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Pinellas/Pasco Habitat works around coronavirus to move families into new homes

Habitat for Humanity, feeling a financial pinch and other effects of the pandemic, pushes ahead with four new homes in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.
Kelly Cottner, 39, smiles as she works to hand off a box to her daughter, Angelina Jillson, 15, as they move into their new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. In the background is Bradley Cottner, 9, working the dolly. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Angelina and Bradley.
Kelly Cottner, 39, smiles as she works to hand off a box to her daughter, Angelina Jillson, 15, as they move into their new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. In the background is Bradley Cottner, 9, working the dolly. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Angelina and Bradley. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 2, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Last week, four families closed on their new Habitat for Humanity homes, but there were no dedication ceremonies with speeches and prayers, complimentary coffee or cars of volunteers and well wishers parked for blocks around.

Not in the middle of a pandemic.

Each family signed key documents with only Mike Sutton present. He’s the president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties.

“We probably will do some sort of celebration down the road to kind of mark them becoming a first-time home buyer,” Sutton said later.

The public health crisis that disrupted Habitat’s traditional home ownership ritual also is raising concerns about the nonprofit’s finances.

Michael Sutton, president and CEO of the newly merged Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties.
Michael Sutton, president and CEO of the newly merged Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties. [ Photo courtesy of Habit for Humanity ]

“I think that the longer this goes on, the more of a challenge it will be for Habitat,” Sutton said. “Both of our retail operations have closed. Private revenue from the community and corporations has definitely decreased significantly over the last month and a half, and we were forced to cancel our gala in April, which raises money to build five to six new homes.”

Related: Habitat for Humanity launches $6 million affordable housing project in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park

Over the past five years, the nonprofit’s board of directors had focused on building up cash reserves, Sutton said. “We had a rainy day fund, but we thought that any crisis we met would be a hurricane. We never anticipated having to deal with a health crisis like this.”

Kelly Cottner, 39, laughs as she works to hand off a box to her son, Bradley Cottner, 9, as they move into their new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Bradley and Angelina Jillson, 15,
Kelly Cottner, 39, laughs as she works to hand off a box to her son, Bradley Cottner, 9, as they move into their new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Bradley and Angelina Jillson, 15, [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

But the coronavirus did not halt last week’s closings. Kelly Cottner and her two children, Angelina Jillson, 15, and Bradley Cottner, 9, were among the families who quietly savored the joy of getting their first homes.

Related: Habitat for Humanity's 500th home in Pinellas fulfills dream for St. Petersburg mother

On Wednesday, Cottner and her children moved from a cramped Clearwater apartment to Pinellas Park.

“We are extremely excited, and we couldn’t be happier, and I’m truly grateful,” Cottner, 39, said the day before the move. She probably would cry when she set foot in her new three-bedroom, two-bath home, “knowing that I could do this by myself and for my kids and that I can afford it,“ she added.

Cottner and her children have been on their own since Bradley was 3.

“They’ve never had their own room, ever,” she said.

The family shared two different apartments with another mother and her two children. The first was a four-bedroom unit, but they had to move when black mold was discovered. The two families next crammed into a three-bedroom apartment.

Cottner, a material handler at a General Electric plant in Clearwater, said she learned about Habitat from coworker Andrea Crosby, a longtime Habitat homeowner.

“She’s the one that suggested it and helped me get motivated,” Cottner said.

Kelly Cottner, 39, carries a box into her new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. In background is Bradley Cottner, 9, working the dolly. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Angelina Jillson, 15, and Bradley.
Kelly Cottner, 39, carries a box into her new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. In background is Bradley Cottner, 9, working the dolly. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Angelina Jillson, 15, and Bradley. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Faith-build, a coalition of congregations, sponsored her home, with Thrivent Financial providing a matching grant. The average cost of a three-bedroom, two-bath Habitat home, including land, is $170,000.

Construction, an essential business under shut-down orders, has continued, Sutton said, but slowly.

Related: Habitat for Humanity organizations in Pinellas and Pasco counties merge

Those who qualify for a Habitat home earn 30 to 80 percent of the area median income and must save $1,000 toward their down payment. They also must attend home-buying classes, including financial management, and complete 350 to 450 hours of “sweat equity,” which means working on their own home and those of others. Homes are financed with a zero-interest loan.

Angelina Jillson, 15, talks with her mother, Kelly Cottner, 39, on the front porch of their new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Angelina and Bradley Cottner, 9.
Angelina Jillson, 15, talks with her mother, Kelly Cottner, 39, on the front porch of their new home on Wednesday in Pinellas Park. Habitat for Humanity handed over four new homes to families in Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg last week, including one to Kelly and her two children, Angelina and Bradley Cottner, 9. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Sutton said Habitat has had to make changes to some of its requirements because of the pandemic, substituting online workshops for traditional sweat-equity hours. The volunteer program also had to be suspended, so the organization is depending solely on subcontractors.

Three of the recently completed homes are in Tellor Estates, a recently incorporated area of Pinellas Park. It’s where Habitat launched one of its largest affordable housing developments last year. The fourth house is in St. Petersburg, one of 45 affordable single-family homes the organization said it would build with $6 million in tax credits in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.