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Rebuilding The American Dream: Homeownership, Independence, and Freedom

By Penny Seater


When I think about the 4th of July, I think about independence, freedom, self-reliance, those kinds of things. What does that mean to me as an individual?


For me personally, it means I get to own the dirt underneath the place where I live. It is mine. I can build wealth from my house. I have a safe place to come home to  every night.


I personally never questioned that I would be a homeowner. I grew up in a middle-class area outside of Washington, D.C. It was an expectation, not a question. What I didn't realize is that everyone does not have the opportunity to own their own home, and it's particularly true today with the housing shortage -- especially with people moving down here and paying for homes with cash and taking inventory off the market.


You really see it in first-time entry level inventory homes. That inventory almost doesn't exist in new construction.


Inventory and cost are a perfect storm of disruptive forces. The median sales price of a home in Orlando was $385,135 in May, up almost $20,000 from a year ago.


And although the number of new listings in Metro Orlando in April spiked from 4,230 to 4,521, a more important indicator is that the market is at 3.4 months worth of inventory -- well below the six-month supply that is recommended for a balanced market.


Rental properties offer little relief. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that the 19 percent cost-of-rent increase in Orlando in the past year was the highest in the nation.


All of this adds up to a sobering perspective: Fewer and fewer people don't get to achieve that American Dream of homeownership.


Our mission at Habitat for Humanity Seminole-Apopka is to break cycles of poverty and build that generational wealth by putting entry-level homes on the market. We are proud of the fact that we build an average of 20 homes yearly through our partnerships, including one with the homeowner. They put in their own sweat equity before ever turning the key and walking into their home.

People like Calesha Flores.

She had struggled with homelessness. She was living at the Orlando Rescue Mission when she found out about the Habitat for Humanity homeownership program through her case manager.

She didn't get approved the first time but kept pushing toward that goal. She was accepted into the program the second time and recently moved into a home she helped build with her hard work.


All we did was paint a picture. She followed the numbers. It wasn't easy but we showed her a path. Some people assume that Habitat homes are free. That is not the case. There is a minimum credit score of 640 to qualify for the program. There is a mandatory financial-preparedness class that needs to be completed. There are sweat equity hours helping build either the homeowner’s house or another of our applicants’ home. A down payment is required and a mortgage at a reduced rate.


As Calesha said, "It's not a gift. It's an opportunity to survive within your income."


It is people like Calesha who drive our passion and commitment. But we can't do it alone. We can build up our inventory if we can convince legislators to get rid of restrictive zoning laws and permit issues. We need community partners like Seminole County, which recently gave us $2 million for a project to build six homes in Sanford.


It takes the proverbial village. The payoff can transform lives.


"Sometimes when you go through homelessness and not just homelessness but homelessness with children," Calesha told me, “you are watching weeks turn into months and those turn into a year. It definitely puts things in perspective. The American Dream... A home. For me, our American Dream was to be able to feel safe and to be able to survive. It's about not having to find a place to lay your bed at night, places that were sometimes not safe for me and my girls."


Calesha and her daughters will celebrate the July 4th holiday knowing that the American Dream entails much more than hot dogs, fireworks and barbeques. It's about the liberating freedom of owning that plot of dirt underneath you.


Penny Seater is CEO of Habitat for Humanity Seminole-Apopka.

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