Building a fresh start for new homeowners in New Castle County

More than two decades ago, Kevin Smith felt a call to move from his career in IT toward a role helping people at a personal and fundamental level. Since then, he’s been at the helm of Habitat for Humanity of
New Castle County, the nonprofit that has constructed or renovated 245 area homes since 1986.

The organization was run completely by volunteers until Smith became its first full-time employee, overseeing projects and yearly fundraising efforts of $1.5 million.

“We build about 12 to 15 homes a year,” said Smith, who was raised in Newark and attended the University of Delaware. Habitat focuses on five particular neighborhoods — three in downtown Wilmington, one along the Del. 9 corridor, and one in Middletown. The organization also renovates homes.

“We build homeownership one family at a time. The bigger picture is trying to revitalize neighborhoods,” said Smith, who said roughly 15 volunteers help with work every day.

“We’ve intentionally put in more training for prospective home buyers, because we’re not just about output but outcomes,” said Smith, who offered that the default rate on Habitat’s mortgages is just 5 percent. “We’ve probably had a half-dozen homeowners pay off their mortgages.”

But misconceptions about the program still abound, with many who think that Habitat gives the homes away. Instead, homeowners are taken on as partners who purchase their home at the appraised value at zero interest. Habitat is the lender.

Advocating for those homeowners, working residents who simply can’t afford a home through regular means, is a frequent topic for Smith, who said he shares the value of investing in the larger community with Delaware’s business leaders.

“The point we’re trying to make is that no matter where you live, we are all interdependent in how the city of Wilmington does. We think people should be invested in these neighborhoods to help impact crime, quality of life. As these neighborhoods go, ultimately will go the City of Wilmington.”

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