Tyreia Shepherd was beaming with excitement as she threw dirt in the air with a shiny gold shovel alongside her daughters Zoe, 12, and Zurii, 6.

They were at a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday for their new home, one of five to be built in Milford by Caroline County Habitat for Humanity. The effort was made possible by a $2.3 million Self-Help Housing Technical Assistance Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Shepherd never thought she would qualify for a home, even after her friend, who is a real estate agent, mentioned the Habitat program.

“She suggested that I look into Habitat for Humanity,” she said. “But I didn’t until I saw a post on Facebook that they were looking for local applicants.”

She remained hopeful after submitting an application, and within weeks, she received the good news that she was soon to be a homeowner.

“My daughters are upset that they can’t work on the house because they require workers to be at least 16 years old, although I think they can help with small projects,” she said.

Several officials and community members attended the groundbreaking, including U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R–1st District; officials from Caroline County and the USDA; representatives from the Fredericksburg Area Association of Realtors; and local spiritual leaders.

There was a common refrain and emotion from the new homeowners at the groundbreaking: They are so blessed.

Beth Green, state director of USDA Rural Development, spoke at the ceremony on the site of one of the homes on Moter Avenue. “We are proud to be a part of this project from beginning to end.”

The program builds modern, energy-efficient homes that allow low-income residents to age in place. The payment is no more than 30 percent of residents’ household incomes.

The lower payment is possible by combining “sweat equity”—work on the house by the buyer—with volunteer labor and donated and discounted materials to keep costs down. A USDA 502 Direct loan offers interest rates as low as 1 percent and up to 38 years to pay back the money to further reduce the payments.

Jason Tickle, who became director of Caroline’s Habitat for Humanity program in 2017, said the USDA grant “is a game-changer for Caroline Habitat.”

“It will allow Caroline Habitat to provide a reliable and proven method for low-income families to purchase an affordable home. The Self-Help method not only allows buyers that wouldn’t normally be able to qualify for enough of a loan to buy a home, but it also helps build generational wealth and the additional economic opportunities that can come with owning a home.”

Caroline Habitat for Humanity purchased the five land lots in Blatt subdivision. The homes will each be single-story, with three bedrooms and two baths.

“That is what is so good about this program. It not only helps build affordable housing, but it also helps create economic opportunity,” Tickle said. “We will be investing almost a million dollars in the local economy over the next year.”

The prospective owners provide 65 percent of the construction labor on each other’s homes, with technical assistance from the organization overseeing the project. This “sweat equity” is the down payment on the mortgage.

“We hire contractors to do the majority of the site work,” Tickle said. “The CTE Caroline High School carpentry class will be [paneling] the walls while the site work is being done. Then, the advanced students will come out and work side by side with our buyers to raise the walls and get the homes dried in once site work is completed.”

USDA allows two years to build 10 homes.

Tickle said, “We hope to have the first five done by May or June of next year so we can start the second wave of builds early next year.”

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