BAYTOWN – Whitney Williams can swing a hammer. She can wield a circular saw. And she’s an ace with a drill. But on Sept. 24, what she really needed was a stick.

It was her 37th birthday, and as she stood outside the house she was helping to build – the house that will soon be the home she keeps with her two daughters, Hannah and Zuri – she saw the opportunity to make one important adjustment to the cement step poured at the base of her side door. 

Whitney Williams, a soon-to-be homeowner and current volunteer with Baytown Habitat for Humanity, looks up at her home’s ceiling as it’s installed April 14 in Baytown. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

She looked to her right, where she found a fallen branch. Then she tore off a twig and got to work. 

“GODBLESS this house,” she wrote – the first word in big, capital letters, so it will never be missed – in the fresh, wet cement. 

It felt so good. She turned to Shelly Gondo, the construction manager at the site. “Can I write something in the driveway, too?” she asked. 

Of course you can, Gondo told her. And then she added the three words Whitney had waited her whole life to hear: “It’s your house.”

Whitney walked the distance to the end of the driveway. And stick in hand, she carved her initials, followed by the initials of her children. 

In the history of the world – has there ever been a better 37th birthday present?

Whitney’s home is being built by Baytown Habitat for Humanity, an organization that has built about one home a year since it was founded 33 years ago. Like other local affiliates of the national nonprofit organization, homes are constructed mostly by volunteers, with tradespeople stepping in for specialized work like plumbing and electrical. The organization’s purpose is to provide families like Whitney’s with access to affordable, safe homes so they can shed financial anxieties and build generational wealth.

You’d think there would be a long line of Whitneys waiting for their chance to carve their initials into a driveway of their own. But only seven people applied last year to Baytown Habitat. And when I asked the nonprofit’s officials what they need more than anything, I heard the same surprising answer on repeat: “We need more people to apply.”

Habitat leaders want more Whitneys. But they don’t know why more people aren’t applying. Could it be that not enough people know the opportunity exists? Or they don’t realize they qualify? There are plenty of questions – but answers are scarce.

“God Bless This House” is written on the doorstep of a home by Whitney Williams, who will soon take ownership of the house built by Baytown Habitat for Humanity. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

Building need

Allison Hardgrave-Hay, executive director of Houston Habitat for Humanity, which will build 29 homes this year, wants more candidates like Whitney in her pipeline, as well. Houston Habitat’s goal is to increase to 50 houses annually in five years, and 100 houses in 10.

Whitney Williams’ Habitat for Humanity work logbook documents her total hours volunteering. The Baytown resident is eligible for her own home after working 500 hours. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

“You’ve got to have a demand before you can build,” she says. 

Whitney’s house isn’t free. But she swaps out a down payment for 500 hours of sweat equity (where do you think she learned to swing that hammer?) on her house and the homes of others. And while the list price on her property would ring in at about $200,000 in Baytown, the cost of the build is closer to $120,000, thanks to the volunteer labor, according to the organization’s executive director, Lorin Hilyard. 

Habitat pays that, and over the course of 25 years, Whitney will buy it back through a zero-interest mortgage, beginning with about $80,000 in equity when she receives her keys later this year. And her monthly payment won’t be far off from the current $868 she shells out for her apartment across town.

Her home is the first of seven to be built on one large, donated lot. If more homeowners joined the pipeline, Hilyard tells me, the organization could build two houses at a time, finding cost and labor efficiencies by constructing homes side by side. Someday, they could even move to three houses. Or four.

House being constructed.
Baytown Habitat for Humanity volunteers install roofing on Whitney Williams’ soon-to-be home April 14 in Baytown. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

The need is there. 

“I think it’s a continued, sustained need, but what has happened over the last five years is that rents have exploded,” says Joyce Young, executive director of the Baytown Housing Authority, where the waitlist for affordable housing has been closed for nearly three years. 

And it’s not just among rentals. 

“We have a mismatch in our community between the median household income and what the median household price is,” Thomas Hast tells me on a sunny Friday afternoon as we stand inside what will soon be Whitney’s kitchen. 

“The median household income in our community is $65,000 – that’s household, not individual,” says Hast, Baytown Habitat’s board president and a chief lending officer at a local credit union. “Median household prices are closer to $225,000. And that’s increasing.”

But there’s a second mismatch – between the number of people who could qualify for a house and the number who realize they’re in that pool – that’s limiting the organization’s forward momentum.

  • Two people look at a construction of a house.

A happy home

I look over Hast’s shoulder at the bare, framed-out walls behind him, separating Whitney’s kitchen from the hallway to the bedrooms where she and her daughters, 9 and nearly 1, will sleep. The two-by-fours are tattooed with black-ink messages from volunteers, wishing Whitney a happy life in the home being built around her. Soon, these messages will be covered by the sheetrock, paint and whatever decorations her daughters want to hang in their home. 

But right now, the bones are visible. In the spot just over Hast’s shoulder, there’s a message from Tenisha Williams. She’s not related to Whitney, but they have a lot in common: Tenisha is currently tallying sweat equity hours on Whitney’s home.

“As for me and my house we will serve the lord. I pray your home is always filled with love and blessings,” Tenisha wrote, before signing “The other Ms. Williams,” followed by a heart. 

I’ve stood in a few Habitat houses over the years – on story assignments, and even building one as a spring break volunteer during college. I remember writing “home is where the heart is” and closing my eyes to dream of a stranger’s happy-heart memories unfolding upon the subfloor where I stood in sawdust-flecked sneakers. Honestly, I’ll never forget it. 

Whitney has memories like that, too. She was 15 when she helped Habitat build the home that would belong to her mother. She hit her thumb with a hammer in the space that was later her closet. 

Living in that home with her mom, through her teenage years, gave Whitney’s family financial stability. 

“I have two daughters, and I want them to live in a house like I lived in a house,” she says. “I moved out and rented my first apartment when I was 21, but there’s nothing like saying, ‘I can live in this house.’”

A person locks a door of a house in construction.
Whitney Williams tests her key to the backdoor of her soon-to-be home being built by Baytown Habitat for Humanity on April 14 in Baytown. (Joseph Bui for Houston Landing)

So in 2019, she applied for a Habitat house. 

Her first application was denied. That happens from time to time. Some people make too much money, others don’t make enough. Ideal candidates make between 40 and 80 percent of the area’s median income – about $35,000 to $70,000 a year for a family of four. Still others hit snags because of high debt-to-income ratios, poor credit or other issues, says Hast. 

But those can be fixed. And Whitney – swinger of hammers – is a fixer. 

“I figured, look, I really, really want that Habitat house,” Whitney says. “I’ve got to move forward and do better.”

She switched jobs, trading part-time gigs at a Dollar General and a day care for a position at the local Walmart distribution center. She enrolled in Habitat’s financial literacy course – another mandatory step in the process – and lowered her debt. Then she applied again last year.

Her application was accepted. 

And now she is building a home for her daughters, like she helped build one for her mother. Her mom has paid off that house. And Whitney’s excited to join her as a free-and-clear homeowner – eventually.

“I’ll be 63 when I get done,” she says. 

“But man,” she lets out a long, lingering sigh. “That’ll be awesome.”

For more information about Baytown Habitat for Humanity’s application criteria and process, click here.

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...