Q&A: Molly Hilligoss and Habitat improving lives one family at a time

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One of our community’s standout nonprofits is Habitat for Humanity. Founded locally in 1987, Habitat has built 60 homes and completed eight neighborhood revitalization projects in the local community.

Since 2006, Habitat has focused its efforts in the Church Street neighborhood, where 13 homes have been built. Two projects are now under way, as well as maintenance of two community gardens in Church Street.

Habitat also owns 10 more lots in that neighborhood that will be developed and sold to partner families. With 27 years of service, 10,000 participating volunteers, and $6 million dollars invested in the community, Habitat continues to improve living conditions for low income families and address the “aging in place” issues faced by inner-city homeowners.

Since February, Molly Hilligoss has served as Executive Director. Though new to the job, Hilligoss isn’t new to the community, having been an active participant in local business and nonprofits.

As Executive Director, Hilligoss is charged with providing a vision consistent with the overall mission while managing a slew of day-to-day details. It’s a big job, but one that can truly make a difference in people’s lives.

Q. You’ve been Habitat’s new director since February. How is it going?

A. Wow, that is a loaded question.

Most people don’t realize that we are both a construction company and a lender. Even though our mortgage loans to our Partner Families are at zero-percent interest, we still have to comply with all of the new regulations that the local and big banks do with regards to lending. Plus, we have the ReStore Retail store and we fund-raise.

With a very small staff, it makes for a balancing act. Every day is different and exciting.

We also have an active 19-member Board of Directors and seven committees that are extremely active in achieving our goals. Without their volunteerism, none of it would be possible.

My unique background of having been a small business owner as well as have a banking and mortgage background, I believe has helped our Team and mobilized Habitat of Humanity of Wicomico County to strive for our 25 homes in a five-year plan. When we achieve this by 2020, we will have helped 85 families become homeowners.

Q. What does Habitat do?

A. Through volunteer labor and tax-deductible donations of money and materials, Habitat builds and rehabilitates simple, decent homes with the help of the homeowner/partner families.

Habitat homes are sold to partner families at no profit, financed with affordable, no-interest loans. The homeowners’ monthly mortgage payments come back to the affiliate to help build more homes for more families.

Habitat for Humanity of Wicomico County was founded in 1987; since then, the affiliate has built 60 homes locally.

We also are launching our “Roofs and Repairs” program. Homeowners that are low to moderate income can apply to have Habitat make repairs to their home. This program is not a grant or a handout. Homeowners agree to perform sweat equity and we handle the repairs. They repay Habitat at our cost with a 20 percent discount incentive for early payoff of their renovation loan.

Q. How many homes does Habitat currently have in progress?

A. We have 3 houses almost ready for new Partner Families. 2 dedications will happen in September and by early Summer, we will have helped a total of 6 families obtain affordable homeownership. That will be a record for our affiliate in its 28 year history. We have 14 lots available right now. Applicants that are approved can expect to wait up to1.5 years from the time they apply. We are hoping to reduce that wait time but it takes more donations and volunteer hours from the community.

Q. What is unique about Habitat?

A. The first unique aspect of our homeownership program is the sweat equity requirement. We require 300 sweat equity hours from the Partner Family in lieu of a down payment.

Second, their monthly mortgage payment is based on their income. When a Partner Family buys a home from us, their payment does not exceed 30 percent of their gross income. We also require homeowner and financial fitness classes and perform full background checks for our Partner Families.

Q. Tell me about the ReStore. How does that work?

A. The ReStore (located at 908 West Isabella St.) is our retail store, that funds our mission. All items sold at the ReStore are donated from businesses and individuals.

These items are new and used excellent condition furniture, appliances and building materials and we resell them at a fraction of the regular retail. All proceeds benefit Habitat’s mission of providing decent affordable housing for sale to low-income families in Wicomico County through no interest loans.

Last year, we netted almost enough profit to build one house. Half of the staff in our ReStore are volunteers. Without volunteer efforts, it would be difficult to achieve our mission goals. Several businesses call us weekly for pickups of items we can resell.

(For individuals remodeling their home or replacing furniture, they can call the ReStore at 410-749-6325 and schedule a free pickup with our ReStore Manager, Jim Phillips.)

Q. Can you share a special story where you’ve seen Habitat’s special effect on a family?

A. Yes! Actually there are three families that I have met recently.

All three families have had at least one person able to attend college and improve their income and life from the affordable homeownership program.

Deatrice Leonard actually recently married after her daughter went off to college. She asked if we would buy her home back from her so that she could buy a larger home with her new husband. She specifically wanted another Partner Family to have the opportunity that she had that transformed her life and that of her daughter.

Out of the 60 families we have served through homeownership, 27 have paid their mortgage off in full.

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Q. You have a big event coming up in September.

A. Oh yes! Chefs for Habitat is Saturday, Sept. 19. This is our largest fundraiser of the year and all of the proceeds will go toward building a home for Melissa Bailey and her four children.

The event is a party where 15 local Chefs share their signature dishes with our guests. We have ‘Celebrity Waiters’ that do a fun obstacle course in front of everyone and there are great items available in our silent and live auction.

Tickets are $75 each and its limited seating. Tickets can be purchased online at chefsforhabitat.com or by calling our office at 410-546-1551. Bring your appetite!

Q. If I want to get a group together to come out and build, what do I do?

A. Easy, call our office and speak with Shannon Thomas, our Volunteer & Development Coordinator at 410-546-1551 or email her at Shannon@wicomicohabitat.org.

We have also partnered with five local churches to host groups coming in from out of town that want to build with us for an entire week.

Q. What can people in the community do to help Habitat succeed?

A. Donate time, talents, money or used furniture, appliances and/or building materials to the ReStore to our Construction projects.

We have seven committees, as I mentioned before and we have volunteer opportunities for everyone.

Q. What’s coming up in the future?

A. We have information workshops for our Roof & Repair program and Homeownership Program coming up in October. Interested applicants should call our office for details.

Plus some exciting big events in October and April that we are planning too. Stay tuned for more to come.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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