If She Had a Hammer

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On May 14, Habitat’s Blue Jean Bash will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Women Build.

We expect a preponderance of women in certain places – PTA meetings, rom-coms, WNBA games. And there are places you don’t see a female majority (but wish you did). Board rooms and Congress, for example. But of all the places you don’t expect to see an all-female gathering, a construction site is at the top of the list.

Yet 25 years ago, that unlikely scenario—now called Women Build—took place, thanks to Habitat for Humanity’s Charlotte chapter. National media covered it; other Habitat affiliates took notice. And  the idea spread.

This year, 300 Women Build projects are happening internationally. More than 2,400 homes have been built by all-female crews since the project began.

To celebrate the milestone, Habitat Charlotte will build five homes—with an all-female crew—this May. The theme of this year’s build: “She thought she could, so she did.”

It applies to the construction crews—and to the women who work to achieve the dream of homeownership.

 

A former first lady gets involved

Jimmy Carter is probably Habitat’s most famous volunteer. In 1987, Habitat Charlotte invited the former president and first lady here. They and an all-volunteer crew built 14 houses in a single week.

Some of the women volunteers hatched a plan with Rosalynn Carter to assemble a women-only construction crew. Carter returned to Charlotte for what was then called “See Jane Build.” Someone asked where her husband was, and she quipped, “I told him we didn’t need him here.”

This project was by women. And for women.

A full 75 percent of Habitat Charlotte homeowners are women. Most are low-income single moms. And that’s the demographic that has the toughest time breaking out of poverty, says Laura Belcher, Habitat Charlotte’s president and CEO.

Phil Prince, Habitat Charlotte’s marketing and communications director, says many are working two jobs: “When rent goes up—even a little—they can’t afford it, so they have to move.” And frequent moves take a toll on children.

Janet Stewart is a single mom of two daughters, then 8 and 12, who moved in the first Women Build house in  Optimist Park in 1991. “Her daughters, now grown, say their mom didn’t know how to hang a curtain rod when they moved in,” Prince says. “But she saw the women framing her house and hanging sheetrock, and decided she could be handy, too.”

Stewart said in a video about the project: “I met so many amazing women that day. And they were there for us.”

Her children blossomed in their new home and at school. And Stewart? She’s still in her house and has paid off her mortgage. In the last two years, 60 Habitat homeowners have paid their loans in full.

Belcher thinks there’s a common misperception about Habitat owners. “Our homeowners work hard,” she says. “These are not people looking for a handout. They just need a hand up. People you encounter every day could be Habitat homeowners. They might be the person slicing deli meat at your grocery store, your children’s bus driver, or the person who brings you your dinner tray in the hospital.”

They have to demonstrate need, the ability to pay, and a willingness to put some skin in the game. They’re required to put in 300 hours of sweat equity. Before they start working on their own home, they’ve probably helped build five or six already.

If approved for a loan, people buy their homes from Habitat at 0 percent interest.

Women make it happen

Susan Hancock was Habitat Charlotte’s director during the first Women Build. Some of Charlotte’s most powerful women joined her. Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. CEO Dale Halton and two women who ran their own construction companies—Katie Tyler and Pat Rodgers—were part of the construction crew.

“They did everything,” Prince says. “On the first day of the build, they poured the concrete, framed the house, and put on the roof trusses.”

City inspectors—all men—who came to the site must have been surprised. The plumber, the electricians, the sheetrock hangers—all were women. The inspectors were the only men allowed on site, and the women made them wear wigs under their hard hats.

The women kept their Porta-Jons tidy. They put fresh flowers in what they called Porta-Janes.

The physicality of women building together is a powerful image, Belcher says. But what’s even more powerful is the idea of women empowering women.

For Belcher, the most exciting part of a build is at the end of the first day—when the structure has begun to look like a house. The owner can walk through it and begin to envision a life of stability. “A mother might stand in what will be her kitchen and see the view of her own back yard,” Belcher says. “Or walk into the space that will be her child’s bedroom.”

And the place begins to feel like home.

“Those women had a lasting effect on our lives,” Stewart says of the all-female crew that built her home. “It changed us all.”


Habitat Charlotte by the numbers

Habitat Charlotte homeowners have paid a collective total of $14 million in property taxes since the organization was founded in 1983.

Families that pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing (and that’s one in three in Charlotte) are considered cost burdened and may have difficulty affording necessities such as food, clothing, transportation, and medical care.

The average monthly rent in Charlotte has risen 6.1 percent in the last year, while wages have remained flat.

Charlotte is about 34,000 units short on affordable housing. Just a few years ago that number was 17,000. The need for Habitat is greater than ever.

Photos courtesy of Habitat for Humanity.

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