ST. PETERSBURG — Heather Millwater and her son, Thomas, bounced from home to home the past three years, living in a mobile home park with her parents and in run-down neighborhoods that left the single mother afraid to let her son play outside.
“There was drug dealing going on outside my door at all hours of the night,” she said.
During that time, she worked at a pizza joint and for a moving firm. She was forced to take student loans to continue her business administration degree, hoping one day she could buy her own place.
That wish came true Tuesday when Millwater was presented with the keys to a new three-bedroom home she is buying through a Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County program.
“My credit wasn’t very good — on paper I’m not a desirable person to most lenders,” she said. “I’m ecstatic to be able to be in a safe home where everything works and my son can go out and play.”
The Millwaters were one of two families who received keys to new homes on 35th Avenue North, a street where Habitat has built five homes and is planning another. Applicants for the program typically live in housing that is considered unfit or overcrowded, or are paying rent or a mortgage that is crippling their finances.
To qualify for the program, applicants must take 15 classes on home ownership and do 100 hours of “sweat equity,” or volunteering to help build other habitat homes. They also must make a $500 down payment and take on a zero-interest mortgage to pay off the cost of the home, which is based on materials, land costs, construction costs and an administrative fee.
“The Habitat program is a hand-up not a hand-out,” said Robert Reeves, who heads Habitat’s homeowner services program. “We don’t give those homes away.”
Keys to the other new Habitat home were presented to the Joceyln family.
Sophia Jocelyn was pregnant with her second child and living in Haiti when the devastating earthquake struck in 2010.
He husband, Claudison Jocelyn, worked two jobs to bring his family to join him in the United States.
The family of four became five when they adopted a neice. With limited income from maintenance and hotel jobs, they could only afford to live in cramped apartments.
Claudison, who arrives home from work at 3 a.m., had to arrive at Habitat building sites by 8 a.m. to work off his “sweat equity.”
“Now I can see my life on the right path because my daughters and my wife can have a place to call home in a safer community — we can have peace of mind,” he said in a statement.
Crown Automotives donated $140,000 toward the cost of materials for the new homes, said Christine Sabo, Habitat vice president for major gifts.
More than 100 Crown employees also volunteered their time and labor, helping to paint walls, install cabinets and raise the roofs. Their enthusiasm extended to buying special t-shirts and their own hard hats, Sabo said.
With six Habitat homes on one street, Sabo said, there is already a sense of community on 35th Avenue North.
“All the families on this street have all worked on each other’s homes,” she said. “They are all invested in these homes.”