What will it take to make buying a home affordable for the working people of Brunswick County? In 2007, Brunswick County resident Resea Willis asked that very question while attending a workforce-housing summit. She recognized that the county had a conspicuous need for quality, financially attainable housing for its workforce: the first year deputy sheriffs, the new teachers, the bus drivers, the administrative support personnel. So Willis decided to address the issue head-on by creating a nonprofit organization on behalf of her community. Thus, Brunswick Housing Opportunities, Inc. was born.
“BHO is an advocacy agency, which means that we are always asking ‘What does it take for people to live well, people to live healthily and to have healthy communities?’ We think that starts with having good housing in those communities, and housing people in such a way that they can be resilient and sustainable in their lives,” says Willis.
BHO’s mission is to help connect people to resources and opportunities that will allow them to increase their economic security, their financial resiliency, and their overall wellbeing as homeowners and residents of Brunswick County. The many services offered all align with the organization’s core goals, otherwise referred to as the four E’s: to educate, equip, empower and expand the opportunities of the County’s consumers when it comes to affordable housing.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve had 800 housing cases, saved over 100 houses from foreclosure, and created at least 50 homeowners in that same time. We built up a neighborhood association, and we repaired over 127 houses for the elderly and disabled,” says Willis.
Making up the backbone of BHO are three primary programs: Homeward Bound, Building the Future, and Home SAFE. The focus of Homeward Bound is to aid people seeking homeownership, affordable rentals, or those trying to save their homes from foreclosure. In order to do so, BHO provides trainings, workshops, financial coaching, and counseling on topics such as credit improvement, money management, and financial fitness. Consumers are charged small fees for these services based on a sliding scale, and foreclosure counseling is always free.
With Building the Future, BHO’s goal is to change the negative connotation of affordable housing from being something of low quality into something valuable and innovative. In 2013, BHO began building energy-efficient, low-maintenance homes using such things as superior building materials, stone-coated metal roofing systems, solar water heaters, and energy-efficient windows. BHO builds quality, modern, and yet still affordable homes for new homebuyers in this region.
“We wanted to do something innovative, something that’s a new approach, in order to educate the public about what can be done. I think one of the roles of a non-profit is to always be taking that extra risk that a for-profit company won’t take. So we thought, if you’re going to live in Hurricane Alley, then you should be building something that’s resilient, something that every time the wind blows it doesn’t blow your house down,” says Willis. “ Could you build a home with lots of amenities but very low maintenance? Could you build an affordable, energy-efficient house for under 130,000? We proved that you could.”
Currently the Building the Future program is focusing its sights on tiny homes and is in the process of constructing seven in a small cluster. The catalyst behind the endeavor is to find a way to help keep local young adults who are aging out of foster care from becoming homeless. “So we are working with a faith-based organization to see if we can build this cluster of homes, and in the middle of those homes put a resident couple in order to support the people living there,” says Willis.
BHO’s final taskforce is its Home Preservation Team, a community-based volunteer effort working to reduce substandard housing among the very low-income senior and disabled homeowners of Brunswick County. With the help of material donations from various contractors and Home Depot, volunteers provide the labor needed to complete health and safety hazard repairs. Oftentimes, the work is most needed in the many mobile homes across the County.
“So we get the houses that other programs come out and say ‘Oh, there’s nothing we can do about this house, it’s too expensive.’ We work with people at local churches and other volunteers, and we do floors, bathrooms, and walls. Brunswick County has a ton of trailers, and many of those trailers are with people who have worked all their lives, people who had low-waged jobs, but that’s their home,” says Willis.
Repairs performed through the Home SAFE program include removal of tripping hazards, increased lighting, installation of grab bars and other safety measures. In essence, anything that can be done to improve the overall living condition and eradicate substandard housing for the residents of Brunswick County.
When asked about BHO’s future goals and plans, Willis is certain of one thing, and that is to remain dedicated to the most pressing needs of the community, whatever they may become.
“I have a belief about non-profits. I think there should be a beginning and an end. And we had one finite thing that we wanted to do, we wanted to raise awareness about workforce housing. We wanted to create an atmosphere in which the marketplace embraced workforce housing and built it and looked at the population that buys homes costing between 90K-150K as a viable community to go after, as a viable consumer. That was our goal. So when we started I said, ‘Let’s see where we get by 2020.’”
“In 2020, we will be 13 years old, and the question will become, as a nonprofit have we achieved what we set out to do? Have we been successful? Have we made an impact? I think that as a nonprofit we should be asking that question, and that the community should be asking that question of us. And if we haven’t, then maybe we need to be doing something else. A community development corporation has a responsibility to meet the needs of the community. We will always be an advocacy organization. So what do we need to advocate for in 2020?”
Only time will tell.