Habitat for Humanity of Summit County endures challenges during pandemic

Efforts were slowed due to COVID-19, but work is continuing

Phil Keren
Akron Beacon Journal
From left, Cuyahoga Falls Mayor Don Walters, Peggy Szalay, Community Development Block Grant Entitlement administrator for the city, and Diana Colavecchio, the city's Community Development Director, stand in front of a property on Germaine Street where Habitat for Humanity of Summit County plans to build a home. Habitat's homebuilding operations were slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, but projects are continuing. City Council on Jan. 11 approved the city's purchase of this site, which will later be donated to Habitat for the project.
A home being built by Habitat for Humanity of Summit County is planned for this property on Germaine Street in Cuyahoga Falls. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down Habitat's work on projects, but they are continuing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down construction projects for Habitat for Humanity of Summit County, with the agency's leader saying they are running about three months behind schedule.

Rochelle Sibbio, president & CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Summit County, said the pandemic shut down the agency's ReStore program, which sells donated building materials, furniture and appliances, and provides an "unrestricted revenue source" to fund Habitat's payroll.

Losing that revenue meant Habitat had to furlough 24 of its 26 employees in mid-March, according to Sibbio, who noted that only she and the agency's finance manager continued working during the seven-week shutdown of operations.

"At that time [in March 2020] we had four homes under construction that were just weeks away from completion and mortgage signing with the families," stated Sibbio.

Sibbio noted Habitat for Humanity called back all staff members in May after the organization received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and a Small Business Administration 7(a) Economic Injury Disaster Loan.  

"We worked to finish the four homes and signed with the families the end of May," said Sibbio. 

The ReStore program re-opened in early June.

At the time of staff furloughs in March, Sibbio said Habitat was also preparing to start work on four more homes in Akron across from the Innis Community Learning Center. Excavation for those home sites was expected to begin in late March or April, but the COVID-19 shutdown delayed that until early July. Clean-up work for a rehabilitation project in Stow also ceased during the shutdown of Habitat's operations.

Sibbio noted the shutdown and its ripple effects put the agency's homebuilding projects about three months behind schedule.

When Habitat resumed operations in May, the agency was not able to allow volunteers to return to home construction sites. From May to July, only Habitat's six construction employees worked on the homes.

"This created a hardship for us since 80% of the homes are built with the hands of volunteers and, of course, the family purchasing the home," said Sibbio.

The agency has about 25 core volunteers who were allowed to return to construction sites in July, according to Sibbio. Most of these volunteers typically work on projects two to three days per week.

Unskilled volunteers were temporarily allowed to return in mid-August when outdoor work such as raising walls and installing siding was being done on homes. Sibbio noted work groups were limited to seven people. When the operation moved indoors for jobs like insulation and drywall, the number of people allowed on-site was restricted to four. 

Habitat traditionally has had many unskilled volunteers who participate in corporate or church groups.

When unskilled volunteers were allowed to join projects in mid-August, Sibbio said the amount that participated was "very sparse…because so many companies were working from home."

As the numbers of COVID-19 cases increased, Habitat "cut all unskilled volunteers out" of projects in November, according to Sibbio. Since then, only core volunteers and Habitat's six construction employees have been working on homes.

What's planned in 2021

Of the four homes that are being built in Akron across from Innis Community Learning Center, Sibbio said two are scheduled for a mortgage closing in mid-February and the two others are slated for closing in late March. She said the rehabilitation of a home in Stow will begin soon and noted Habitat recently acquired permits for four more home projects in Akron. Two will be built in Goodyear Heights, one in Firestone Park and one in Cascade Village in North Akron. 

Habitat is planning to build a home on Germaine Street in Cuyahoga Falls.

Cuyahoga Falls City Council recently approved having the city spend $55,000 to purchase a vacant parcel on Germaine Street and then donate the land to Habitat for the project. This will be the fourth home that Habitat has built in Cuyahoga Falls.

In addition to Akron, Cuyahoga Falls and Stow, Habitat has constructed homes in Barberton, Copley, Fairlawn and Twinsburg Township. The agency has built seven houses in Stow and 11 in Twinsburg Township.

Once Habitat officially owns a parcel, the parcel is listed in the agency's land portfolio, where it can be viewed by qualifying families for potential acquisition. Sibbio said projects that are being planned this year will begin construction next year.

Habitat owns about 40 pieces of property in Summit County.

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at pkeren@thebeaconjournal.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.