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The Richmond Observer

CAN SHE BUILD IT? YES SHE CAN: Newman constructs bright futures with Habitat for Humanity

By Christopher McDonald,

2023-03-14
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Farrah Newman, director of Programs for Habitat for Humanity of the N.C. Sandhills, stands by a model used to teach home repairs at the Habitat ReStore in Aberdeen. Photos by Chris McDonald

Farrah Newman builds futures. Where families can grow and prosper. She builds places where dreams are born. She’s been doing it for six years.

Newman is the director of Programs for Habitat for Humanity of the N.C. Sandhills.

Born and raised in Greensboro, she got her start at a young age by following around her grandfather.

“My grandparents raised me,” said Newman. “My grandfather was a licensed electrician and I followed him around everywhere. It’s where I got my love and understanding about how building works.”

She also gained experience by owning a small asphalt repair company.

“My background in general contracting comes from when my ex-husband and I had a small asphalt paving/repair company,” said Newman. “We worked primarily for HOAs and municipalities.”

She admits that her journey to Habitat was a bit circuitous.

“I sort of did things backwards from most traditional Americans,” said Newman, who is a mother of three. “I married young, I had my children early and I went to school late.”

If given the choice prior to entering the construction industry, Newman admits that her love lies in textiles.

“If I would have had my choice, I would have never picked the profession I’m in,” said Newman. “I’ve always loved sewing and upholstery and I’ve always wanted to work with the High Point Furniture Market, but due to the recession in 2008, decisions had to be made and you have to make choices and do what pays the bills. At that point, I decided to go back to school for accounting and I got my accounting degree.”

Networking paid off for both Newman and Habitat of the Sandhills.

“I met Amie Fraley of Habitat and I told her my background,” said Newman. “She asked ‘If you ever had an interest in helping out Habitat, would you?’ I said definitely. I offered to teach budgeting and finance classes to our clients. Also, with the classes being taught by a single mother, I could teach from a real-world point of view.”

Moving to Southern Pines was the boost Newman needed.

“Amie called me and asked me to lunch,” said Newman, “and I said that I couldn’t go to lunch, but I would like a job. It wasn’t long after that I was offered a position at Habitat where I started as the office and finance manager.”

However, after six months of making sure the bills got paid, the audits happened, a change was in the wind.

“Within six months, the general contractor and the operations director decided they were going to leave within 30 days of one another,” said Newman, “so they came to me and asked how I would feel about taking over residential building and keep finance? I was like, well, how hard it could be? It was a fun challenge, it was probably one of the hardest things I had done to that point because I had taken on something I didn’t have a lot of experience in and just sort of figured it out as I went along. I knew enough to get me where I needed to be, but I didn’t know every single thing.

“When I inherited the job, I had two staff members, I now have seven.”

The Habitat program has grown exponentially since Newman took over the construction side.

“It’s just how we needed it to grow,” said Newman. “When I first got the job, we were doing six to seven houses a year and now we’re now doing eight to twelve a year.”

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Farrah Newman shows a list of pending repair projects.

Newman said that Habitat does more than just new construction, they also do repairs as well.

“We have a repair ministry that’s for non-Habitat homeowners,” said Newman, “and at the beginning of my time here we were doing 50 repairs a year and now we’re doing closer to 200 repairs a year. I can’t attribute all the success to me, its all of the great staff members we have and people who have come to be a part of our mission.”

The wages Newman pays are very competitive, however there is one component that is vital: caring.

“…you have to have a heart for what we do. I feel like I can teach a skill, but I can’t teach you to care. So, to me that’s one of the core values that I need for my team to have,” she said. “When you join us, you have to have that need to care. We respect and support one another, but we have to have the mission in mind.”

Newman feels that her role here is a calling.

“It’s funny how that calling, with my background, has spring-boarded me into things that I do that I thought I’d never do like speaking to reporters, talking about affordable housing and being a voice for people that are marginalized and who don’t have a voice for whatever reason.

“I identify on so many other levels. I think it’s a whole person approach,” Newman continued. “Housing is so much more than a roof. It’s a place that you feel safe. It’s a place that you feel healthy, a place where you can grow and not think about things that are outside of your control sometimes. If you don’t feel safe psychologically as a person, you’re just sort of stunted. I feel like that’s a shame in the country that we live in. It shouldn’t be that way.”

All financial obligations for Habitat homeowners are interest-free.

“The concept of Habitat is that we get you a house that is a principle-only loan with escrow,” said Newman. “Exodus 22:25 teaches us ‘If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him’ and all of our mortgages are interest-free.”

Education is a major part of becoming a Habitat homeowner.

“We guarantee an affordable mortgage at no more than 30 percent of your monthly income,” said Newman. “New homeowners have to take monthly classes on the subjects of home maintenance, to getting a will and responsible pet ownership among others. We also talk about a lot of things that we have seen over the years that have been pitfalls. We try to educate people, a lot of time its knowledge is power.”

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Amie Fraley and Farrah Newman stand in front of a board of future Habitat homeowners.

Introducing new concepts to the new homeowners is another piece of the puzzle.

“They’ve never been exposed to owning anything this substantial,” said Newman. “We teach them how maintenance works, how a mortgage works, how taxes work. It’s educating them as far as making sure they are going to be able to take on the responsibility. Not everyone who comes to us, stays with us.”

Many people apply, but only a small section of those applications is approved and move forward to the construction process.

“Last August we had 93 completed applications,” said Newman, “and out of those we took fifteen and out of that we’ll probably build for twelve. This is not easy, it’s not a given, you have to work for it as well (i.e. sweat equity). That’s the thing I like — what we do is a hand up, not a hand out.”

Throughout the years, Habitat-built houses have come under scrutiny due to incidents caused by ownership irresponsibility. Newman feels that this indictment of the good work being done is unfair.

“I just find it fascinating,” said Newman, “the NIMBYism. The reality of it is our homeowners versus society at large because you can’t predict where crime is going to happen. It happens at every economic level. I just feel like we get bad raps for the one-time crime may happen in 15 to 20 years. It just happens to be in the newspaper that it was a habitat homeowner. Why does that matter? I don’t know.”

According to Newman, the majority of the Habitat of the Sandhills building is in Moore County because of the number of available volunteers.

“The outlying counties (Hoke and Richmond) are producing one to two houses per year and we’re working to grow them to two to three per year. The drawback is that there not a strong volunteer base in those counties. In those instances, those builds are subcontracted out which, in turn, creates more cost.”

After quelling the misconception that Habitat gives away free houses, Newman says another inaccuracy is that the houses are poorly constructed. This is not the case.

“Two of the biggest misconceptions we face are that we give houses away,” said Newman, “and we don’t, which I’m proud to say, and that our houses are built poorly or built using cheap materials. We actually build better than the standard building code, we meet energy-efficient guidelines and standards and our houses are rated by a third-party rater.

“This actually gives us impartial certification of how well they are built. When we receive the rating, we send it to Duke Energy Progress and other power companies and they, in turn, give us residential building credits, based on how energy efficient the home is. In turn, Habitat receives money back for building energy-efficient structures. This is a plus for us because we can spend the money we get back on other houses.”

Building quality homes is a passion for Newman.

“To me quality is more than a checklist,” said Newman. “It’s what I believe in, because if I was building a house for myself and I want it built to a certain standard, … why wouldn’t I build one like that for someone else?

“I consider everyone we build with one thing in mind: what if that was my mother or my sister or my aunt or family member? A little bit of compassion never hurt anyone.”

“If I could just come in, I swear I’ll leave. Won’t take nothin’ but a memory. From the house that built me.” – “The House that Built Me” by Miranda Lambert

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