'I’m a homeowner, y’all': Five Baltimore-area families get new homes through Habitat for Humanity

With a door key dangling from a white cord around his neck, Andre Kennedy broke into a smile Saturday so wide and bright it just might have caused the electricity usage to spike in his brand-new home.

“I’m a homeowner, y’all,” Kennedy jubilantly told a crowd of friends and supporters at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake held for five families Saturday. “It’s AMAZING!”

And it was. Kennedy admitted that his long journey to owning his own home — he’s 52 years old — had been “a messy ride.” He said he voluntarily left home at age 17 and quickly got pulled into a life of drug addiction and petty crime.

But God turned his life around, Kennedy said, with the help of the folks at Habitat who took a chance and approved his application for their program. Now, he’s the proud owner of a rowhouse at 1718 Presbury St. that’s been painted an appealing shade of blue gray with white trim.

“I couldn’t have done this by myself,” he said.

Kennedy’s house is one of several on the same block all built by Habitat, the global nonprofit that operates in every state and in about 70 nations. Habitat helps future homeowners obtain their own homes and affordable mortgages. The organization estimates that in the past 35 years, it has built or renovated 750 homes throughout Central Maryland.

Mike Posko, CEO of Habitat’s Chesapeake branch, said that owning a home benefits all aspects of society.

“Studies have found that children who grow up under home ownership have a 30 percent greater chance of graduating from high school,” he said. “Teen pregnancy goes down.”

He added that more than 300 houses have been rehabilitated in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood alone and seven more are currently under construction.

“Home ownership is key to stabilizing communities, cities and the state,” Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said at the ceremony.

“People who own their own homes have barbecues in their backyards and celebrate Christmases with their families. They will do the little things necessary to care for their communities, like telling a kid, ‘Pick up that piece of trash.’ Homeowners make sure that their neighborhoods are something we can all cherish and be proud of.”

Habitat is famous for requiring its clients to invest at least 250 hours of “sweat equity” in their new residences by pitching in alongside organization volunteers.

“I have paint in my clothes and paint in my hair,” new homeowner Angela Wilson told the crowd. “But I’m keeping those clothes. It was worth it to be able to walk through my front door and know that my grandkids are playing in the back.”

Lauren Hughes, Habitat’s director of homeowner services, told the crowd that potential candidates are screened for employment, income and credit worthiness. In addition to sweat equity, applicants must attend workshops aimed at developing homeownership skills and undergo a standard mortgage application process that includes a detailed financial review.

“We really put them through the wringer,” Hughes said, “but they rise to the occasion.”

The reward? A 30-year, interest-free mortgage with monthly payments totaling no more than 30 percent of the applicant’s income.

“For several years, owning a home seemed completely out of reach for me,” new homeowner Rickell Sheppard said. “But Habitat made it possible. Owning your own home really is the American dream.”

In addition to Kennedy, Wilson and Sheppard, door keys, bouquets and Bibles were presented to homeowners Tanicka Davenport and Valerie Thomas. Kennedy and one more family will live in Sandtown-Winchester, while one family apiece will move into the Mount Winans and Woodbourne-McCabe neighborhoods, as well as one in Severn.

As much as Kennedy enjoyed the celebration, part of him was looking forward to the hours after everyone went home. He was looking forward to closing the door and finally being sheltered from the cold. (Temperatures at noon Saturday hovered in the 40s and there was a blustery wind. It might be late March, but it was glove and hat weather.)

“The best part of owning my own home,” Kennedy said, “will be being inside it.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

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