘When I’m not home, you can watch my house, and vice versa. There’s just enough room apart that I don’t have to deal with you that much.’ She’s like a little sister. I think we’re gonna find ourselves loving each other more because we have enough room apart.”

Living next door to each other will be a change for both of them. Though they are currently living apart, for many years, they have been roommates, and as cousins, they have always been close.

“My sister [Cody] and Brittani are 11 days apart,” said Kina. “Naturally they were close growing up. I’m only three years younger than Brittani, so we all are close. We’re family. After the storm hit, Brittani and I went to school together. We became more close, so me and Brittani is closer than my sister and Brittani. Me and Brittani lived together for years, so how close can you get after that? We function well. We know when to leave each other alone; we know when to come together to talk.”

“The whole story is that Kina and I are not first cousins,” said Brittani. “We’re just cousins. Her mom and my mom are first cousins. But we have this thing where we in our family that if you’re an older adult, we call you Auntie. Even though her mom is my cousin, I call her Auntie Tracy. Just growing up, it’s so funny, because my mom and her mom were so close that me and Kina’s older sister–Kina’s older sister is named after me. We have the same middle name. So we just had that bond before we was born. We used to go to amusement parks together; we had birthday parties together.I taught her how to drive. Our birthdays are in the same month. I always stayed over there by their house. It’s just organic. We been together forever. I understand her. She understands me. We have our days, but we love each other. I’m excited to have her near me.

Brittani lived for a little while with her mother in Lafayette, but came to New Orleans after high school. Not long after, she and Kina got a place together.

“We lived together for a while,” Brittani said. “That means we got love stories and we got fight stories. I moved down here from my mama’s apartment house in Lafayette. I moved in with my older sister. I started working at Pat O’Brien’s, and I saved up money to move out. And from there, me and Kina lived together. It has been difficult, but I’ve been focused. The only time I had my own room was recently, the house in Chalmette. My house has always been temporary for the last couple of years. So this is gonna keep a foundation for me just to feel like like home.”

“We started out in a one bedroom apartment that we shared,” Kina explained. “We split the bills. Everything worked out. We had to sacrifice.”

In 2016, however, they faced a catastrophe.

“We had a fire,” Brittani said. “New Year’s Eve 2016. I work all night, but this one particular night, they let me get off early. I heard a boom. I thought it was someone breaking in, but it was an electrical fire. Our house had caught on fire, and it was in the walls. I was the one who called the fire department. For a couple of months, we lived with friends and family.”

“I had been off for two weeks,” Kina said. “New Year’s Eve, my job wanted me to come into work. Brittani had just got home from work. She heard a loud popping noise. After that she went into the front to see what was the noise, and she heard something boiling behind the kitchen wall. She tried to touch thew all, but the wall was hot. She looked up, because we had white walls, and she could see a ring of smoke and the wall turning black. There’s a fire brewing inside of our wall in between my apartment and the neighbor on the other side. Fire right in between our wall. She got the fire department. Earlier that day, I had called my landlord to come change my breaker. So whoever changed the breaker, I think they mixed the wires up. It caused my house to catch on fire. I left work. I tried to run inside my house because I had just bought my bed, and it was really expensive. I tried to run in my house to save the bed, like it was a child. The police stopped me. I had just got renter’s insurance two days before my house caught on fire because I needed to get my CDL renewed, and I had to put insurance on my car. They was doing a promotion for a dollar to get renter’s insurance. God is good. Everything in my house was covered by two days.”

“After we moved out of the one bedroom apartment–because we could not go back, it was traumatizing–we moved in with somebody for a month or two,” said Kina. “Then we got our house where we just moved out of. It’s in Chalmette. Two bedrooms. Look at us, we’re upgrading. Brittani actually has her own room now. That has been the past year, so everything has been great with that. We was able to get new stuff. I was able to save my bed. It’s in storage now, and it’s going in my Habitat house that I love, love so much. That’s our journey with our living situation, with us together. We’ve been through a lot.”

In 2017, Kina learned about the Habitat homeownership program from a friend of her sister’s, Tonya Van Buren, who owns a Habitat home on America Street. Kina told Brittani, and the two of them decided to apply.

“Tonya [Van Buren] just told me about the program, and I actually referred by her and she got her hours,” said Kina. “I was intrigued. ‘You do X, Y, and Z and at the end of the program, you get a house without closing costs?’ Because not everyone has $7 to $10,000 to just put down on a house and then still pay a mortgage. I believe Habitat is really tailored and catered to people like me who want something like a house but don’t have all the resources to do it through banks. Tonya’s like, ‘Girl, you better call Habitat.’ And I’m like that with people now. I’m giving you guys’ numbers out to everybody because if I did it, you guys surely can do it. [Habitat] scheduled me for a meeting right away. I told Brittani about it. So Brittani heard about it from me, but she was approved before me. Isn’t that great? She got approved before me, so she started her hours and everything before me. So I had to watch her. We bounced off each other. I was so surprised. The first initial time I applied for Habitat, I got denied. I tried again three weeks later. Miss Emily [her case manager], she runs your numbers and does everything right up front, which I love that about Habitat. It was no longer than a month later. It was a short amount of time. I came back, and I was approved. Being denied, the feeling, I was kinda sad, but I knew that I would get approved. I just had to wait. I’m a very patient person. I got approved finally, then I started my journey with Habitat. You get inspired once you get approved. It gives you a sense of deep appreciation for your house. You really anticipate. It’s like a prize you know is gonna come. I’m learning a lot. Meeting a lot of nice people. I will be a homeowner at the age of 25, so I’m excited about that. A brand new home. It gives me a sense to belong. It gives me a deeper attachment here.

“The process was unbelievable,” said Brittani. “It was very simple. I think if you organize it well, the process could be very simple. You have to be dedicated. You have to be focused. You have to know what you want. Habitat lays it out. They have follow up to make you stay on track, because they know people get distracted. I don’t think it’s that hard.”

Brittani and Kina both work in the service industry. Kina works at the Ace Hotel, and Brittani at Pat O’Brien’s.

“Anybody come to Pat O’Brien’s, they know me,” Brittani said. “It’s a very different type of job. I have some of the best coworkers a person can ask for. They are very sweet. It’s a good environment. They’re personal. I got my first apartment. I paid for myself to go to school. Now I’m paying my escrow because of Pat O’Brien’s. It’s a good job.”

But they both have dreams of new careers. Brittani is in school at Delgado, studying Criminal Law, and Kina has earned her class-A CDL license to drive 18-wheelers. And they both say they want to go into business together. Kina found that her driving trucks surprised some people.

“I took a job driving a dump truck, hauling twelve tons of sand over the Huey P. Long Bridge,” Kina said. “I know how to drive a truck, but I had never taken a job before. These people trained me in five minutes and threw me to the wolves. The job lasted all of two days, but I did it. They see this little girl, because I look very young, driving this big truck, and they’re just so surprised. They stopped in their tracks, slammed on their brakes to see. A man told me, ‘What you doing out here?’ That’s exactly what he told me. ‘Hey, what you doing in that truck?’ I said, ‘I’m doing what you’re doing. I’m making my money.’ And I pulled off. I don’t get offended or anything. I just like to surprise people. My dad, he teaches my sister and myself ‘male’ things. My sister can change brakes. I know how to change a tire. I know a lot about cars ‘for a woman.’ Someone can pull up next to me, and I can kinda tell them generally what might be wrong with their car. It surprises people.”

Brittani’s inspiration for studying Criminal Law comes from her background mentoring youth in New Orleans. She started in school with Jump Start, then began working with Club 180 after she graduated. Now she’s working with Volunteers of America.

“I have been mentoring for about seven years,” said Brittani. “I’ve been mentoring through different high schools throughout my life. I was part of this organization called Club 180. I was born in the neighborhood of the Fourth Ward. The kids that was mentoring were much like me, and I took a liking to it. I mentor nine to twelfth grade. I enjoy it so much that I started at the bottom and they promoted me to be the director over it, so for the last couple of years, I was the director over Club 180. I did it for volunteer work, so I never got paid a dime. I feel like the reason why I mentor because there’s this such thing that gives you purpose. The situation is that the stuff I do for these kids is priceless. It gives me joy. I’m able to make happy memories, then when they get older, I go to school at Delgado. I see them and they hug me. It makes me feel like every moment was worth it. They call me throughout the night, and I’m always there. The kids that I mentor, most of them have a history of criminal law. I understand. I feel like you have to be in their shoes to understand where they coming from sometimes, so you can empathize with them better. I feel like me going to school, I’m able to understand not just the practical end of it, but the legal end of it. So me going to school to understand that this is the law and how we can help them or what lawyer should we talk to or what service should I offer or recommend is better. I’ve been going to school just for the kids.”

They are also planning to start a real estate business together. Brittani is planning to attend real estate classes, and Kina has been working on business plans.

“Kina is very smart,” said Brittani. “She has a lot of sense. She has a lot of information when it came down to real estate. I always believe that something you’re good at, you need to focus on that. We’re gonna focus on going into business together.”

Besides trying to start new careers, their futures also hold being new homeowners. They already have plans for their homes.

“I’m pretty sure we’re probably gonna start some traditions,” Brittani said. “I’m gonna do Christmas by my house every year, and she’s probably gonna do Thanksgiving. I’m into family. I do plan on being somewhere where family can come often, because we’re so close. I have three nieces and one nephew. They’re all excited about more room. I have a mom who stay out of town, who is excited about that room. I have family, and I have a grandmother who’s been fighting to come stay with me. Usually they stay they by someone else on the couch, so I have two extra rooms. Me and Kina can keep each other’s backs, too, because we’re both young and single.”

“I want to stay in a house that I built,” said Kina. “I wanna enjoy what Habitat has given me, whether I live there for five years, ten years, 20 years, it will always be mine. I can say that’s my house, and I built it. I went through a lot for the house. I know I belong at that address.”

“I’m probably gonna cry and thank the Lord,” said Brittani. “I am. I know my journey, and I couldn’t even say it all in five, ten, not even an hour, but just to know that God had me in mind when it came down to just picking me. The first thing I will do, and I know for a fact it’s difficult to believe for a miracle, but receiving a miracle? It’s even better. I’m just thankful. I think the first thing I’m gonna do is thank God, then I’m probably gonna be thinking about my Christmas party. Nobody will have to bring anything to this Christmas party. All they do is bring themselves. I’m gonna have catered food. I’m gonna get a bigger karaoke system. I’m gonna get the lights and speakers and mirrors. I’m gonna make my house feel like a party. That’s the main thing in my house. The first thing I’m gonna do is thank God, then get it prepared for Christmas, because Christmas is big to me. I’m Ms. Claus.”

“We just gonna be neighbors next door to each other,” said Kina. “So that’s our plans. We’re just gonna be neighbors and watch each other’s houses, and we love the area that we picked the lots in. We picked it in the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s an historic area, so it’s around a lot of older folks. I like that because they’re gonna watch my house.”

They also know how they’re going to decorate their new homes.

“I like interior decorating, so I’m gonna decorate my own house and my aunt is gonna help,” said Kina, “but my aunt is gonna decorate Brittani’s complete house. I’m buying her a few house warming gifts. She knows about one. One gift I’m gonna get her is a washer and dryer, brand new. I’m gonna get her something else made. I think she’s gonna like it.”

“Kina’s aunt, her real aunt, my cousin, my Auntie Pam, we already got it down pat,” said Brittani. “I’m on a budget. She’s my interior designer. I love thew awy she designs. I’m sure my house is gonna be bright. I like bright colors. In our old houses, Kina did all the decorating. She’s the one who cooks and she does decor. My aunt, she’s gonna help me decorate my house. I don’t have ideas but I do have ideas. My idea is to give her the money while I’m there to approve. She picks it out.”

Part of Kina’s inspiration comes from her volunteering hours at the ReStore.

“I had to stop myself so many times at the ReStore. I want granite counter tops in my house, and I’ve seen so many pieces of granite at the ReStore. I need to come back and get it. I’ll definitely come and get something from the ReStore, but I don’t wanna do much to my house. I want a backsplash on my kitchen wall, and I wanna do it myself. I want a backsplash put up in my bathroom and possibly change my vanity in my bathroom because I really like high furniture. I like things high. Tile backsplashes in the bathroom and kitchen.”

As part of the Habitat program, they have been working their 350 sweat equity hours. After their hours in the ReStore, they began working on the build site, helping build other Habitat homeowners’ homes.

“It’ll give me the in’s and out’s of how to build a house,” said Kina. “In the future, I’ll know the hands-on part. Then I’ll learn about the paperwork part. I’m taking it in because it’s helping me for my future. I’m literally learning how to build a house. So far I have used a saw. A table saw, at that. I’m good with my hands, like tools and stuff. I’m picking up lumber. I’m picking up heavy things. I built window frames. I’ve used the hammer. Hit my hand a number of times. I’m looking forward to painting and to seeing a finished project. The last time I went on site, it was some volunteers from New York. People are really helpful. They wanna see these houses built. They care and they volunteer and they give their time.”

“I’m out there willing, using a hammer and a nail,” said Brittani. “I’ve hit my thumb a few times. I think that’s one of the memories I will keep forever, that you need to watch the hammer. But I’ve been enjoying just meeting new people, and the volunteers are so helpful. So sweet. I love the fact that they’re from all around the world. It’s a very diverse bunch. It’s sweet that they want to help you. I’m learning the process of the house. How you have to have the foundation, and then I’m learning about how you put a different type of insulation up, the kind that don’t itch. I’m just learning the process. I haven’t seen the full house yet, all the way from start to finish, but I keep getting little pieces of it. It’s a real process. It’s amazing how it starts from nothing and then something is there.”

On site, they have met new people and found inspiration.

“I was excited to see women on site,” Brittani said. “I learned a lot about AmeriCorps, the program they’re in through Habitat, and then I’m seeing these ladies doing the job. I was amazed, because it’s just gender roles that you’re taught. A woman is to sew, a woman is to cook–you never hear about women being engineers or just out here building houses. So just seeing a woman out there, that’s motivating, too. I look over and I’m like, ‘She can hammer pretty good.’ It’s very exciting to see that. They definitely change the way you look at things, because you think of being on site with a lot of men, but one day, I was under a woman, [crew leader] Danielle, on site, and that was awesome. Habitat’s got a diverse group. No matter what color, what gender. I appreciate it because that’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how the world was made to be like.

Working at Pat O’Brien’s and meeting tourists from all over the world inspired Brittani to do some traveling, something she and Kina also have in common. But both of them, growing up here, love New Orleans.

“From my job, I’ve picked up a new hobby of traveling,”s aid Brittani. “So I talk to a lot of tourists, and they just tell me how there’s so much out there. I took their advice, and I started traveling. I did volunteer work in Haiti; I worked with kids. My favorite spot to travel to is Miami. I enjoy the party. I went to Vegas. It was good, but it’s only big for gambling. I’m not too into gambling. I just came from Los Angeles. I don’t like traffic. I love how everything is intimate in New Orleans. New Orleans has its own flavor. By me traveling around the world, I really love the culture of New Orleans. I love live music. I enjoy living in the city. I wanted to have a house in New Orleans. I plan to travel the world, but keep home being New Orleans. Nothing really compared to New Orleans. Something is just different about New Orleans. That’s why I want to build a house here. Our people are way nicer. Not to knock any other city, but we’re just so friendly out here. There’s always something to do. You have culture that comes down from second lines. You see people in an Indian suit–you’re like, what is this? There’s culture behind this. I travel all over, and I see the difference, especially in the people.”

“I was born and raised in New Orleans,” said Kina. “I love my city. I fell in love with it because it’s a culture and a group of people you would never meet anywhere else. I definitely belong here because this is where God chose for me to be born and raised. I coulda been born anywhere. I coulda been born in Jamaica or Africa. I love that my ancestors are from Africa. New Orleans is a place where the people, the food, the sound… you see things here you don’t see anywhere else. I can drive up the street today at the age of 25 and be amazed by something I see. That’s how New Orleans is, and I love it. I love the people. New Orleans is great, but on the other end, I feel like traveling the world, even just in the United States, different states have so much to offer. I can see so much.”

To both of them, having their own homes means a place of safety, of family, and of comfort.

“I think most problems come from a broken household,” said Brittani. “People think strangers hurt you, but family members hurt you a little bit more than strangers because they’re close to you and you care more. Just growing up, I had amazing family that was always loving. We never been perfect, but we been real. I just notice how much if you have a strong family, your core is stronger, you can get through any weather of your life. I’m excited about just having my family at my house. I had a great family. My grandmother, she’s very dear to me, everybody in my family, they’re just so sweet. We’re a very close family. We have each other’s backs. I feel like if your family is strong, you’re able to weather all parts of your life. Home is a place of comfort. Where you feel like it was made personally for you. You should be able to be yourself at home. It should be a place where you feel relaxed and safe. I lived in a lot of houses, and most of my houses were home, but it’s a whole other level when you know that home is where you know it’s safe and a comfort to you. I can let down my hair. I can be myself. I know that if you go all around the world, I could tell someone my home is in New Orleans.

“I didn’t go to college, so at a young age, I would compare myself to my peers around me that went to college,” said Kina. “They getting degrees. I know I’m not an inadequate person. School is not for everyone. I sleep well at night knowing that, but I feel like me getting a house, that gives me a sense to have something to hold onto. I’m young, and I’m gonna be a homeowner. I’m proud of myself for that. Home means a place, whether it be a building or your house where you live, a place where you feel safe, a safe haven, a place that’s warmed by your essence or the energy of people that you love around you, a place that you know, that you’re comfortable with, that you can always come back to, you know where home is, it’s in your heart. That’s what home means to me.”