Women of Habitat: Michelle White

Growing up in New Mexico, Michelle White learned about hard work, independence, and rattle snakes. Her five step brothers would catch the snakes, and she sometimes ended up involved in their antics.

“We’re out in the desert,” she said. “There’s nothing else for us to do, so you get comfortable with animals. It’s lonely [in the desert]. Coming to the city as an adult, I realized that time alone, I got to know myself. I didn’t get distracted by anything.”

Growing up in the desert living on a farm 13 miles from anything, they had to do the chores and work the fields before dinner every day. The independence she learned in the desert helped drive her in adulthood. Raising two children on her own, starting her own business, working her sweat equity, she survived without a lot of support.

“I was on a farm growing up. We had to pull so many rows of weeds before dinner. My grandfather would say, ‘no working, no eating.’ I hated him every day I came home. I didn’t have a social life because I lived 13 miles outside of town, but he prepared us for life. My grandfather, he built homes for a living. When [his family] moved from Kansas to New Mexico, they had to build three log homes. I wasn’t there day after day, but I was familiar with nailing, sawing. I wasn’t uncomfortable using tools. It made me thankful to my grandpa once I got out on site. It was time to reconnect with my roots.”

As a future Habitat homeowner, she has decided to bring a little bit of New Mexico to her house.

“My house color is graceful ballerina. It’s coral with shades of blue. It reminds me of New Mexico, all the different colored rooms.”

She first came to New Orleans in 1999. For a brief period, she returned to New Mexico, but after Hurricane Katrina, she felt a duty to come back.

“I saw the city coming back, and I wanted to be part of it. I remembered how much I love the weather here. It’s cold and miserable in New Mexico. I really wasn’t sure how I was gonna make it work. My friend had a home uptown, and she accepted my housing voucher.”

While in New Mexico, she had a Section 8 voucher, meaning her rent was partially subsidized. When she came back to New Orleans, she realized she had to give up the voucher to do what was best for her family, because she needed to find better housing more quickly than the program allowed.

“I started looking around at neighborhoods that were accepting Section 8, and in the apartment places there was a waiting list, which I wasn’t familiar with. Back in New Mexico, things took a couple of weeks, but here you might be on the waiting list for a year. I had to let that go, and I stepped out on faith.”

She found a job in one part of the city while going to school for massage therapy in another part of the city, all the way across the river. With her two children to look after as well, she found it difficult to manage.

“My children were small. I didn’t have anybody to watch them or any help. For a while, I didn’t have a car. I had a car up until I started school, and then my car broke down. I was living in Gentilly, working in Lakeview. I rode my bike so much, and massage school was on the West Bank. That was really emotionally challenging.”

She faced challenges when trying to find an affordable home. Like many women, she was met with discrimination because she was a single mother.

“Before I found the place in Gentilly, I put in my application in some places, and I think they thought as a single mom I couldn’t pay my bills. Which is probably the stereotype we get. To look back now, I can see they think a man guarantees bills will be paid. That doesn’t guarantee anything.”

She and her two children lived for a while at a friend’s place before moving to Gentilly to an apartment that cost them $1,100 a month. The high cost of rent meant she often had to go without anything extra for herself or her children.

“I do nails and massage. I hustle. I went without. My kids were still young. It is amazing that I had that money. Often I gave my landlord a stack of cash.”

Besides the inflated rent, she also had struggles with her landlord in her previous home.

“I had been renting there for five years, paying rent, $1,100 dollars. Faith, I had that money every month. When we had that freeze, my pipes busted, and my landlord refused to come out, but her husband came and shut the water off. My brother came out and fixed them, and they broke again, which lets me know they didn’t have stuff right under the house. I was so angry. I did the calculation. After five years, I had paid $60,000. You mean you’re not gonna come fix these pipes?”

She had learned about the Habitat homeownership program a few years before, but she had to improve her financial situation. By the time she first applied, she still had some bills to pay off. Like many applicants, she had to try again.

“There were some houses going up in Pigeon Town. I saw they were decent. That’s when I looked into it. I didn’t have steady work or any income. My credit wasn’t that great. But when I eventually applied, it was easy stuff I needed to do.”

She applied again a few months later, and when she got into the program, she also started renting from Habitat in an incubator home. Incubator rentals are properties NOAHH rents to homeownership applicants who need to improve their financial situation before they are eligible for the program, or for partner families who are in difficult renting situations when they apply. The lower rent has helped Michelle save money and find better stability.

“Let me tell you, Habitat saved my life. I’m certain of it now. My peace of mind was being in the rental. At least I know I’m here, and the next move will be into the house. It’s way more stable. From having my rent half of what it was, it just made things easier. So what I’m working on now is paying off my truck I’m not stressing out about silliness. Gas money, the truck. All those little things. My daughter needs shoes for sports. I put a limit at $100, but I can take her and do those extras. I can pay off bills. There were times I had to live off my credit cards, paying for clothes. Now I can breathe.”

The Habitat program provides homebuyers with a 0% interest mortgage and no financial down payment (instead, partner families work “sweat equity”). The home is usually a 3-bedroom home, built brand new. For some, this doesn’t seem real until they get into the program.

“You know you run into scams or different opportunities that seem too good to be true. I talked to other partner families. They had the same feeling. Once I got into the rental, I thought, ‘oh yeah, this is for real.’ I really feel like once I got into the program, Habitat just put big arms around me.”

Now that she is living in the Lower Ninth Ward in a rental–and about to be a homeowner there–she has begun attending community meetings and becoming more involved.

“I never went out there. Maybe to drop off a coworker. Now that I’m out there, I talk to people that grew up out there. There’s a stigma. It’s kinda sad, because it’s so quiet out there. I went to a community meeting. Living there has made me ready to become part of the community.”

Her home will be completed later this year–in just 12 days. Michelle is this year’s Women Build homebuyer, and she will be part of the all-woman accelerated build in May. Coincidentally, her first day volunteering on a build site was during last year’s Women Build.

“It was my first time being on construction last year. It was a good feeling. I was carrying that truss up the ladder with four young women. I remember looking over at one point and thinking wow, we’re putting this whole house together by women. That’s pretty amazing. It’s intense, even just to stay there for the whole day. We all have a common struggle: married, single, children, no children, we all have a struggle. It’s nice to see us come together.”

On site that first day, she met Gray DeHaven. Gray was an AmeriCorps crew leader during Women Build 2018, one of seven women leading the construction of the two homes. This year, Gray is now on staff as a site supervisor and the leader of Women Build 2019’s construction team.

“I paid attention to different people I worked with. Both men and women do great work, but the one who’s gonna be on the site, Gray, she’s very meticulous with stuff. I like that. When I first met her, she was really sweet. She was excited. She wanted to get it done. From there to now, I can tell she’s more commanding. Now she’s just more confident. It’s been amazing to see.”

Through it all, whether biking across town to school, working day and night to pay the rent, or putting in sweat equity in the hot summer months, Michelle has been motivated by her children.

“I kept telling them my goal is to get y’all in a house. I kept telling them, it’s just me, so it’s gonna take me twice as long. I’m supporting y’all on one income. I’m doing it, but it’s gonna take longer. I want them to remember, I said I was gonna do it. Everything you wanna do, you have to do it. I show this as an example for [my daughter]. You have to get your education, you have to be independent. I ended up single, two children. It’s a harder road. It’s much easier if you make wiser choices.”

Before she had children, she traveled more, but she still finds place for adventure in her life. At the age of 37, she decided to take up rugby for the exercise.

“I play just touch now, but for a while I was involved in the women’s. There’s a lot of injuries, so I felt like I was playing with fire. I picked it up at 37 years old. Playing with a bunch of 20-year-olds. I liked it for the exercise. That’s originally how I got into it. After a while, I was in the scrum. That’s a lot of work. I took a lot of poundings. People think it’s aggressive, but I found out those girls are doctors, engineers, veterinarians, physical therapists. I wish I would have met them younger. It would have shaped me as a person. It gives you this confidence, and the camaraderie with all the girls is amazing. I wish I would have found them years ago. Now the touch team I’m with, it’s all guys. I’m the only woman out there. I wouldn’t have been out there if it wasn’t for the women’s team.”

Once she has her home, she’s ready for a new adventure.

“One of my goals is to get certified in scuba diving after I get the house built. I went scuba diving for the first time a couple of years ago. I went to see a friend in St. Croix. It’s a whole other world. It’s as big as the world up here. I think it’d be fun to explore. It gets boring on the beach. You can sit on the beach anywhere.”