Last month, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties CEO Mike Sutton got an email about an impending gift from a confidential donor.
When the donor’s representatives called and revealed her identity, Sutton learned that his nonprofit would receive the largest single gift in its 37-year history: $11 million.
The local donation is part of a $436 million contribution to Habitat for Humanity International and 84 of its U.S. affiliates from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the affordable housing nonprofit announced Tuesday.
For an affiliate like Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, with an annual budget of $24 million, Sutton said $11 million is “transformative” and will allow the organization to build more affordable homes at a time when Tampa Bay is facing a housing crisis.
“My jaw dropped, I got emotional,” Sutton said of the February phone call with Scott’s representatives. “It was overwhelming in so many ways. Honestly I had no idea how to respond at the time because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime type donation that we’re receiving.”
Of the seven Habitat affiliates in Florida chosen by Scott, two are in Tampa Bay. Along with the $11 million for Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco Counties, Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County will receive $7.5 million.
Through a representative, Scott began requesting information anonymously from Habitat for Humanity International about its network affiliates last summer, according to Amy Dunham, chief communications officer for the Christian-based housing nonprofit. She said Scott and her team selected 84 affiliates out of the 1,100 across the U.S. “entirely independently” and notified the organization of its intentions late last month.
Scott announced in 2019 that she planned to give away her vast fortune, much of which came from the Amazon stock she received in a divorce settlement that year with company founder Jeff Bezos. At the time, her 4 percent stake in the company was valued at $38 billion.
Over the last two years, she has given away a total of $8.8 billion to more than 780 organizations, according to a calculation done by Forbes in February.
Scott has given no media interviews and has made few public statements about her philanthropy, limiting her thoughts to a handful of posts on the publishing platform Medium. She also has not disclosed all recipients of her philanthropy, stating in a December essay that she wants charities to announce their donations “if they choose to.”
Sutton said Scott’s $11 million gift to the Pinellas and West Pasco Habitat affiliate will help offset construction costs that have skyrocketed during the pandemic. It will also enable his affiliate to build a 57-unit subdivision in Largo, a 25-unit subdivision in Clearwater and a 30-unit subdivision in New Port Richey — projects his group had planned but had not secured funding to build until now.
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“This gift will allow us to start the work on those projects much sooner than we would have been able to,” Sutton said.
Habitat builds homes for families that earn between 30 percent and 80 percent of the area median income, which in Pinellas County meant up to $59,050 for a family of four in 2021. The nonprofit requires homeowners to contribute sweat equity in building the home in exchange for the no-interest mortgage.
Sutton said nearly 60 percent of his affiliate’s revenue comes from those mortgages, which is then reinvested to build more homes for families. About 30 percent of its revenue has come from philanthropy and the rest from government funding and sales from its retail store.
Sutton said his strategic plan called for building 65 new homes in fiscal year 2022, 70 in 2023 and 75 in 2024. But construction costs have soared during the pandemic, adding $30,000 to the cost of building a Habitat home.
“This gift will allow us to do so much more above and beyond what we normally do,” Sutton said. “It’s a blessing because it’s coming at a time when we have to find gap financing and find gap donations to make up that difference we’re seeing with increases in costs.”
In a news release, the Hillsborough Habitat affiliate said the $7.5 million gift will help it increase capacity and close the wealth gap in the county, which has the lowest rate of homeownership in Tampa Bay. Over the next few weeks, the group will work on a plan “to ensure the funds are put to their highest and best use,” the release said.
Dunham, the international organization’s chief communications officer, said its $25 million share will enable the organization to drastically increase housing supply over the next three to five years and prioritize efforts “that support the millions of individuals increasingly shut out of the housing market.”
She said some of the funds will be spent on Habitat’s Cost of Home program, aimed at influencing housing policies at the local, state and federal levels. The gift also will be used for a program launching this summer to increase Black homeownership in the U.S., and to leverage capital investments that service communities of color.
Habitat for Humanity International has received several eye-popping gifts in recent years, like the $30 million cash donation from South Dakota businessman Dale Larson in 2021 and a $100 million legacy gift from housing developer Ron Terwilliger in 2009. But Scott’s $436 million donation is the largest individual gift to the Habitat network, Dunham confirmed.
“With this donation, Habitat is well-positioned to meaningfully advocate for the systemic and societal changes needed to improve equitable access to affordable housing,” Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, said in a statement.