Jason Tickle, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Caroline County, was on vacation this summer when he received a call from a contact at another affordable-housing nonprofit.

One of the recipients of a Section 523 Self-Help Housing grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program was not going to be able to deliver on the grant requirements.

That meant $300,000 in grant funds were now available to cover overhead costs in the construction of 10 affordable homes—five next year and five the following year—for low-income families in Caroline County.

Tickle had to write the grant application, find the home sites, locate the families and raise tens of thousands for a reserve fund—all in one month. Typically, nonprofits spend three to four months writing similar grant applications. Could he do it?

“I like a challenge—sometimes to my detriment,” Tickle joked.

The opportunity was too good to pass up. The Section 523 grant program hadn’t accepted new members in 15 years and members typically reapply every two years.

“That means in 10 years we could build 50 homes for low-income families in the county to experience this life-changing event,” Tickle said.

Luckily, G.H. Watts Construction had donated property in Doswell to Habitat of Caroline 10 years ago. And Tickle already had been working with seven low-income families through the Habitat Homebuyer’s Club, assisting them in improving their credit in preparation for homeownership.

The only grant requirement Tickle couldn’t meet was evidence of a reserve fund. So he got to work fundraising.

With the assistance of the Board of Supervisors, which donated $30,000, as well as the Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors, the Fredericksburg Area Builders Association and Union Bank, he raised more than needed in time to submit the grant application by the deadline of Sept. 1.

“That was really rewarding for me personally—to see people get behind something when it’s still just a vision,” he said.

The grant will allow Tickle to hire a full-time construction coordinator and family services coordinator. Construction of the five new houses is to begin in January. The grant requires that construction must be completed by Dec. 31, 2019, but Tickle said his goal is to get the families into their new homes by that Christmas.

The three-bedroom, two-bathroom houses will cost $135,000 each. Families participate in the USDA Section 502 home loan program, which offers 38-year loans with no down payments and a fixed interest rate of 3.75 percent, of which 2 percent is subsidized.

Habitat’s homebuyers build up “sweat equity” by participating in at least 65 percent of the construction.

Tickle said these homes, which will have a combined cost of “close to $2 million” over two years, will bring a positive economic impact to the county through property taxes and will add more needed users to the Dawn wastewater system.

And they can help break the cycle of poverty for families in a county where more than half of school children qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“Homeownership is the best way to create wealth,” said Tickle. “And wealth brings equality.”

He points to a statistic quoted last year in a New York Times Magazine article—the average homeowner’s net worth is $195,400, 36 times higher than that of the average renter.

Homeownership means a family no longer needs to move frequently, chasing cheaper rents, Tickle said. It means kids have stability at school.

“Affordable housing is something that really has the ability to change someone’s life,” he said.

Affordable housing wasn’t always Tickle’s passion. He grew up in the Fredericksburg area, graduating from Chancellor High School in Spotsylvania County. He describes himself as a “rebellious teenager” who eventually attended Calvary Chapel Bible College in California, earning an associate’s degree in biblical studies.

Back in Virginia, he volunteered as a youth minister, working part-time in retail and construction to pay the bills. Then he saw that Greater Fredericksburg Habitat for Humanity was advertising for a repair and volunteer coordinator.

“I was the first program staff they hired, so I had to kind of learn about everything,” Tickle said. “I had to educate myself really quickly.”

Tickle became operations manager for Greater Fredericksburg Habitat, a position he held for just under five years before he was offered the job of executive director of Habitat in Caroline County. The organization had a presence in Caroline, but had been inactive for many years, a common occurrence in rural counties where the population is too small to support Habitat’s old model of fundraising to build one house at a time.

“It came to a point where they were either going to close in Caroline or give it one last go,” Tickle said. “I consider this my career, so I thought this would be a good fit.”

With the connections and goodwill he’d built up during his time with Habitat of Fredericksburg, Tickle came to Caroline with the goal of starting small.

“I first wanted to increase our exposure,” he said. “People don’t want to support something without exposure. So we started with the repair program to show the community that we could add value.”

Habitat of Caroline and volunteers have made repairs to 17 homes in the county over two years—fixing roofs and front porches, adding wheelchair ramps and other improvements. Tickle used the USDA Section 504 Home Repair program.

And then “fate was fortunate,” and the opportunity to apply for the Section 523 grant fell into his lap.

Tickle compares what Habitat does to a trail that goes to the top of a mountain. The hike to the top of the mountain is hard and you’ll probably still need to stop for many breaks, but the trail allows you to see your way to the top and you can get there.

Habitat’s homebuyers have to work to change their lifestyles in preparation for getting their loans and then they have to work to build the home itself. But they’re given a clear path to follow and they don’t travel it alone, he said.

“When people first come to us, you see defeat in their eyes,” Tickle said. “They can’t see the path forward. We give them a path. When we hand over the keys, we see the joy.”

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