ST. PETERSBURG — Sisters Dominique Baptiste and Tamara Harrell grew up in their grandmother’s modest house in the Midtown neighborhood.
To some people, Midtown is associated with urban decay, poverty and crime. But to the sisters, it’s home.
That’s why they are grateful that Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas County helped them build side-by-side homes on 21st Avenue S., one block from the house where they grew up.
It’s part of the non-profit group’s focused effort to build and repair homes in the south St. Petersburg neighborhood.
“This has been the best opportunity for me,” said Baptiste, 29, a single mother with three children. “I don’t know who’s happier – me or my kids.”
Baptiste moved into her four-bedroom, two-bathroom home in September, three months after Harrell, 33, and her two children moved into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house next door.
Habitat for Humanity has helped struggling, low-income families build houses in Pinellas since 1985. People and families who qualify are required to complete 20 classes to prepare for home ownership and work 250 to 350 “sweat equity” hours alongside Habitat volunteers who build the homes.
Once a candidate has met Habitat’s requirements and the house is completed, Habitat sells the residence to the candidate at no profit and with a zero-interest mortgage.
Harrell’s home was Habitat’s 300th new home in Pinellas; Baptiste’s was number 309.
Completion of the two homes comes as Habitat debuts a program in a corridor bordered by Ninth and 26th avenues south, between 25th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets. Under the program, called the Mercy-Midtown Home Preservation Partnership, Habitat is helping low-income homeowners make substantial improvements to their houses.
Following Habitat’s partnership model for new houses, homeowners are required to work 10 to 25 hours alongside volunteers and contractors on jobs such as roof replacement, plumbing and electrical repairs, painting and landscaping, upgrades in energy efficiency and modifications to help people with physical disabilities.
The homeowners receive zero-interest loans from Habitat to cover costs of materials, with a payment schedule based on affordability.
Habitat has begun accepting applications and hopes to serve 10 homeowners in 2015.
The services supervisor for Habitat’s Midtown home preservation initiative is Antwaun Wells, 39, a building contractor, barber and civic activist who grew up in Midtown and wants to help the neighborhood rebound.
“It is time for us to invest in the community to bring it back to speed,” he said.
The Pinellas chapter of Habitat, one of more than 1,400 affiliates around the country, does not get funding from the main organization. It relies on corporate contributions, donations from individuals, and the mortgage payments of people living in Habitat-built homes.
Because of the strict qualification guidelines, only five of the 313 Habitat homes in Pinellas have ended up in foreclosure, according to Ron Spoor, the organization’s chief operating officer.
Baptiste calls Habitat “a program of second chances.” More than 200 volunteers helped build her home, she said. “It meant a lot to me; the community supported me throughout the entire process. … The support was just breathtaking.”
The experience has changed her outlook, Baptiste said. “Since all these random people helped me, I decided to pay it forward.”
On the day she moved into her new home, Baptiste received a “welcome” doormat from her new next-door neighbor – her sister.
Harrell said it took her 18 months to complete the Habitat classes and her “sweat equity” hours while working full time as a licensed practical nurse and studying to become a registered nurse. She works at the nearby Johnnie Ruth Clarke Community Health Center.
Her children, ages 11 and 10, are pleased they don’t have to move around any more, said Harrell, and even more pleased that they now live next to their cousins.
Chanel Williams is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.