Via Mark Parker St. Pete Catalyst

Local government leaders traded in their formal wear for hard hats and paint-stained T-shirts as they received an intimate look at how a local organization is addressing the affordable housing crisis.

Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties hosted a unique volunteer build day Friday as 25 elected officials from across the county and political spectrum provided some “sweat equity” to the organization’s 800th area home. They also met and heard from a single mother who was out of housing options until participating in Habitat’s program.

Despite the threat of rain, city council members, county commissioners and mayors helped paint and landscape what will soon be a new home for Brianna Clayton and her daughter in unincorporated Lealman. Habitat is building 13 more in just about a two-block radius.

The organization is now creating communities rather than individual residences, and CEO Mike Sutton noted that requires money for new infrastructure. He announced state legislators recently requested a $2 million appropriation to support the expanded scope, but he still needs additional help from local governments.

“That will help with a lot of the underground work that we need to do to get some of these subdivisions going,” said Sutton of the state funding. “With the commitments we have from our banking partners, we can build 150 homes a year. The thing that is holding us back from doing that is finding land. So, that’s one of the biggest areas you all can help impact.”

Mike Sutton, CEO of the local Habitat affiliate, led a discussion from inside the unfinished garage when it began to rain. Photos by Mark Parker.

Rain began to fall, and the diverse contingent of politicians sought cover in Clayton’s unfinished garage. After a Habitat crew member relayed the proper way to clean off exposed fiberglass insulation – a cold shower – Clayton provided a face to the housing crisis and the benefits of Habitat’s program.

The organization has provided more homes in the last year than any other affiliate in the country. Since 1985, volunteers and future homeowners have built nearly 800 in Pinellas and West Pasco.

Homeowner candidates must meet program criteria and invest 350 to 450 seat equity hours. Once completed, they purchase the home with a 0% interest mortgage.

Clayton said she bounced from apartment to apartment in search of a safe place to raise her daughter before enrolling in the program.

“I just couldn’t afford it,” she said. “Honestly, I was working two jobs – like 90 hours a week – and I was missing time with my daughter.”

Clayton became emotional as she described her “overwhelming” joy and relief upon acceptance into the program. She noted her daughter would finally have a safe home after four years of moving.

In addition, Clayton said she lost her son and subsequently lost herself. She is now “picking up the pieces” and looks forward to showing her daughter “that no matter what life hands you … make something good out of it.”

“And we’re going to make our memories here and have a forever home together to build our roots,” she added.

Brianna Clayton (center), is the 800th person to receive a Habitat home since 1985. Sean King(left), vice president of government relations, Tarpon Springs Commissioner Panagiotis Koulias and an unidentified Habitat crew member lister to her story.

Sean King, vice president of government relations for Habitat, told the local leaders that while affordable rental units are a critical piece of the housing puzzle, they are not a permanent solution.

He said school board members, some of who volunteered Friday, and many business owners previously expressed challenges with recruitment due to the area’s lack of housing options. King said rentals “only go so far,” and community involvement requires something less transitional, like homeownership.

King hopes those present will return to the area one day and say, “I painted this wall.” More than that, however, he said that they would see the neighborhood full of families and kids on bicycles.

Pinellas officials oversee Lealman’s growth and development strategies, as it remains unincorporated. County Commissioner Brian Scott called the community a “deferred investment.”

He explained that is a nice way to say leadership often overlooked the area, although they now hope to make up for the lost time. Scott relayed his excitement for the current momentum and said he felt a “sense of possibility for its future.”

Commissioner Charlie Justice believes the influx of new homeowners will provide unique benefits.

“The fact that we’re able to do 14 homes together improves this entire area,” said County Commissioner Charlie Justice. “These families are going to know each other from coming through the program together – they can support each other. That sense of community is really special.”

Commissioner Charlie Justice (right) was one of 25 elected officials to volunteer Friday.

Volunteers included:

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