Lydia’s Homeplace Ready for Students
Athens Area Habitat for Humanity dedicated its 2019 annual fund drive to Lydia’s Homeplace — now it’s ready to become a home.
In January of 2020, supporters of Athens Area Habitat gathered to celebrate a successful annual fund drive which raised more than $30,000 to help complete an innovative local project, an off-campus multiplex to provide pre-paid housing for local college students with no homes of their own. Despite an intervening pandemic, Lydia’s Homeplace is ready to receive its first set of residents.
The Homeplace is the vision of April Farlow, founder of Lydia’s Place, an Athens, GA, based non-profit dedicated to serving young adults aging out of the foster care system or with a background of homelessness. Fewer than 4 in 100 former foster kids will ever earn a college degree. Lydia’s Homeplace is there to help local youth beat those odds.
“I think everybody at Athens Habitat was truly inspired by April and the board of Lydia’s Place,” says Athens Area Habitat’s executive director Spencer Frye. “They had lost a sponsorship for a dorm room at UGA, and as we started exchanging ideas it became clear that we could actually do much more than that. So that challenge became an opportunity. We had a property in need of renovation, and when we put it all down on paper, we realized we could house more students at a lower cost than they’d been able to do in the dorm room, and we could open it up to students at other colleges besides UGA.”
Getting there wasn’t easy, however. “Older buildings can be a hard slog,” says Frye. “You never know what you’re going to find when you get inside the walls, into the crawl space, in the attic. There’s always going to be features that have to be brought up to code, and you never know what the previous owners may have done. Especially when you’re dealing with block construction, rehabbing can be harder than a new build. But it’s worth it because you’re improving the neighborhood and you’re not having to develop greenspace.”
Lydia’s Homeplace is located just west of downtown, along municipal bus routes so students can access their classes, shopping, and recreation without having to own a car. It features four units, each housing two students in separate bedrooms. Renovation was done by the Habitat construction crew along with independent contractors. Volunteers helped with the early work, but no volunteers have worked on Athens Area Habitat sites since the pandemic hit Georgia in March.
“Athens Area Habitat has never failed to complete a project,” says VP for Operations Charles Smith. “And we were determined to forge ahead on the Homeplace despite the obstacles.” Those obstacles were significant, including covid-19 which kept volunteers at home and required physical distance between crew members, a spike in the cost of construction materials, and the temporary shutdown of local Habitat ReStores which provide critical funding for day-to-day operations. “The support from the community for this project was tremendous,” says Smith. “Habitat is always about partnering, helping people to improve their own lives, and here was an ‘invisible’ group of young people who were trying to do great things. Nobody talks about homeless students. A lot of people don’t know they exist. And they have no family to help them, no one to cosign on a lease, no place to go when the dorms close for summer or a break. Something as small as an unpaid health services bill can get them locked out and kill their dreams, because then they have to find work just to survive and the education slips through their fingers. The Homeplace gives them that safe home base so they can concentrate on their studies, earn their degrees, and build their lives.”
Enthusiasm for the unique project has translated into a high quality home environment for the incoming students. “Everybody knew this was special,” says Director Frye. “We weren’t going to just slap some paint on the walls and call it done. The crew really put their hearts into it, and you can see it in the little touches, like the subway tile in a unit bathroom or the wood slat blinds in the bedrooms. Our sponsors were tremendously generous, which enabled us to make these units feel more like apartments than dorm rooms. In fact, I can’t tell you how many people my age have walked into this place and remarked how much nicer these units are than anywhere they lived when they were in college!”
Habitat for Humanity is dedicated to the idea that all people deserve a decent, affordable place to live. Lydia’s Homeplace is just one example of how the Athens, GA, affiliate extends that idea into new and exciting projects.
At the gala last January, supporters of the project wrote blessings on two-by-fours which have been installed into the building’s attic. “This building will be home to many students over the coming years,” says VP Smith. “And all of them, literally and figuratively, will have the blessings of the community covering them during their tenure here. This building is an example of how ‘thoughts and prayers’ become reality. Love isn’t just something you feel for others, it’s something you do for others. This is how we obey the commandment to love our neighbors — not by wishing, but by rolling up our sleeves and working. Our community entrusted us with their donations and, until the pandemic, with their sweat and labor as volunteers. That trust is sacred. And that’s what keeps us going through everything — the need to earn the trust that our neighbors place in us.”
With Lydia’s Homeplace ready for its first residents, Athens Area Habitat is looking again to the future. “The pandemic has brought many challenges, but again, our philosophy is to treat those as opportunities to do what we do in new ways and to help the community in new ways,” says Director Frye. “We’re now heavily involved in the fight against covid here. It’s not what we’ve ordinarily done in the past, but when your ox is in a ditch you have to go get it. We help because we can, and if that means stretching ourselves, doing things we’ve never done before, we will absolutely go there.”
“I feel like it’s an honor to have been involved in the creation of Lydia’s Homeplace,” reflects VP Smith, “but other challenges await us. Affordable housing remains a crisis for too many, so we can’t rest on our laurels. With the ongoing help of our community, we will not stop seeking solutions, no matter the obstacles.”