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Sea Island Habitat for Humanity

It is a warm November day as I pull onto the sandy drive packed with cars. The jobsite buzzes with volunteers in hard hats. Today the trusses are going up and the team is shouting, hoisting, hammering—a cacophony of coordination. The mood is nothing short of festive. 

Sea Island Habitat for Humanity (HFH) was established in 1978, the third oldest chapter of the now global nonprofit housing organization. Over the last forty-two years, Sea Island HFH has built over three hundred and fifty houses in the region, primarily on Johns Island but also on James Island, Wadmalaw Island, and even south to Hollywood and Ravenel. Today, the team is working on a four bedroom, two bath home off of Highway 162 on Johns Island. In a few short months, a family of five will move into their new home. 

Housing in the greater Charleston area isn’t cheap, especially of late. According to John Rhoden, Sea Island HFH’s executive director, you can buy two houses in Sumter, South Carolina, for the price of one house on Johns Island. “People are driving in from Ravenel because there is no significant source of affordable housing on Johns Island or even James Island. There’s a big disconnect there.” And yet much of the local workforce (nearly 70 percent) falls in the  low-income bracket. Many work in school cafeterias, retail stores, and restaurants. 

But Habitat for Humanity doesn’t build free housing; it actually acts as a lender for low-income buyers. The selection process to be a “partner family” is fairly rigorous. Applicants need a decent job history and a stable income. Once selected, future homeowners are required to attend classes on budgeting, taxes, and home maintenance. They are also required to volunteer four hundred hours. Some of this time is spent working on their new home, but some hours are required on another Habitat build, or in Habitat’s ReStore. And at the end of construction, the new homeowner walks away with the keys to a new house and a thirty-year, 0 percent-interest mortgage. At the closings, Rhoden says, some new homeowners burst into tears. Others grin ear to ear. 

Latoya Milligan had always dreamed of owning her own home by the age of thirty. She was living in a cramped apartment complex with her ten-year-old son and had never felt comfortable letting him play outside. She applied to Sea Island HFH in 2019 and was accepted. She says the application process was very encouraging, that working with Sea Island HFH’s family services director, Maritza Zeisel, gave her a lot of confidence. “The budgeting class was a big eye-opener for me,” says Milligan. “Now I’m extra cautious with my spending and credit. I don’t bite off more than I can chew.” She moved into her new home in March of 2020. Now she has a short five-minute drive to her work as a medication technician at a senior living facility. “My son is a very energetic little person. Now we have a yard he can run around in,” says Milligan. “This has changed our lives.”

Milligan’s home is part of an HFH subdivision on James Island. Unlike many HFH chapters, Sea Island HFH often builds entire neighborhoods. They develop the land, bringing in utilities and building an average of ten to fifteen homes (though a 2002–2007 neighborhood build was over one hundred homes!). 

Sea Island HFH can scale to this degree because their yearly revenue is uncommonly robust in comparison to other chapters, thanks to an exceptionally generous and consistent donor base and an exceedingly well-managed organization. Rhoden and his team run a tight ship. Another important factor is the organization’s mortgage portfolio. Sea Island HFH is working with forty-two years worth of mortgages. “Because we’ve built so many houses, because we’ve been here so long, we have around two hundred and forty mortgages, about eleven and a half million dollars worth of value right now,” says Rhoden. 

Another important source of revenue comes from the Sea Island HFH ReStore. The donation-based store grosses between one and two million dollars a year. This considerable profit is due, in part, to the organization’s new Deconstruction program. “Say someone buys a house on Kiawah, and they’re going to renovate,” explains Rhoden. “They call us and we come pull the materials—doors, appliances, old granite, window treatments, ceiling fans, you name it.” These materials sell at the ReStore and generate a huge profit for the organization. 

Rhoden also initiated a new Repair program. A full-time contractor fixes roofs, windows, and doors on existing homes in the area. “When we have someone who’s had a leak for two years and you stop that leak, they cannot be more thankful,” says Rhoden. “It’s a lot of tears, a lot of hugs.” This new program isn’t funded by the mortgage structure and relies completely on donor dollars and the ReStore revenue. Again, most Habitat organizations don’t have a comparable program simply because they can’t afford it. 

However, like any nonprofit, there is always a need for more funding. The Repair program, for example, has a yearlong waiting list. Rhoden would love to grow the team to accommodate this need but constantly contends with budgetary limitations.

The sun breaks through the clouds as the team hoists the final truss into the air. Crew leader Kate Komorous balances in the rafters, shifting the bottom chord into place. Construction supervisor Doug Mackenzie directs from the ground, while Mike Rettaliata, Habitat’s superintendent, stands in the unfinished doorway, joking with a volunteer. “Truss day is always an exciting day in the span of a build,” Sheilagh Carlisle, Sea Island HFH’s development director, tells me. “This is when it really starts looking like a house.”

The organization works with a set of standard plans for one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes with minor variations in finishes and porches. The homes are well-built and certified green. “These are real, honest-to-gosh, stick-built houses,” says Rhoden. “We’re pulling permits just like every other builder in the area.” There is usually a two-year wait time, but once the crew breaks ground, homes are completed in six to seven months. 

To Rhoden, his solid staff is everything. “We don’t have a lot of turnover. These guys love what they’re doing. And it’s hard to find a carpenter who can teach an eighteen-year-old kid how to read a tape measure every Tuesday.” Sea Island HFH is manned by a six-person construction crew and an eight-person office staff. The culture is obviously convivial but also one of integrity, hard work, and dedication to the mission. “Mike, our construction superintendent, we call him our Happy Hippie,” laughs Rhoden. “He’s always got the tunes playing in the background. We make sure we have a good time with it.”

Sea Island HFH relies heavily on volunteers, too. They have weekend regulars and annual work weeks from churches, camps, and universities. Local businesses and civic groups volunteer. The organization has two dormitory houses on Johns Island for out-of-town volunteers, and sometimes big groups will come for a full week at a time. “Our groups love it. We do a roundup in the morning and at the end of each day to make sure people see what they’ve accomplished. Everyone gets tremendous satisfaction out of it.” 

Watching the scene unfold today, I see what he means. It’s nice to be out in the sunshine, working toward a common goal. No one is on a cell phone, everyone is chatting and laughing—not to mention gaining a bit of practical knowledge and contributing to the community. And that’s the Habitat for Humanity mission: bringing people together to “build homes, community, and hope.” Ultimately, the fabric of the local community is stronger for it. 

Sea Island HFH has a substantial volunteer base in the Kiawah community, with a handful of weekly regulars who participate in builds all year long. Donations from Kiawah homeowners are significant and a large part of why this Habitat for Humanity chapter has been so successful over the past forty-two years.

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