In many respects, Nicole Weaver’s among the lucky ones.
While she worked in the restaurant portion of the Faribault HyVee until it closed last month in response to COVID-19, she’s eligible for unemployment benefits, and is able to work in the grocery portion of the store a couple of days each week. But her hours are inconsistent. And her two boys, both disabled, are now home from school and having a hard time adjusting to the change.
A Habitat for Humanity homeowner who moved into her house in 2015, Weaver is grateful that Rice County Habitat is able to offer some leniency when it comes to her monthly house payments.
“I know Habitat is a great, great foundation,” said Weaver. “They are working with us and our mortgage, so that we are able to keep our houses and have a structured life. So they are able to keep us safe and provide us security in that.”
Even before Gov. Tim Walz issued shelter-in-place orders in Minnesota, Cheri Johnson, community engagement coordinator for Rice County Habitat for Humanity, contacted around 45 families still in the process of paying off their mortgages.
Rice County Habitat for Humanity has built 50 houses since 1993, partnering with families who may otherwise not become homeowners.
“I reached out, left messages, texts and emails, to see if everything is OK,” said Johnson. “ … Some are fine and working, others are just hoping their businesses will still stay open.”
Families selected for Habitat homes have at least one working adult. Some have dealt with financial burdens related to medical needs, accidents and other circumstances, but none have faced a pandemic like COVID-19. During these trying times, Habitat for Humanity is working with families to not only answer financial questions but also provide emotional support and protect their safety.
A number of Habitat partner families are considered essential workers during the pandemic, including those employed at food distribution centers, healthcare worker, and those employed in senior care. One Habitat homeowner works remotely with CareerForce in Faribault and has become a resource for other Habitat partners.
Others are struggling financially. A couple families asked if Habitat can defer their mortgages to help them out during the pandemic. Johnson discussed that with the board, Executive Director Dayna Norvold and the executive committee.
Norvold said Habitat for Humanity has control over mortgage suspensions. Families will have their missed payments tacked on to the end of their mortgage, and Norvold said about one quarter of families asked for support in that way.
Johnson added she referred any partner families with rural housing loans from the United States Department of Agriculture to the appropriate connections to get their questions answered.
If partner families have immunocompromised household members, Habitat volunteers also deliver groceries. And if families simply want to vent, Johnson said she makes herself available to listen as well.
Norvold said Habitat for Humanity of Rice County is waiting for two families to close on their houses. She is hopeful one can close on their mortgage this month, but another needed to delay their closing due to financial constraints brought on by COVID-19. This family already moved into their home but can’t close until employment resumes.
“Our cash balance is low because we’re waiting on these families,” said Norvold. “… It will be a hardship for us if we’re not able to close on these two houses.”
Norvold submitted an application for a small business loan, which Habitat for Humanity of Rice County would rely on for financial support. She expects to hear a response in 10 days.
Taking it slow
Habitat suspended all activity of the volunteer Go-To Crew, which consists largely of Rice County retirees. Instead, these volunteers and friends stay connected through emails and newsletters and capture what they’re doing at home in photos they send to Habitat for Humanity.
“They’re getting stir-crazy too,” said Johnson of Go-To Crew volunteers. “[Habitat is] like a second family for them. Some of them know our partner families, and they’re just waiting it out, hoping to get back on the build site.”
Currently, one Habitat house will be finished this month with Go-To Crew work already completed. A professional subcontractor, considered an essential service, is framing a house in northwest Faribault. Norvold hopes volunteers can finish the interior work at a later date.
“Some things are still moving along, maybe just not as quickly as we like,” said Norvold.
As of now the Faith Build 2020 project, which involves the construction of four town homes in Northfield, is scheduled to begin in June. The project, meant to be a big volunteer effort that engages local churches, has not been postponed, but Norvold said, “We’re going to wait and see what happens.”
Rice County Habitat has postponed its Raise the Roof community event, which was scheduled for May. The annual event is one of Habitat’s biggest fundraisers of the year, but donations are still accepted online and via mail.
“Safety is what we really look for,” said Johnson. “We’ll all be here later, so we’ll all take care of it then.”