By Amber Wellsted
Housing is the biggest monthly expense for everyone I know. Whether they rent or own, monthly housing payments often exceed transportation, utilities, food, Internet and cell phone bills put together.
Before I learned about Habitat for Humanity, I was paying $1,700 per month to rent an apartment for myself and my three children. It wasn’t an extravagant home, but it was safe. Even though I had a great job, we were always one missed paycheck away from being in a really bad situation.
The stress can be overwhelming, so I began crunching the numbers. It seemed like no matter how hard I worked or how much we sacrificed, the cost of housing was decimating my opportunity to build personal and economic stability – $1,700 a month was simply too much for a single mom working one job.
Florida Realtors reported the median sale price for a single-family home in Lee County was $274,495 during the first quarter. That’s a 7.6% increase over the same period last year. Home prices are rising faster than our salaries, leaving everyone further behind.
Thankfully, I discovered Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties. The nonprofit partners with hardworking residents of this community to provide safe, affordable homeownership opportunities. Requirements of the program include attending educational courses on home maintenance and financial literacy, making a payment toward closing costs, contributing “sweat equity” by helping build the home, and committing to paying an affordable monthly mortgage, which is capped at 30% of household income. The last part is critical. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, 54.1% of renters in Lee County are considered “cost burdened,” and this stat most certainly will increase because of COVID-19’s impact on the local workforce.
My $1,700 a month rental became an $876 monthly mortgage payment on a brand-new 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom home in Fort Myers. I’m building equity and was able to create a small financial cushion to protect my family in case of an emergency.
That emergency came sooner than I anticipated. I was diagnosed with cancer last year and had to stop working for a month after the surgery took place. That meant I had no income at a time when expenses were mounting. However, I cut my housing expense in half through Habitat and was able to tap into my savings to cover the unexpected costs. Now, I am back at work full-time, saving money each month and pursuing a degree in radiologic technology at Florida SouthWestern State College, an opportunity to advance my career that was made possible through affordable homeownership.
So many Southwest Floridians are out of work right now, or working less hours. Times are tough, but this is the perfect opportunity for our community to prioritize the development of affordable housing, because through affordable housing, families can build personal stability and economic resiliency.