Portage families see benefits through Habitat

Morgan Day

Tina Mann had a home. She could provide for her kids. She was getting by.

Why would she – a young woman with a husband who earned not a lot, but enough – qualify for a home built by Habitat for Humanity?

Partnering with the organization seemed like an impossibility, and Mann had to be assured she fit the criteria.

“The person who got us the application, he said, ‘Fill out the application and let Habitat tell you no,'” Mann said.

Well, she did. And Habitat didn’t.

Habitat for Humanity of Portage County said yes. Board members helped Mann and her husband through workshops and credit counseling to get them out of debt. The couple put “sweat equity” into their Atwater home and now save more money living in a house, as opposed to their trailer home.

“Believe it or not, moving into the house has helped our income dramatically,” she said, citing her low electric bill and no longer having to pay a gas bill.

Hurdles, misconceptions

Dick Rowley, president of Habitat for Humanity of Portage County, said there are others in the county like Mann who might consider partnering with the organization, but certain reasons keep them from completing the application process.

One possible reason, he said, could be that some families are ashamed to approach Habitat. However, he said the purchase of a Habitat home is a “hand up, not a hand out.”

The houses are not free, and the families not only have to volunteer 500 hours to the organization by helping build their home or someone else’s, but they also have to make a down payment and pay a no-interest mortgage, taxes and insurance.

Rowley said Habitat runs into problems with zoning regulations, which have forced the organization to build larger houses. But, the average partner family is a single mother with one to three kids – not enough people to reside in and pay for a large home. An ideal home for one family is 150,000 square feet with three bedrooms, one bathroom and no garage or paved driveway.

“If you build too big, the taxes alone will make it unaffordable,” he said.

So, while Portage County Habitat is still working to build smaller homes, the organization, along with many other Habitats, has turned more toward “rehabs,” or fixing existing homes for residence.

Rowley said the organization doesn’t build new homes in Kent because the price of land is too high. It does, however, do several rehabs in the city. And, he said Habitat has started building duplexes to make housing even more affordable.

Yet, there is one option to get decently priced land in the area.

“We think there ought to be people out there who own lots, who are paying taxes on land and could get a tax break for donating it,” Rowley said.

He also mentioned one misconception related to Habitat homes.

“The assumption is that if you build low-quality housing, you’re going to get low-quality people,” Rowley said. “I can guarantee you, our partner families are not low-quality people.”

Sticking with it

Another reason people might not partner with Habitat is they need help sooner than Habitat can give it.

“Sometimes when you live in substandard conditions, you may not have the patience to wait a year or two or three to work through your financial problems and put in the sweat equity hours,” he said.

Mann, who first worked with Habitat through volunteering and now is the chair of the building committee, said it was debt that prevented her family from being accepted into the program at first.

Mann listened to testimony from a partner family who was in a similar financial situation, which made her feel more comfortable. She considered her orientation and meetings with board members a great experience.

“The people listened to us. They talked to us. They didn’t treat us any different,” she said.

But, after applying, she began to fall behind on bills, hoping Habitat board members would take more notice of her family. She said there were periods of six to eight months where they had no contact with board members.

“If we would’ve had the contact more, I would’ve stayed on top of those bills, and we would’ve qualified a year faster,” she explained.

Mann later faced another problem when building her home. She had difficulty finding someone to watch her kids. But, it was fortunate at times because her home was built in a Habitat house lot where her neighbors understood her problems and offered to baby-sit.

She said the Homeowners Association and Habitat are willing to work with whatever problems a partner family may have, including watching children for the day.


To be considered for a home built by Habitat for Humanity of Portage County, families must meet the following criteria:

• Have a housing need. The applicant must live in substandard housing at the time of application. This could mean their home is dilapidated or overcrowded because of the number of family members living in the house.

• Be able to pay. Partner families will be considered if their total yearly income is at least $13,000 and not more than 60 percent of the Portage County median family income.

• Be willing to participate as a partner with Habitat, including putting 500 sweat equity hours into their home or someone else’s home. One adult must complete 250 hours of sweat equity.

• Attend an orientation session and fill out an application, including references.

• Agree to attend consumer credit counseling if needed.

• The next orientation session for prospective Habitat homeowners is at 2 p.m. Nov. 18. You must register to attend and you must attend an orientation to apply. Call Habitat at (330) 296-2880 to register. For more information, visit


– Dick Rowley

Helping yourself, helping others

Christine Hereford, who partnered with Habitat in 2002, shares Mann’s feeling of giving back. She said her mother-in-law had the first Habitat house built in southern Portage County, and her motto is “If you can’t give it back, you have not earned your home.”

Hereford mentioned another benefit of building your own home. She said it prepares the volunteers and partner families for future home projects.

“Where else can you go where you can work for professionals and they will show you the tricks of their trade?” she asked. “These guys are here, and they’re patient. They’re showing you how to hit that nail and how to put those walls up.”

While the organization always welcomes new volunteers, Habitat would like to see more partner families applying for quality, moderately priced housing. Still, Rowley said the organization is growing and continues to build.

“It’s like the Field of Dreams – if we build it, they will come,” he said. “We hope by building some houses, prospectively, people might come.”

Mann said there’s really nothing to lose by applying. She’s only gained from her experience with Habitat, and continues to help others gain, too. Before purchasing their home, Mann and her husband decided to continue volunteering to give back to the community what it had given to them.

Mann attended the recent sleep-out at Kent State, sponsored by Habitat for Humanity of Portage County to raise awareness of homelessness. There, she told a story of a boy walking along a shoreline scattered with starfish. Each time he found one, he threw it back into the ocean, she said. Someone finally asked him why he would waste his time doing something that didn’t matter.

“The little boy picked up one and threw it back in and said, ‘It mattered to that one,'” she said. “That’s how it is for me.”

Contact public affairs reporter Morgan Day at [email protected].