Athens Area Habitat Turns 30 – JP Watkins to Retire
It’s hard to believe now, but Habitat for Humanity was just 12 years old when it opened an affiliate in Athens, GA, in August of 1988.
Today, Habitat is one of the largest builders in the US and one of the most widely known and respected non-profits in the world. And Athens Area Habitat — serving Clarke, Oconee, and Oglethorpe counties — has built nearly 100 homes, renovated and restored some 50 multi-family housing units, constructed dozens of access ramps for disabled homeowners, and performed scores of home repairs for neighbors in need. “Athens Hab” also runs two warehouse-size thrift stores that help local folks find everything from furniture to clothing to appliances at deep discounts while raising funds for desperately needed affordable housing in our community.
To celebrate its birthday on Wednesday, August 8th, Athens Area Habitat will be serving cake and soft drinks to customers and other guests at both of its stores, which are open 9-5 at 532 Barber Street just north of the tracks by the Jittery Joe’s roaster, and at 4125 Atlanta Highway across from Georgia Square Mall. Everyone in the tri-county service area is invited to stop by, enjoy some refreshments, and learn more about what Habitat does and how they can support affordable housing locally.
“You don’t know a Habitat home when you drive by it”
“Lots of people think we ‘give away houses’ but that’s not what we do,” says Athens Habitat’s executive director Spencer Frye. “Our homebuilding program — which is just one of 4 major programs we operate — helps families move up and out of poverty housing by putting home ownership within their reach. Our non-profit building model, no-interest financing, and partnership with families through ‘sweat equity’ brings home ownership costs down below even market rents in our area. We make sure that housing payments are no more than 30% of a family’s monthly income. And with a home, our partner families can stabilize their finances and begin building wealth.”
A recent study conducted by Georgia Tech confirms that families who purchase Habitat homes are better able to save money and pay bills on time, are able to reduce or eliminate their need for public assistance, feel safe and more optimistic about their futures, and become more active in their communities. National studies also reveal that Habitat homes stabilize or even boost neighborhood property values.
“You don’t know a Habitat home when you drive by it,” says Athens Area Habitat outreach director Bridget Sivewright. “We build to neighborhood standards — usually a bit above them, actually — and although we build efficiently we’re also very focused on constructing a home that owners will take pride in and are happy to come home to every day.”
In addition to building new homes, Athens Habitat also rehabs abandoned or neglected multi-family units through its ReNew Athens program. “Some folks aren’t yet able to purchase a home,” notes director Frye, “so for them, the first step is to provide some form of stable housing so they can begin to build credit, save money, find steady employment, whatever it is they need to do to move up.” ReNew Athens focuses on revitalizing entire blocks of housing rather than isolated duplexes or multi-plexes. “There’s a lot of collateral benefit to refurbishing a whole block,” says Frye. “You remove any criminal element that may have moved in to the neighborhood as buildings were left empty. You stabilize the property values. And you bring back a sense of community, of folks looking out for each other. In fact, whenever we build in a neighborhood we see existing owners start improving their own properties once we begin restoring the neglected parcels. It’s very inspiring to see.”
Athens Habitat also runs two programs in partnership with Athens-Clarke County aimed at keeping existing low-income owners in their homes. The Brush with Kindness program helps with emergency repairs, and the Emergency Handicap Access Ramp Program (EHARP) builds ramps for disabled homeowners so they don’t have to relocate.
To fund its ongoing building efforts, mortgages and rents are directed back into the funding pool along with grant money, donations, and revenues from the two Habitat ReStores operated by the Athens affiliate. And regular customers at the ReStores will know the name and face of JP Watkins, a long-time Habitat staff member who is retiring on August 8th.
“JP was our pace setter”
“Our first store was literally in a barn with a dirt floor, out behind 744 Barber Street back in 1992,” recalls Frye. “In the early days we had just 3 employees, including JP, running the whole store and doing our free pick-ups of donations. When we moved to the larger location in 2002, we brought a bit of the barn with us and JP directed the construction of the ‘barn door’ on the building at the new site. JP was our pace-setter. I used to tell new staff that they could sit down and take a break whenever JP did,” says Frye with a smile, “but JP never sat down.”
In 2013, Athens Area Habitat opened a second store on Atlanta Highway, and Watkins began working on the west side of town. “All our regular customers on the east side started asking, ‘Where’s JP?’,” recalls Frye. “And then recently when he had to reduce his hours, the same thing happened west side. He’s so friendly, such a nice guy, everybody loves him and folks would want to be sure to see him and talk to him whenever they came in. He’s just one of those special kind of people who brighten everyone’s day.”
Today, the two Athens ReStores employ 12 full-time and 6 part-time staff. They still offer free pick-up of donations in Clarke, Oconee, and Oglethorpe counties, but they move a lot more merchandise than back in ’92, which translates into more affordable housing for the Athens area.
“We will definitely miss JP,” says Frye. “He’s irreplaceable. Seeing him retire is like seeing part of our history walk out the door.” JP Watkins will be honored at his retirement on Wednesday, August 8th, at the west side ReStore at 4125 Atlanta Highway in Athens.