One House Closes and Another One Opens

Sonya Fears signs papers at her home closing
Sonya Fears (middle) finalizing the closing of her Habitat home with Spencer Frye, executive director, and Cici Mercer, business manager

“My everyday life has changed for the absolute best,” says Sonya Fears of Athens, GA.

“Besides the birth of my children, nothing has brought me a greater joy.” Sonya Fears is the most recent Athens community member to receive a Habitat home donation. This past September, Sonya finalized the closing of her home — she is officially a homeowner.

“I love sitting on my porch and walking in my yard. I love speaking to my elderly neighbors and most of all — no more assigned parking spaces,” said Sonya.

Working alongside Athens area families since 1988, Habitat for Humanity has been empowering people in Athens through shelter and stability for decades.

A common misconception is that Habitat builds “free” houses. In reality, Athens Area Habitat offers affordable housing options to local residents who meet minimum income requirements and are willing to enter into a partnership with the organization.

Partnering families such as the Fears family are the reason Habitat is able to offer affordable mortgages at no interest. Each family contributes 500 hours of “sweat equity” which entails working alongside Habitat staff and volunteers to construct other Habitat family homes as well as their own, thereby lowering construction and labor costs.

“My experience with completing the sweat equity hours was great,” said Ms. Fears. “Despite getting up every Saturday at 7 AM, everything was wonderful. Working with Doug Carver and the countless volunteers who work hard every weekend has allowed me to form new friendships, learn new technical skills, and appreciate my home even more.” Sonya’s house was Athens Area Habitat for Humanity’s 85th home dedication.

98% of Habitat homeowners feel positive about the future, and 4 out of 5 said they had become more optimistic since moving into their home, according to a recent survey by Georgia Tech and Habitat of Georgia.

“My feeling is that you learn the pride of ownership,” said Cici Mercer, the business manager for the local Athens Area Habitat. “It is a feeling of completion and a feeling of accomplishment.”

“I completed the Homebuyer’s Educational Seminar with Athens Land Trust,” said Sonya. “I think the seminar is beneficial for anyone seeking homeownership.”

Spencer Frye, executive director of the Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, says that “there are 3 different ways [of alleviating poverty] that we are most known for. Wealth building through homeownership, the stabilization of the family unit, and having the opportunity for this family to own their own home.” By shifting to Habitat’s affordable, no-interest mortgages, families such as the Fears are able to use previously tied-up rent money for other expenses such as utilities and groceries.

“They put in those 500 hours, they really work for it,” Frye notes. “They may not be putting in a ton of dollar money, but they are putting in their souls. And there is something kind of magical about not having to paint ‘Antique White’. It’s their house. They can paint it bright red if they want. They learn how to fix plumbing, hang sheet rock, and not freak out at the sight of a hammer, but I think what they really learn is self-esteem and accomplishment.”

Instead of just “giving out homes,” Habitat teaches the value of homeownership. Habitat families attend classes that teach future homebuyers about homeowner fundamentals, such as financing, the role of a closing attorney, what inspections are needed for homeowners, and the importance of energy efficiency, just to name a few.

Homeowner Sonya Fears with Athens Habitat executive director Spencer Frye
Sonya Fears and Spencer Frye on the day of Sonya’s closing

Habitat is able to not only directly build wealth for Sonya, but also indirectly build wealth for Sonya’s neighbors. Spencer explains that “when [the ReNew Athens program] goes in and takes over a derelict property, you see the property values around that property all rise as we improve it. So, it’s not necessarily an immediate effect on the poverty of the individuals that may live in that neighborhood, but it does give them wealth in a future time if they choose to sell down the road. We see that our neighborhood improvements always bring higher value to the properties around it.”

ReNew Athens is a local initiative which rehabilitates older, neglected multi-family units into affordable housing options for low income individuals. While University of Georgia students bring life to the Athens community, they also drive rent up for newer, student-oriented apartment complexes. ReNew Athens revamps the old apartment complexes with the help of volunteers and offers below-market rental rates to qualifying individuals. These rents are then used to fund the building of houses such as Sonya’s.

“The rents in our low-income rentals are turned over into building more houses, so essentially they continue to pay for themselves,” said Cici Mercer. Everything at Habitat essentially comes full-circle; Sonya’s monthly rent will help pay for Habitat’s 86th home dedication.

As the saying goes, one door closes and another one opens. In this case, however, Sonya Fears closed on her home and Athens Area Habitat is working on opening the next home dedication.

Athens Area Habitat welcomes you to lend a helping hand so more folks in Athens can feel at home like Sonya. Whether it be building a Habitat home, volunteering at one of our two Restores, or simply donating money, every action counts.