Fluvanna Faces: Robin Bolling, executive director, Fluvanna Habitat for Humanity

By Harvey J. Sorum, 

What was your job prior to joining Fluvanna Habitat?

I retired in 2018 as an elementary school principal in Albemarle County. Before moving to Fluvanna in 2012, I was a teacher, central office administrator, and elementary school principal in Fairfax County. 

Who are the other key faces of Fluvanna Habitat?

Larry Cormier is our board president and has volunteered for 16 home builds. Mike Himes is our land developer and served as board president for 13 years prior to 2023. Under his leadership, 19 homes have been built and sold with one more beginning in April. Maximizing Habitat’s vision and beliefs, Mike began building “Houchens Place”, a 64-acre mixed-income neighborhood community. This commitment to making Fluvanna homes available and affordable to those hardworking families needing a hand up, not a handout, is our focus.

We have a dedicated Board of Directors guiding our non-profit, including Rich Bowman (VP), Bob Eckman (Treasurer), Tammy Bowers (Secretary), Gail Morace (Family Services), Wayne Beisecker (Construction Supervisor), Doug Himberger, Bob Booth, Deb D’Agostino & Cole Hanner. Our Golf Committee Chair is Judy Kordella.

Office administrator, Eileen Young, keeps everything organized and serves as our finance lead. We have strong partnerships with local churches and businesses who support our mission along with hundreds of community members who have chosen us as a giving partner. We are grateful!

What enticed you to become the executive director of Habitat?

Following retirement, I found myself missing the work I did in service to families and the community. I kept my eyes open for opportunities within Fluvanna County where I live. Fluvanna Habitat was looking for an executive director at the same time! I began during the pandemic in 2020, working under the direction and guidance of Mike Himes, the board president, with the goal of continuing to build affordable homes despite the challenges the pandemic presented.

Where is Fluvanna Habitat currently building homes and what is unique about your homebuilding?

Fluvanna Habitat has built and sold 27 homes in Fluvanna County and is currently building “Houchens Place” located in Palmyra off South Boston near the CVS shopping center. When complete, the 64-acre community will hold 26 homes, a recreation area and almost 29 acres of preserved natural land. Lead land developer Mike Himes has led this tremendous effort by locating land and utilizing a dedicated team of over 42 volunteers called the “Rusty Nailz” to build homes. Using community volunteers is unique to homebuilding and saves each homeowner about $40,000. 

We aspire to restart our Critical Home Repair program that has been paused due to funding. We are beginning to fundraise through grants and seeking a contractor willing to assess projects and guide volunteers in this effort. Repairs would focus on basic needs like access ramps and door replacements for homeowners in Fluvanna who do not have the means to make repairs themselves. 

Many of us are under the assumption that the homes built by Habitat are given to the recipients without any financial obligations. Do they then take ownership free and clear?

No to both! This is a common assumption and a big myth! Families who partner with us purchase the homes we build. In addition, they must qualify for our program. Partner families must have an income stream, must attend our financial literacy and homeownership education classes, be willing work with us to qualify for a low-interest home loan, and must donate at least 100 hours of “sweat equity” before they can purchase a Fluvanna Habitat home. Once we sell the home a partner family, we no longer own any part of the home. 

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, have been long-term supporters of Habitat. About how many Habitat homes have been built nationally/internationally?

In total, Habitat for Humanity has built/renovated/repaired over 35 million homes in the US and internationally. The Carter’s have been long-term supporters and began volunteering for a New York Habitat affiliate in 1984. They have personally worked in 14 countries partnering with countless local affiliates, to build, renovate, and advocate for 4,390 homes! The Carter’s have set a high bar for all of us and their passion for serving others will forever be part of the Habitat for Humanity family. 

Is Fluvanna Habitat separate in any way from Habitat International?

Yes! Habitat for Humanity is an international umbrella of sorts under which local affiliates (or chapters) operate. Habitat for Humanity International and local affiliates share the common mission of “bringing people together to build homes, communities, and hope” but they operate independent of one another. It’s important to know that Habitat for Humanity International does not fund local affiliates. Each local affiliate must fundraise and operate separately. When you donate to Habitat for Humanity International (based in Georgia) your donation supports international efforts. When you donate to Fluvanna Habitat to Humanity, your donations support local efforts in Fluvanna County. Next time you receive a fundraising letter, check the address to confirm your giving choice. 

How do you find the land to build on?

The current land on which we are building was purchased from Oscar Houchens following several years of negotiation with Mike Himes in 2014. When Fluvanna Habitat could not offer the full asking price, Mr. Houchens sold the land to Fluvanna Habitat at a reduced price in exchange for naming the community “Houchens Place” in honor of his family. We will be building 13 additional homes on this land prior to completing Houchens Place.

Currently, our Board is looking ahead for land options for future building in Fluvanna once Houchens Place is complete. 

Are those who construct a Habitat home all paid?

No. We do pay local contractors for specialized work like plumbing, HVAC, and well-drilling; however, many contractors either donate or reduce their fees in support of our mission. Our “Rusty Nailz” team of volunteers and our construction supervisor are not paid.

What does a typical Fluvanna Habitat home include?

In Houchens Place, each home has 3 bedrooms, 2 full baths, an open space living area, kitchen, laundry room, porch, deck, and sits on one-half acre of land. The home includes new appliances thanks to a Gift-in-Kind donation from Whirlpool and Habitat International. We include a detached shed that a Fluvanna donor fills with items needed for lawn care and gardening.

This all has to cost a lot of money.  How to you pay for everything?

It costs Fluvanna Habitat about $181,000 to build a home. We sell each home for exactly what it costs us to build it and not more. We rely on donations from community members, local churches, and businesses. I take advantage of available grants and we hold an annual golf tournament as a fundraiser. Because we own the land at Houchens Place, that cost is returned to us when a home is sold.

Did COVID affect your operation?

Absolutely! Building homes using groups of volunteers is what Habitat does. Prices soared and became challenging to find. Many Habitat affiliates stopped building altogether or used contractors rather than volunteers. We made the decision to keep building and were committed to find a way to do it safely. We accomplished that hurdle but faced the reality that we had to slow down building. Instead of building two homes each year, we could afford to build one. We got super creative like many people and businesses did. Mike Himes created small teams of volunteers rather than large ones, adjusted the build schedule accordingly and encouraged volunteers to keep their own health needs a priority as they made decisions about volunteering. We added a handwashing and sanitizing station, preformed daily COVID screening and provided PPE. We had no COVID cases that paused our building. Mike’s reorganization plan resulted in a whole new way of organizing volunteers for building. Creating smaller teams and specifically matching them for the daily building tasks worked extremely well. It is a practice we will continue. We do desire to return to building two homes per year.

How does one apply to become a Habitat homeowner?

Our website includes a tab with information interested families need to know about qualifying. First and foremost, all applicants must currently live and/or work in Fluvanna County. We also have income qualifications based on the number of people in the household and use the local AMI as a baseline. We do not operate with open enrollment but do keep a list for anyone interested in applying.

Once an applicant is approved, about how long does it normally take from start to finish with a move in?  And when the home is completed and ready to move into, do you have an open house for the public?

Our process typically takes about 1-2 years; however, the pandemic slowed down our homebuilding and the process is now taking 2-3 years.

Yes! Between the completion of each home and the home closing, we open the house for tours and host several open houses. These are advertised to those on our email list, on our webpage and on Facebook.

Learn more about what’s currently happening, our homeownership program, opportunities to volunteer or to donate by visiting our website www.fluvannahabitat.org. 

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