On Saturday morning, Michelle Flores stood in front of her South San Antonio home, still under construction. That day, she helped finish the landscaping, which consisted of laying down squares of grass and smoothing it all with a heavy roller.

The 33-year-old is one of dozens of people buying their first homes through Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio, which sells houses at cost with 0% interest to successful applicants. Flores and her three sons currently rent a house near Lackland Air Force Base with three bedrooms and one bathroom for $950 a month, she said. When volunteers and Habitat for Humanity workers finish her new house, she’ll only pay about $680 each month for mortgage, insurance, and taxes combined.

“It’s a three bedroom, two bath,” she said, gesturing at the front door. “It’s really nice and has central air; we need that in Texas.”

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Habitat for Humanity San Antonio has continued to build homes – just with fewer volunteers, Vice President Stephanie Wiese said. 

Families of frontline workers in need of a safe and decent place to call home are building their permanent homes in Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio’s newest community, Rancho Carlota. Photos taken on January 30, 2021.
Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio volunteers build homes in the new community Rancho Carlota. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We usually have about 25 to 30 [volunteers working] on a home, but with COVID we can only have 15,” Wiese said. “So the staff is doing a lot of overtime. Right now is a little different than how we usually have it.”

The pandemic has severely stunted the number of volunteers that Habitat can rely on. Between March and August, the organization saw a 95% drop in its typical volunteer numbers. That improved slightly in the fall with 75% fewer volunteers. But even with the shortage of volunteers, Habitat was able to maintain the same number of houses built from 2019 to 2020, Wiese said.

In 2020, more than 3,100 people applied for homes through Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio, Wiese said. The nonprofit built 51 houses that year and plans on building about the same number in 2021.

“I wish we could do a whole lot more,” she said.

Volunteers give their time each Friday and Saturday to the homebuilding process, and many bustled around the developing Habitat community dubbed Rancho Carlota on Saturday morning. The 90-acre community is still mostly undeveloped, with 18 completed homes and three more about to be finished. Fourteen families have already moved into the neighborhood, Wiese said. And like the majority of the families served by Habitat, many are front-line workers.

“Last year, the majority of our families came from health care, restaurant and food service, and labor-construction type industries,” Wiese said. “They’re the ones without the opportunity to work from home.”

Flores has been going into work since the pandemic started. She is a technical advisor at a local dental laboratory where she consults with dentists on what products to use for their patients. The lab never shut down for the pandemic but the amount of work fluctuates, Flores said.

Like all Habitat house owners, Flores was contributing “sweat equity” to her own home and to other homes built by the nonprofit, Wiese said. Each person in the process of purchasing a house from Habitat must volunteer at least 300 hours of their time. This also has given Flores the opportunity to meet her future neighbors.

Before applying for a Habitat home, Flores said she never planned when to buy her own place.

“I honestly didn’t have a timeline because my parents didn’t get a house when I was young. They were always renting,” she said. “Until recently, about five years ago, my dad bought a house.”

Though Flores is not the first in her family to own a house, many of the Habitat families are, Wiese said. And the pandemic has highlighted the importance of having a secure place to call home.

Families of frontline workers in need of a safe and decent place to call home are building their permanent homes in Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio’s newest community, Rancho Carlota. Photos taken on January 30, 2021.
Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio volunteers landscape newly finished homes at Rancho Carlota. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“I think sometimes homeownership is taken for granted,” Wiese said. “People go home and you think, ‘Well I have a warm bed, I have a place I can make a safe meal.’ I think people forget that everybody else doesn’t have that. That’s the biggest thing I hope comes out of the pandemic, that the general population understands how much we’ve all needed to have our homes.”

With the money she will save on rent, Flores plans on enrolling her kids in more extracurricular activities.

“Right now, it’s hard for me to put them in any sports,” she said. “Now that I’m paying less I’ll be able to put them into something they wanted to do.”

Like everyone else on the Habitat construction site, Flores wore a face mask while she worked. Looking back at her home, still waiting for cabinets and flooring, she smiled as she described the future she envisioned inside.

“I’m glad to have my own house and have family spend time with me and my kids,” she said. “It’s my own space. I plan on doing more things in the back, [adding] a concrete slab, and having my family come when COVID is over.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.