Habitat for Humanity Ready to Reunite with Volunteers

Habitat For Humanity Home Owners
Habitat for Humanity homebuyer Lauren Duhe poses with her two children in front of their home.

NEW ORLEANS – The pandemic created a particular set of challenges for the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, a 38-year-old nonprofit that relies on large groups of volunteers to help create homeownership opportunities for working families.

Marguerite Noahh Truck 2

Marguerite Oestreicher

In a normal year, NOAHH hosts between 4,000 and 5,000 volunteers who provide free labor and funds to pay for materials, insurance and other costs of building a home. Social distancing requirements during the pandemic, however, made it impossible to host local volunteers on build sites. Additionally, when all New Orleans meetings and conventions were cancelled, a source of many home-building volunteers disappeared along with them. Habitat’s annual fundraising events – including “Women Build,” “Bench and Bar Build” and “Unity Build” – were cancelled as well.

As a result of these unexpected changes, the nonprofit used the last 12 months to focus on other concerns: the first was making sure its existing partner families were able to stay in their homes.

“It was our highest priority,” said NOAHH Executive Director Marguerite Oestreicher. “This led to the decision to halt new intakes to ensure we would have the resources to support our homeowners in a highly uncertain climate. We immediately reached out to our banking partners to offer mortgage deferments to all homebuyers that wanted one. We extended the terms of the mortgages to avoid anyone being hit with a balloon payment at the end of the deferment.”

Oestreicher said Habitat also focused on safety measures at its offices, its two ReStore retail outlets and on site, where employees continued to build and make repairs.

Perhaps most important, Habitat reached out to donors to explain that its partner families – many of them front-line workers or New Orleans culture bearers – needed more help than ever. In fact, if there’s a silver lining to the challenging year, it’s that there’s more awareness of the problem that Habitat is dedicated to solving.

“Housing and health are inextricably linked and it’s never been more apparent than now, when how and where you live directly impacts risk and health,” said Oestreicher. “Affordable housing is having a ‘moment.’ When a family of four is forced to live in a grandparent’s laundry room because they can no longer pay rent because one parent lost their job, things must fundamentally shift.”

The good news is Habitat expects to be able to host volunteers for its “Bench and Bar” build next month. It will look different than in years past, with no more than 10 volunteers on any given site, so the nonprofit will be operating multiple sites to accommodate the group. After that build, organizers will assess protocols and hope to work with vaccinated volunteers on a limited basis in May.

At the same time, Habitat will be focusing on acquiring land for future home sites and is resuming intakes for partner families.

Ultimately, the last year has been a chance to test Oestreicher’s belief in “flexibility, patience and grace” – but now it’s time to pick up a hammer again and start building.

“Habitat will continue to serve low- to moderate-income working families, to provide opportunities to purchase a home and break the cycle of poverty and build opportunity and generational wealth,” said Oestreicher.


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