CLEARWATER — Lifting families up and breaking the cycle of poverty through homeownership is one of Habitat for Humanity’s greatest achievements.

Mike Sutton, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco County, recently updated Pinellas County commissioners on the work being done to help families move into their own homes and achieve the American dream.

Habitat for Humanity is celebrating its 35th year in Pinellas this year, and on Feb. 13, the organization will mark a big milestone when it dedicates its 600th home.

The Gordon family, Habitat’s newest homeowners, will move into a house in the Greater Ridgecrest Community in unincorporated Largo. The dedication is especially rewarding since Ridgecrest is one of Habitat’s two focus areas, Sutton said.

Sutton thanked commissioners for their support and help to transform the Ridgecrest area, which he described as a “generational community” more than 100 years old. The historic African-American neighborhood was in dire need of assistance, so the county and Habitat partnered to make changes through affordable housing opportunities.

In 2017, the county donated seven parcels of land in Ridgecrest to Habitat for construction of single-family homes. The county also did some street and sidewalk improvements to help improve the quality of life in the area.

Habitat has since purchased another 25 parcels and is currently under contract to buy six more.

So far, 22 homes have been constructed and three more are under construction. Sutton said about $8 million has been invested in the community.

Sutton said the work done in Ridgecrest represented one of his “proudest accomplishments as CEO at Habitat.”

Another great accomplishment has come from Habitat’s partnership with the county to make improvements in the Dansville area, another community in unincorporated Largo. Sutton said until a few years ago, there was very little development in Dansville, which had about 70 vacant parcels.

But over the past two years, 20 homes have been completed. Six additional lots have been matched with homeowners and construction will start in the next few weeks.

Sutton said homes Habitat built in Dansville three years ago had been appraised at about $160,000 each. The last few homes that were built appraised for more than $235,000.

Home values in the community have gone up significantly, he said, and there are 20 new taxpaying citizens.

“All the families are doing extremely well,” he added.

Sutton praised an improved relationship between the county and Habitat. He said in past years the county had been slow to approve zoning changes and issue permits.

“Now we’re at a place where we really enjoy and value working with the county, thanks to the staff’s responsiveness," he said, adding that the county now looks at Habitat as a true partner.

Sutton asked Habitat staff and board members to join him in presenting a check for $858,837 to commissioners on Jan. 28. The check represents the property taxes paid by Habitat homeowners in 2019. Sutton estimates that next year’s check will top $1 million.

“We’re just proud of the fact that we can help these families become homeowners for the first time,” Sutton said. “We’re also able to help them build equity in their life by owning their own home.”

He said these families would not be able to qualify for a traditional mortgage through a bank.

“The program is key to breaking the cycle of poverty for the 40-70 families we serve on an annual basis,” he said.

Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and West Pasco County is the third largest affiliate in the country out of 1,240 affiliates, Sutton said.

“That’s because of the support of the community,” he said.

In 2019, the local Habitat built 62 homes and is on track to do 70 more in 2020.

In addition, 17 homes received assistance through the Habitat Home Repair program. Eligible homeowners can receive a zero-interest loan to cover the cost of non-emergency repairs, including “aging in place” modifications, such as ramps and accessibility upgrades; critical home repairs, such as roof replacements, plumbing, electrical or structural repairs; energy efficiency upgrades, such as insulation and HVAC; and exterior enhancements, such as paint and landscaping.

To be eligible to become a Habitat homeowner, candidates must earn 30% to 80% of area median income. They must show a need for shelter and have the ability to pay back a zero-interest loan. They also are required to invest 350-450 hours of sweat equity in their own home or someone else’s.

Nickiesha Gordon, a certified nursing assistant, with three boys says she is thrilled to be moving into Habitat’s 600th home.

“This program has made me feel like I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to, and that soon I will not struggle so much to pay someone else’s mortgage; I’m going to pay my own,” she said.

She encourages other families to explore whether Habitat can help them with a better life.

“It’s not only the house that you get out of this program,” she said. “It’s also the people, experiences and knowledge you will gain on this journey towards homeownership. Habitat for Humanity is the hope I always needed. It helped me achieve the one goal that I thought would take me 10-20 years to accomplish.”

For more information, call 727-536-4755 or visit www.habitatpwp.org.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.