Halting Habitat homes
For nearly three months, Habitat for Humanity closed their ReStores statewide and turned away volunteers to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. People who would spend every week helping build homes had to be told they could no longer give back to their communities.
With more than three-fourths of their labor gone, construction slowed.
Volunteerism halted when the state of emergency went into effect in March. Kevin Gilmore, Sussex County Habitat for Humanity executive director, said his branch almost stopped building altogether.
Since allowing limited help, Gilmore said they only have about five people at a time at each construction location for proper social distancing, and he sees this being the case moving forward. That pushed back the timeline for many projects in Sussex.
“We will have to limit the number of people on our job sites and that has a direct effect on our ability to build houses,” he said. “It’s hard when we have people who are going to buy our houses that are living in substandard conditions already. This is prolonging that life changing event for them.”
Gilmore said they rely on businesses, church groups and college students who volunteer in the spring.
In Sussex there were six houses under construction when the pandemic started. He said all should have been done by now, but only two were completed, one in Ellendale and one in Blades. Two in Ellendale and two in Milton are still underway. Three more were to start during the spring, but those are on hold.
“Our volunteers are our primary workforce when it comes to construction and we didn’t have volunteers on site for nearly three months,” he said. “It has slowed down our production and our helping people.”
During phase two of reopening businesses, Gilmore said they started allowing their regular helpers in limited numbers.
“It’s amazing how not being able to bring volunteers together affects our ability to produce. Bringing people together is part of the mission statement. That’s fundamental to our organization,” he said. “Home is not a safe place for everybody. We want to create safe homes for people.”
Timothy Bailey, Central Delaware executive director, said 80% of their labor is unpaid help.
“Not having volunteers for eight weeks, we were certainly limited on the amount of construction we could do,” he said. “We fortunately only have a few [houses] under construction, but they still moved at a snail’s pace.”
Dylan Grimes, Central Delaware public relations coordinator, said they have between 12,000 to 15,000 individual volunteers on their build sites per year.
Bailey said none of the six houses in Dover have had significant delays. They completed one June 5, and the others are moving along as scheduled. He expects construction on new homes to move forward as planned.
“We have four or five available lots right now,” he said. “We definitely have plans to continue with construction,” Bailey said. “We still have a lot of homes to build and a lot of families to partner with.”
Kevin Smith, New Castle County Habitat CEO, said construction never shut down in New Castle County. Without volunteers, they were still able to stay on schedule, but it forced them to delay new projects.
“A lot of that had to do with not fully knowing the financial repercussions and how to manage the money we have,” Smith said. “We have been able to weather the initial storm, if you will, and now we are able to make our plans for the rest of this calendar year and into 2021.”
When COVID-19 hit, they were working on four homes in Wilmington, New Castle and Middletown. Both houses in the Simonds Gardens neighborhood in New Castle finished in the spring, and those in Wilmington and Middletown are under construction.
Smith said they hope to get their regular helpers back to their sites and ReStores in July, but they might not be able to bring on more until September. The NCC branch has more than 3,100 volunteers a year on their building sites.
Habitat for Humanity ReStores sell donated hardware, furniture and household goods. All revenue goes toward shelter. When the four had to close, it caused financial strain.
“Having to close for two and a half months had a direct financial effect on being able to do what we do,” Gilmore said. “It’s been a pretty traumatic time.”
Smith said closing not only caused a loss of revenue, it created expenses, because they had to pay rent on the two New Castle County locations in Middletown and Wilmington.
They received loans through the CARES Act Paycheck Protection Program, which helped with the lease and payroll costs.
“Even though we lost income, those major expenses have been covered now,” Smith said. The Wilmington store opened in early June and the Middletown location will open July 7.
In Sussex, Gilmore said, the Lewes store has had a steady stream of shoppers and people dropping off donations since opening June 6.
“A lot of people just want to be out and about,” he said. “People will wear masks as long as they can shop.”
Bailey said the revenue loss has been the biggest challenge for the Kent chapter, especially in the ReStore. He said they make from $45,000 to $60,000 a month from their sales, so closing for two months cost them $100,000 or more.
“We don’t know if there will be a resurgence with this virus, we don’t know if our store will be able to stay open for the rest of the year, so there are a lot of unknowns right now,” he said. “If there were certain things to happen, it really could break us to the point where we would have to sell this building and downsize substantially to a much smaller staff and smaller store.”
Bailey said this would be the worst-case scenario. The store reopened at the end of May, and customer traffic and sales are better than expected.
Fundraising falls flat
Smith said they rely on those fundraisers for more money. A virtual breakfast in May made $60,000, not the hoped-for $100,000.
New Castle County Habitat will have a golf outing Sept. 17.
Gilmore said one of Sussex Habitat’s largest fundraisers is a spring golf tournament, which was canceled. A November breakfast that typically hosts three hundred people is still on the calendar.
“We are planning it as if it is happening live and in person, but we also are planning for if we have to move it to another format,” he said. He knows this stress is far from over.
“It was a significant issue in the spring but we are going to feel the effects for at least the next year or longer,” he said. “It’s definitely one of the hardest years to plan for. We have to create a budget for next year, not really knowing what to expect.”
Central Delaware had its multiple spring fundraisers rescheduled. Hearts 4 Home — originally planned for April — was June 26 and 27. People could go to hardware stores to help buy materials or donate.
The Builders Dash 5K in April was rescheduled for Aug. 1. People can run in-person or virtually. Gals that Give was scheduled for April and will now happen in January.
Bailey said Central Delaware has federal grant funding scheduled through 2021 that will help supplement their program, but they need to raise a lot more to fund their construction.
“While we have funding for the homes, the funding only constitutes about 60% of construction costs, the rest is fundraising and ReStore [sales],” he said. “If we don’t have the additional revenue to help bridge the gaps, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Habitat for Humanity ReStores
? Wilmington ReStore: 3312 Seminole Ave.; 302-652-5181
? Middletown ReStore: 600 N. Broad St.; 302-449-1414
? Central Delaware ReStore: 2311 S. Dupont Highway, Dover; 302-346-0220
? Sussex County ReStore: 18501 Stamper Dr., Lewes; 302-855-1156
More on donating, fundraising, volunteering and homeownership can be found at sussexcountyhabitat.org, centraldelawarehabitat.org and habitatncc.org.