Housing Sewanee: Goodbye Poverty, Hello Dreams

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

“She’s a freaking rock star,” said Housing Sewanee Board President Dixon Myers of client Marie Harmon. There is hyperbole in Myers’ comment, but not much. It is hard to exaggerate in praise of Harmon who while raising two sons overcame 13 years of addiction and started her own business. Housing Sewanee gave Harmon the leg up she needed to break the cycle of poverty. It is equally hard to exaggerate when praising the accomplishments of Housing Sewanee Inc. Over the past 30 years, HSI volunteers have built 20 homes for financially challenged residents who pay only for materials and what labor needs to be subcontracted out. Housing Sewanee’s 21st home now under construction features energy efficient infrastructure reducing the homeowner’s total monthly payments — including all utilities, taxes, insurance, and the zero-interest mortgage — to under $450 a month.

The story begins in 1992 when Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller spoke at the University. Fuller encouraged Sewanee to become a Habitat for Humanity tri-county affiliate encompassing Franklin, Grundy, and Marion counties. “We didn’t want to do that big of an operation,” Myers said. “The needs were so great just down Alabama Avenue.” Myers, Doug Cameron, and Tom Kepple wrote the 501(c)(3) nonprofit charter, and Habitat for Humanity generously shared blueprints and documents. In 1993 University Food Service employee Sammy D. Wilkerson moved into the first Housing Sewanee home built on his Alabama Avenue lot where a falling-down home once stood.

Until four years ago, HSI built homes on lots Sewanee area clients owned or leased. That changed when HSI acquired a tract of land with nine building sites on Sherwood Road. Coincidentally, realizing clients struggled with paying utility bills, the HSI board began exploring how to build more energy efficient homes. To save money, HSI began building smaller homes, averaging 1,000 square feet, and reusing building materials such as flooring and cabinets from remodels and mis-sized flooring left from the Sewanee Inn build. The savings went into switching from fiberglass insulation to spray foam or spray cellulose insulation which requires a specialty contractor to apply so costs more, but has a far superior R factor, meaning lower heating and cooling bills. The first home built at Sherwood Springs uses geothermal heating and cooling, relying on the earth’s 56° temperature to maintain the above ground habitat, meaning additional utility bill savings. Both homes built so far also save on water bills by using mountain spring water for toilets and outdoor spigots. At the Sherwood Springs homes, utility costs average less than $100 per month, Myers said, and clients’ 30-year no interest monthly mortgage payment on the $100,000 home is just $250.

HSI applicants must be employed but must not exceed an income threshold which varies depending on family size and circumstances. During construction, to-be homeowners must put in at least 300 hours of sweat equity and, following the build, must contribute 200 hours of volunteer time over the next three years. Visit <www.housingsewaneeinc.com> to download an application. Applications are also available at the CAC office or by writing HSI, P.O. Box 3152, Sewanee, TN 37375.

HSI finances home builds with donations, grants from the Sewanee Community Chest and South Cumberland Community Fund, football game refreshment-stand proceeds, free volunteer labor, and revenue from clients’ mortgage payments. “Somehow it all works,” Myers said. University Bonner Scholars are frequent volunteers, as are Mountain T.O.P. affiliates, a nonprofit which remodels homes for the financially challenged.

In addition to the two new homes and the third home under construction at the Sherwood Springs site, a demonstration building showcases displays and models of the geothermal and spring-water harvest systems used in the homes. To arrange a group tour for a class or club email Myers at <dmyers@sewanee.edu>.

Enrolled in the Blue Monarch program for women grappling with substance abuse, Harmon learned about HSI from a former client who served on the board. Laid off from her Sewanee Inn job due to COVID, Harmon started a cleaning business to make ends meet. The same week her lease at her temporary residence ended, Harmon’s house was finished. “It’s nothing I could have even dreamed would happen to me and my two sons,” Harmon said in awe of how things have worked out for her. “I’m so grateful to Blue Monarch and Housing Sewanee.”

Harmon credits Housing Sewanee with making her monthly bills manageable, enabling her to buy a car and save for her sons’ college education. “Marie’s business is doing so well she can’t take on any more clients. She probably wouldn’t qualify for a Housing Sewanee home now,” Myers said. “But that’s the purpose of what we’re doing. We want to break the cycle of poverty.”

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