In 1989, Tonia Causey was going through a divorce, living with her mom, caring for a child and pregnant. Owning a home seemed out of reach.
But Causey had something in her favor — timing. Habitat for Humanity of Greater Baton Rouge started that year.
Today, Causey is one of 363 Baton Rouge families who’ve had homes built or renovated in Habitat’s 30 years, and she’s one of 92 who have paid off her mortgage to own her home outright.
It’s a success story the Christian-based ministry keeps trying to repeat.
“There is definitely increased need in our community,” said Lynn Clark, Habitat’s director for the past 15 years. “There are estimates that we need over 30,000 affordable housing units to meet the need in Baton Rouge. That’s a number that’s mind-boggling, and it will take a lot more than Habitat to make it a reality, but we are certainly working.
“We build one house, one family at a time," she said. "We make sure one family can be a successful homeowner before we move on to the next.”
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Now in all 50 states and 70 countries, Habitat for Humanity started in 1976 in Americus, Georgia, to provide quality, affordable housing for those in need.
When Habitat started locally, Causey was cooking at the Holy Grill ministry run by the Greater Baton Rouge Federation of Churches and Synagogues (now the Interfaith Federation of Greater Baton Rouge). Jeff Day, then the federation’s director, suggested Causey apply for a home. Those who get the homes buy them with 20-year, no-interest mortgages that Habitat makes available.
“When I filled out the application and was approved, I couldn’t believe it. I was, like, man, I’m going to be able to own my own home,” Causey said. “That was a real blessing to me. Homes were so expensive. Thank God. I was very excited — very, very excited.”
Habitat focused its early efforts on the Zion City neighborhood, which is north of Airline Highway and east of Plank Road. Although Habitat primarily builds homes from the ground up, it was not as well-funded in its first year. Habitat bought a two-bedroom house on Scenic Highway, moved it to Peerless Street and fixed it up with volunteer labor that showed up on Saturdays. Those receiving Habitat home also are required to work for 255 hours alongside the volunteers who build or restore their homes.
“I’d come out and do whatever I could do,” Causey said. “I was painting. I was caulking. I was learning things. I was hammering. I was doing whatever I could do to help so I could complete my hours.”
Habitat returned to Causey’s home and added a bedroom four years after the original project, enabling her son and daughter to have separate bedrooms. Her children are grown and out of the house, and Causey’s mother now lives with her.
Causey’s was one of several Habitat homes on Peerless Street, and that was no accident. Building several new homes in close proximity can have a big impact on revitalizing a neighborhood, Clark said, and sometimes inspires other homeowners to fix up their properties.
Habitat built 35 homes over about five years in selected Scotlandville neighborhoods, which raised area property values about $25,000, Clark said.
“On Highland Road, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but in Scotlandville, raising property values $25,000 indicates a major revitalization,” she said. “We’re definitely building community, not just homes.”
Habitat employs a licensed contractor to oversee construction, which is done by volunteers. Catholic and Methodist organizations have supported Habitat from the beginning, and over the past 30 years, about 134,000 people have given 825,000 hours to building or rehabilitating homes.
The volunteer nature of the work had additional benefits, both for the volunteers, who learn carpentry skills on the job, and the community.
“We bring in people from all over the city, all walks of life who most probably have never been in those parts of the city, and it breaks down those barriers when they get to see what’s going on in those areas, and, hopefully, they feel better about certain parts of our city and will want to invest in other ways,” Clark said.
Habitat for Humanity of Greater Baton Rouge is accepting applications through Oct. 31 for its home ownership program.
Applications can be accessed at habitatbrla.org or at the Habitat office, 6554 Florida Blvd., Suite 200. Applications may also be picked up at both ReStore locations, 10300 Perkins Road or 4301 Airline Highway.
Applications must be submitted to the Habitat office, which is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. No applications will be accepted after Oct. 31.
For information, visit the website or call (225) 927-6651.