Shelley Fortier is working to provide boots, so to speak. She’s the Executive Director of the local affiliate of the Habitat For Humanity.
There’s an old expression about people picking themselves up by the bootstraps. Some people face daunting financial obstacles. Habitat For Humanity helps people in a real, tangible way to make improvements in their lives, by helping them achieve home ownership.
Hers is a fascinating story that led her to that position. She told me, “I was raised in Blacksburg and went to Virginia Tech. I got a degree in Political Science, but I entered the corporate world.” She met her husband Joe in New Jersey, and had a series of jobs in the New York, New Jersey, and New England areas, and then in California, working in management for retail chain stores.
“He finished a graduate degree from Berkeley in Energy Resources. We were both pushing 40 and were asking ourselves what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. My parents were still in Blacksburg and we ended up moving back here.”
They arrived with two kids, great job skills, no plans, and no jobs. “One day, Joe came home and said, ‘I bought a building in Radford.’ He had a vision. He thought Radford needed a coffee shop and more affordable housing. They have an inventory of great, historic buildings.”
They have gone on to purchase several other downtown buildings in Radford and Blacksburg, and most recently the old Prices Fork Elementary School. Meanwhile, Shelley started volunteering for Habitat For Humanity. Habitat was founded in 1976 in Georgia, and is the largest not-for-profit homebuilder in the world.
So Joe came out of financial services, and became a developer and carpenter. Shelley came out of corporate retailing and became immersed in providing affordable housing. How did that happen?
“We looked at investing in rental properties. Many landlords bought substandard buildings and never improved them. They were low quality and not putting anything back into them. We believe in fairness. Conversations about privilege always made me uncomfortable. We worked hard. My parents worked hard. Yet my successes stand on their shoulders and theirs on their parents’. That’s privilege. I had that. Not everybody has that. Some people can’t pick themselves up by the bootstraps because they’ve never had boots. I had boots.
“We are social entrepreneurs. We live here. We’re going to invest in the community.”
They got grants and subsidies from a variety of sources. Historic tax credits. HUD money. Private investments. Then they got income from their tenants.
“I saw that Habitat was opening the ReStore in Christiansburg. With my retail background, I thought, ‘That I can do.’ I volunteered lots of hours.
“Everybody knows Habitat as a construction company. We facilitate the energy of human and financial resources of a community to build affordable houses. We are a retailer. We are a lender. We do family counseling, primarily financial counseling. We are housing advocates. The homes we build are sold, not given away. The buyer pays us back at zero interest, and we put that money into more homes.
“Affordable housing leads to a strong economy. Big corporations won’t move here if their $14/hour employees can’t find affordable housing. Companies seek a stable, motivated workforce that can find inexpensive housing. Stable households build stable communities, and stable communities build stable economies.
“I describe my job as popping corn without a lid. I try to catch a combination of land, money, homebuyers, and community energy in the same bowl at generally the same time to make a project come to fruition. There is no typical day.
“Our donor dollar never dies. When someone donates to us, the homebuyer pays it back over time. It fuels itself for the next one. The community invests. The family invests. Lots of people have skin in the game. Our buyers build confidence as homeowners. We don’t give them boots. We sell them affordable boots and they build themselves up. I spoke with one of our homeowners and he said ‘I was surprised that there are people out there who will come and invest their day for me and my family. I only hope that me and my family can do the same thing for someone else.’ It’s powerful stuff; it’s what love looks like. When volunteers devote their days off to build a home for someone, it builds communities. That’s where the value of life is.
“I have a lot of good days in this job. I’m not an emotional person, but when have dedication days, when we hand someone the Certificate of Occupancy and a set of keys to their new house, it gets me every time. It’s the culmination of all that love.”
Two major Habitat projects are in the works, a single family home in Christiansburg and a multi-tenant apartment in Blacksburg. Visit the website at www.habitatnrv.org for more information and volunteer opportunities.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.