From Partnership to Homeownership

Whitney Jett is a NOAHH partner family who started her partnership in June 2016. NOAHH will be following her story through the entire partnership and hopefully beyond. Part 9 is about her sweat equity work on other people’s homes. For previous parts, click here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

It was like an embrace. Like family. We’re not doing it for you, we’re doing it with you. They felt more a part of something important,” said Whitney. “To have me there made it like this isn’t just for some business or some nonprofit. There’s a person benefiting from this. So I think for them it made it more important for them to be there and say we’re here for somebody. Not just for some cause we can say we believe in, this is for a person that really needed this or is really benefiting from this. I was floored to have 30 people working in my house over the weekend. It was a lot. It was Marines, and AmeriCorps, and everybody was there. It was awesome. It was an awesome experience for me because it was kinda like all of these people are here for me, for my house. Just for me. I felt like a little bit of a superstar, but at the same time, I was humbled. It humbled me at the same time because there’s nothing else in this world I can think that 30 people would get together for me. Strangers.”

Most volunteers speak about the experience of working with partner families as a highlight of their volunteer experience. They echo Whitney’s words, but rarely do they capture just what it means to partner families to have complete strangers from all over the world take the time to help build homes. The fact that the experience of building with partner families means something to volunteers is something that actually adds to the impact for partner families. To put it another way: it’s not just the fact that a stranger is helping build your house that means so much, it’s the fact that a stranger is happier knowing they are building your house that means so much. This phenomenon, which occurs many times each year as thousands of volunteers work with future homeowners, is at the heart of NOAHH’s mission. Making affordable housing a matter of conscience and action–that is, spreading awareness of why and how important affordable housing is so they continue to make it a priority–happens when partner families work side by side with volunteers and when sponsors see the human side of what they are supporting. This is the value of volunteering.

Whitney has completed hundreds of hours of sweat equity, on site and at special projects. She has built on America Street and in Hollygrove, and she has worked with numerous volunteer groups and site leaders. Her plan to avoid as much building as possible in the hotter months meant she found herself on site in one of the rare cold snaps in New Orleans. She also found a few more aches and pains than she expected. NOAHH encourages any partner family who thinks they may have any sort of serious injury to stop working and see a doctor, but Whitney chose to keep working. Sweat equity, as rewarding as it is, is still hard work.

“I think I was out three weekends,” she said. “In Hollygrove, that first day we built a wall. All the work we did that whole day and we just put one wall. I was like I never wanna build a wall again. It was freezing cold. I think I had sprained my wrist. That was rough. The next day, we’re thinking, ‘well let’s work on the other house since they’re working on both of them now.’ We get over there and they tell us we’re gonna be on the other address again. All the walls were built by this point. We were making sure the window holes [frames] were all in. Then, framing was done. We put up [OSB]. Putting that OSB on, the nails were not cooperating. But at least that day I got to work with Alyson and Chris again–familiar faces. It was a little bit easier, and then we got to the foam [blueboard] part. All right the foam is really easy. I’m glad that day is over, too.”

She also came to understand better the limitations and challenges of doing construction work herself–and adapted her future plans. She said: “I probably told myself before I went out to the Hollygrove address, ‘Yeah I can do a treehouse in the back, I can build it all myself. This is gonna be great!’ Now I’m like ‘not by hand!’ My hands do not think it’s gonna be easier. My fingers were cramping up, especially that first day in the cold, my toes were frozen. I thought I would have to amputate them. My toes were gone. I do want to build my deck, though. I want to build that myself. I’m not playing games.”

Returning to America Street meant working next to her future home and learning how to use a circular saw. When she started the sweat equity process, she was unfamiliar with power tools–and sometimes uncomfortable with them. Now, she has grown to enjoy working with them. Most partner families come to the build site with little to no experience building, much less with power tools, but the experienced staff and core volunteers know how to guide people of all skill-levels through the process. Part of working on site is growing comfortable with the kinds of hard work that will be required to maintain a home in the future. She also learned about soffit.

“Then this past weekend I was out on Ameria Street again,” she said. “I worked on the other house that’s on my block. I was looking over. Tim asked which house is mine? I was just pointing He told me they’re starting my siding. I said, ‘but it’s not on the list for today.’ I got excited. I got to use a circular saw. It’s all about me now. Now you gotta actually guide this thing. We were doing the soffit on the outside of the house. I had no idea what soffit was. Soffit is the vinyl foolishness that comes pretty much where the roof goes past your wall. It just keeps that covered or something. I don’t know what the purpose of it is, but I guess it’s supposed to help ventilate the attic or something. Certainly won’t keep the wasps out. It’s actually a surprisingly study material because every time I had ever seen it before, it was this flimsy plastic foolishness. It’s still foolishness, but it’s really solid vinyl. You actually need a circular saw to cut through it. That circular saw was fun. After a while I got my groove and I was just like I got it I got it. I only messed up two getting there. Some were too long, and I just had to go back and trim ’em a little bit off so. We had a couple ended up too short, but we got to use them on the other side of the house. It worked out. It was fun.”

Soffit on New Orleans Habitat homes allows ventilation to the attic and up through the roof, displacing heat and cooling the home. It also provides an aesthetic trim for the overhang of the roof, and the overhang provides more protection from the rain. Working with volunteers of varying skill levels, NOAHH staff also know how to make use of inexpertly cut materials.

While working on America Street, she continues to keep track of the progress of her home.

“Every time I go out there, something’s up,” she said. “At first, I drove by and see if the lot’s been cleared or something, if there’s been some progress. The foundation was up. And I’m just like ‘What!’ So I’m taking pictures, posting them on Facebook, just like ‘What!’ [Later], we’re walking through the house with some of the people that helped out. I’m taking pictures of everything, inside and out. All of this framing up and done. I’m like on a whole other level, and my mama’s like walking through the studs and stuff. And then I didn’t take pictures again because there wasn’t really much that happened from then until this past weekend. It looked like they were preparing for siding. I was excited. I didn’t take pictures that day. I should have. When they told me ‘Oh we’re starting siding today’ I’m like ‘What.’ And then at some point we’re leaving for the day, and they got a lot of it done. I walk up and all these people are looking at me, and I say ‘Oh hey this is my house. This is my house.’ So I gotta go inside. I walk in there and sheetrock’s done. No paint, no flooring, but the cabinets are up. And I’m just [sound of delight]. It’s the simple stuff. It happens so fast.”

Getting her hours in hasn’t always been easy, but she has had a lot of help from her family and friends. Some partner families do all of their sweat equity alone, scheduling hours carefully around their day jobs (and/or night jobs), school, and taking care of their kids. For Whitney, getting her friends and family to keep coming out has sometimes been a challenge. The help she has gotten, however, has helped her complete her hours more quickly and easily.

“It was just me this weekend,” she said. “The weekends before it was me and my uncle’s girlfriend. Then my mom came out the second one. It was the two of us. We were having fun. The hardest part I’ve gotta say is the hours. Because it’s been difficult to get them done by myself. Pretty much this whole time I’ve always had people helping me. I think this past weekend is the first time I did go by myself. My schedule wasn’t perfect for it. But the hard part was not even getting gout there to do the hours, it was getting other people to help. My grandma’s the only one who’s like ready, but she can’t do construction. She was even asking me the other day, ‘If I go to the [ReStore], would that help you with your hours?’ I said ‘Sorry, grandma, I gotta be there. And I cant work at the store anymore. I finished my hours there.’That’s been the hardest part is keeping people motivated. Cause they really don’t want to. And I barely want to, but I’m getting something out of this, so I have to. That’s why I always try to use other people on the site as an example to my mom especially. She’ll sit there and want to take breaks all day. I say ‘Look at him. This guy over here (I’ll point to any random volunteer that’s not with the program). Look at him. Look at this whole group of people who aren’t getting anything out of being here today. I’m getting a whole house. They’re not getting anything. We’ve gotta be more motivated than they are. Come on.’ There was this one group in Hollygrove who came all the way from Wisconsin. They’re not getting a house out of this.”

When it gets tough on site, the site leaders and AmeriCorps members keep them motivated. Along with guiding partner families and volunteers through building a home, they know how to keep people moving–and when to trust them to take breaks.

“Every now and then, I know Chris used to be on us,” she said. “Well, not on me cause I was always working. But Chris will be on them like ‘Oh you need something to do?’ ‘Oh what are you working on right now? You need something to do?’ They were annoyed with him for a while. I forgot, at some point, my mom was out somewhere, and she saw Chris working on something. And she realized ‘He’s working hard,’ and I’m like ‘It’s his job! He’s supposed to be. You can’t be mad at him for doing his job, come on.'”

She has also worked with other partner families. As they work together, they share their stories about why they are in the program and compare their journeys to homeownership.

“Everybody is in the program from a different perspective,” she said. “[One partner family] was getting a house, and they were gonna come back and try to get their sister a house, and her mom already had a house. It’s like they’re gonna take up a whole block. Then there was Pam. She wanted to have a two story so she could have room for her kids. Everybody had a different perspective on it. Some were single like me, trying to have a house and stop renting and stop that endless cycle of never owning. They had other people who had families who I would’ve said if you had to choose between me and them, I would say pick the family because they really need it. Just hearing why they wanted a house and what it was all about to them, I felt like they were just as excited as I was. I mean, we would sit there and chat about what the next steps were and what we thought was gonna happen, what might actually happen. I think we were just, ‘this is new to all of us so let’s just talk to each other about what we know so far. Let’s see what we have.'”

The recent tornado in New Orleans East bypassed not only her parents’ home, where she currently lives, but also her future home. None of NOAHH’s homeowners reported any significant damage in the area. All NOAHH homeowners have homeowners and flood insurance.

“There’s a tornado in the east,” she said, “I’m like ‘Oh okay.’ Not thinking it was Kansas tornado. I thought it was a pipsqueak, probably knocked the fence over or something. That’s the tornadoes we usually get. We might get a couple shingles off somebody’s roof. Then next thing you know I get a text from my friend ‘Don’t come to the east it’s a hot mess.’ What do you mean Chef [Menteur Highway] is closed? That’s the first thing I was thinking. I’m listening to the news, and it’s near Wilson [Avenue]. And Wilson’s over near [America Street]. I did know my mom’s house was fine, so I wasn’t worried about it. I think my stepdad was at the house, and he had to go check on his truck. And his truck’s fine. I was surprised–the tornado touched down less than half a mile away. So some stuff was closed, but I managed to get down Dwyer the back way onto the street. Rolled up to my house and, ‘Well it’s still there.’ And not only was it still there, there were empty cardboard boxes on the porch that had never moved. So not only did it not get hit by this thing, on top of that, it didn’t even pick up an empty cardboard box off the porch?! How? ‘Cause when I left off America St., I got to the end of St. Mary’s. I look to my left where St. Mary’s had this brick and metal sign, and the whole sign was turned. ‘How did it turn that?’ A couple of blocks away is Wilson where they have it all blocked off still. My friend lives in the middle of the path, and her house is fine. How, I don’t know. Her street got hit. She didn’t get hit. So we made it through the tornado just fine.”