Habitat fights through 2020

Loudon County Habitat for Humanity volunteers have been building a house on McKinney Avenue in Lenoir City.

Loudon County Habitat for Humanity dealt with various pandemic challenges in 2020 but still provided help to families.

“There’s a few events that we rely on for some funding to put families in homes and because of COVID we just haven’t been able to do those,” Sheila Borders, Habitat board president, said. “We tried to do other substitutions but it really just didn’t bring in the funding that we would have hoped. We have been blessed and are able to make things still function, but it’s been tough and it’s been a challenge and any other adjective you can think of would probably fit.”

Tony Gibbons, Habitat executive director, said the nonprofit, which operates on a fiscal year, didn’t know what to expect when the pandemic began.

“It took us a few weeks to really understand what the potential impact was because at first we weren’t really sure if we were going to have to close the ReStore or whether or not we’d still be able to have in-person special events,” he said. “During the first part of the year we had a vision of what our calendar year was going to look like in those terms and then suddenly we had to shut down the ReStore for six weeks, we had to start looking at reformatting or even canceling and delaying our special events, both of which are revenue-generating for us. It was a matter of estimating what that potential impact was.”

The impact was a potential $70,000-$100,000 hit, but a “good bit” was recuperated.

“We didn’t recover all of it, we made some cuts with our expenses, and then we had some individuals that came forward and helped us out,” Gibbons said. “We were fortunate enough to get some Habitat grants that were from the national organization, and then our ReStore saw a slight increase with its activity after we reopened. Over the course of about six months we saw a continued growth of our incomes to get us where we were able to recuperate most of the funds that we had lost from the cancellation from some of our events and the ReStore being closed.”

Home building has been “just decimated” for different reasons, including the number of volunteers able to help, supply chain issues and the ability to pull permits in a timely fashion.

“The delivery materials was the first thing that we noticed, so we took a conscious step to scale back our production so that we were only building one house and rehabbing one house during this whole time,” Gibbons said. “That way we had activity going on and available to keep our momentum going but weren’t over-stretching ourselves and being too ambitious. Keeping the train moving, as we might say. Even I think if we had pushed to do more we would have been forced to slow down because the materials delivery time had extended so greatly.”

Habitat placed an order five weeks in advance and received materials two weeks late.

Gibbons worries that will be an issue in the new year. Suppliers have told Habitat to expect delays and increased costs. Plans are to overlap two builds and use material purchased this year to get ahead of the increases, he said.

“Where we’re going to feel it is really the fall because these houses — if there’s overruns with the rehab and the new construction in the spring, then we need to figure out what kind of impact that’s going to have on our ability to do the construction work in the fall that we want to do, so it’ll be a delayed effect,” Gibbons said. “That is something that’s being considered at the same time we’re looking at our incomes during this period of time.

“If our incomes fall short and we have increases in construction materials, then we’ve got a serious problem,” he added. “If our incomes keep up with the cost of construction, then we’re in a position where we can look seriously at the fall with a lot of optimism. We won’t know that until we get into the early part of spring.”

Habitat focused on one rehab in Hope Haven in Loudon and one Women Build off McKinney Avenue in Lenoir City, which had a six-week delay due to COVID.

“We just slowed it down and said, ‘We’re going to put our efforts here and then we’ll try to decide by fall when we would start out next house,’ and so when we got into October we realized that it probably wouldn’t be until January when we started another house,” Gibbons said.

Despite challenges, Habitat leadership is cautiously optimistic for 2021.

Hopes are to start slow and follow a similar plan.

“We’re all looking at just repeat what we did this year — let’s do one house new construction in the spring and a rehab, and then let’s see if we can’t another set started in the fall,” Gibbons said. “All depending on what’s happening with the pandemic and the effectiveness of any kind of vaccine. We’re hoping to also do between 30 to 35 repairs.”

Habitat could look at creative ways to raise money virtually.

“As far as how we function, we’re trying to be the best stewards of any funds we do receive,” Borders said. “We don’t want to just jump in like life is normal. We’ve got to take cautious steps and make sure that any investments the community makes toward the affiliate are really put to the best use for the long term. We can put all of our eggs in a basket and build a million homes right off the bat but then that’s not going to give us anything for the last half of the year, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re fiduciarily responsible.”