Habitat for Humanity of Collier County is sprucing up its plans and designs, in part to ease neighborhood opposition to its affordable housing projects. Vonna Keomanyvong via Wochit
Tiffany Evans has more than an affordable place to live.
Her home — and her community — are more than what she ever expected, more than what she ever dreamed her family could get with a hand up from Habitat for Humanity of Collier County.
"The neighborhood is beautiful. I had no idea they would be doing all they have done. We've got palm trees. It's really pretty," Evans said.
Her family of five lives in a three-bedroom single-family home with a white-fenced porch in Legacy Lakes, the local Habitat's newest community off Immokalee Road east of Collier Boulevard.
"Each house has its own unique little look," Evans said. "You would never know it's a Habitat community, ever."
The more appealing look of her home and community reflect a new direction for the local chapter of Habitat, which is sprucing up its plans and designs, in part to ease neighborhood opposition to its affordable housing projects.
"We're listening to the folks in the community and what they would like to see affordable housing look like," said Nick Kouloheras, Collier County's chapter president. "We want to make sure at the end of the day people are happy and they want Habitat in their neighborhoods."
Habitat, he said, shouldn't be looked at as an organization that's bringing down a community, but rather as one that's building it up.
"We want people to look at it as an important element of our community. These homes are for working people," Kouloheras said.
Those working people include bankers, teachers, hairstylists, firefighters, nurses and chefs.
Habitat is moving away from a cookie-cutter design approach, offering more choices on front elevations as well as more color patterns and textures for the front of the home and different landscaping packages.
Legacy Lakes, with 55 single-family homes, is the first community to reflect those changes with a little more character and homes that look a little different.
"We are designing our communities to be more pedestrian-friendly and to look more like market-rate communities," Kouloheras said.
Newer designs can also be seen on newer homes Habitat has built on scattered lots. About 40 of those homes sport a new look, including one owned by the Justus family in Golden Gate Estates.
A stay-at-home mom with five boys, Megan Justus, 26, said her family's three-bedroom, two-bathroom home fits right in with the neighborhood. Although she didn't choose its design, she couldn't be happier with its look inside and out.
Her husband, Stevie, is an installer for Lykins-Signtek, which manufactures, repairs and refurbishes signs and mailboxes.
The Justuses moved more than half a dozen times in eight years, finally surrendering their cramped apartment to move in with Megan's mother, sister and sister's son after their monthly rent rose to $1,200. The home had only three bedrooms, so quarters were tight.
Megan hesitated to apply for a Habitat house, concerned others might see her family as poor and helpless. But her sister and a Habitat volunteer she met at church encouraged her to apply.
"It's not like a handout," she said. "Habitat told you to be proud when you did apply. We did work for it."
To make their homes more affordable, Habitat homeowners must put in 500 hours of "sweat equity" helping to build them alongside volunteers. Homes are sold at cost, and buyers get an affordable, interest-free mortgage.
"We help keep Habitat going. We pay our mortgage, and it goes to Habitat to build other people's homes," Justus said with pride.
With home prices on the rise again and the shortage of workforce housing becoming more dire, Habitat started implementing design changes about 18 months ago.
Modifications are based on input the chapter gathered from homeowners as well as from other county residents — and from housing experts, including architects, engineers and site planners.
The goal is not to just make the homes look better but to build them to suit a wider variety of needs and to work better "for a family dynamic," Kouloheras said.
Going forward, Habitat's communities will have more green space for children and their parents to play and exercise on.
"Every project from here on out is going to have a different feel to them and changes to them," Kouloheras said. "We have three right now that are on the drawing board. Each one of these communities is now going to be unique to itself."
An early rendering for a proposed project off Davis Boulevard called Vincent's Acres shows more drastic changes: two-story homes in a front porch-neighborhood, with rear garages accessed from alleys. Construction there isn't expected to begin until 2019.
New designs mean higher costs, so Habitat is looking for partners to help offset the extra expenses, possibly by offering discounts on building supplies and other products, or through donations.
On average, the changes have added $5,000 to $7,000 to the price of construction, which was at about $52,000 (that's not including land, permitting and other development costs).
"At the end of the day, it does increase the overall prices, but we think it's certainly money well-spent when it comes to the aesthetics and the buy-in, not only from our homeowners, but the community as well," Kouloheras said.
The new look, he said, has generated a lot of positive feedback, to the point that outsiders have asked their Realtors if they could buy Habitat houses, and builders and developers have asked Habitat to share some of the "how-we-did-it" so they can emulate what the nonprofit builder has done.
The local Habitat isn't the only chapter that's looked to innovate. A smaller chapter in Lubbock, Texas, for example, offers at least 20 home choices, created with the help of interior design students at Texas Tech.
Inside Legacy Lakes, Tiffany Evans, a part-time office administrator, is still overwhelmed by her home. She lives there with her husband, a personal banker, and three boys, ranging in age from 1 to 12.
Tiffany, 34, and her husband, Darrell, 33, met through their volunteer work, which included involvement in Habitat for Humanity in Salt Lake City, Utah.
"Their mission has always been a hand up, not a handout. So I really fell in love with that," she said.
She never thought she'd live in a Habitat home, but she decided to apply for one after the rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose to $1,500 a month and her family was forced to move in with her mom, with a baby on the way.
Although the couple qualified for a home loan of $200,000 in 2015, they couldn't find anything in that price range that wasn't dilapidated, she said.
The family could have had a home sooner in Golden Gate Estates, but they waited for one in Legacy Lakes because they preferred the neighborhood's school district — and they loved the idea of a community of young families where their children could play outside every day with others their age, as Tiffany did growing up in Salt Lake City.
"I don't have to worry about my kids," she said. "I know all my neighbors. It's just like a giant family."
She gets upset when she hears others criticize Habitat or its homeowners. Some opponents have gone as far as to describe Habitat's buyers as drug dealers, criminals and illegals.
"That couldn't be farther from the truth," Evans said. "You have to go through a vetting process. You have to go through a background check. You have to interview. You have to go through a long process to get a house."
She and her husband followed her mom here and fell in love with Naples. They don't want to live anywhere else.
"It's paradise," she said. "It's beautiful, and there are amazing people."
Habitat isn't just focused on building more-appealing communities. It's taking steps to improve its aging ones, too, with the help of a new management company that will work with homeowners associations to help with the upkeep of their neighborhoods.
Christopher Shucart, president of the East Naples Civic Association, said his group wants to hold Habitat more accountable for what happens to its communities as they age. He points out there's a stark contrast between Legacy Lakes and Habitat's older communities, such as Trail Ridge, less than 1 mile east of Collier Boulevard off U.S. 41 East, completed in 2009.
"Technically the homeowners should be responsible for their own neighborhoods," he said. "However, Habitat is going to be the one that really will be looked at, as it's still their community because they are the original developers of it."
Habitat has learned from its mistakes and is doing a better job mentoring HOAs and helping communities understand how their HOAs should be run, Kouloheras said. Bylaws, or community rules, have been tweaked in an attempt to address and avoid the problems of the past.
"We are light-years ahead of where we were even a year ago," Kouloheras said. "We are making big strides toward improvement here. But it's a big ship, and it takes a while to turn."
Founded in 1978, Habitat still has enough land to build roughly 450 to 500 homes. After building more than 1,900 homes in Collier County, it remains one of the most active chapters in the country. Fifteen families apply for every one home that's built.
When he started with Habitat 15 years ago, Kouloheras said the chapter received 1,000 inquiries a year. "Now that number is closer to 2,000," he said.
The resources aren't there to meet the need.
"About 140 to 180 people walk through the door every month inquiring about housing," Kouloheras said. "The qualifications are very stringent, but many, many, many people qualify that won't get a house. If 1,000 people qualify, we're only building 100 homes a year, unfortunately."