New London mother becoming homeowner with help from Habitat for Humanity
Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series on a local woman’s journey to home ownership through Habitat for Humanity of Eastern Connecticut.
Lisa Dodson is all smiles, giddy with excitement, as she sweeps the kitchen floor at the brand-new home in Willimantic that she will close on sometime in the next several months.
Her smile is a stark contrast to the uncomfortable face she wears while showing a visitor around the warn-out Shaw Street apartment in New London that she has occupied with her four children for the past four-plus years.
“This place is a dump, and I can’t wait to get out of it,” she says, of the poorly maintained unit that she pays $1,190 a month for.
Dodson is 45 and single and in the final stages of becoming a homeowner with the help of Habitat for Humanity of Eastern Connecticut. The plan is that she will secure a mortgage, likely though the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for the Willimantic home with payments including insurances and taxes for about the same amount she now pays in rent.
Her initial intention was to buy a Habitat home in Norwich, but when she heard about the 1,004-square-foot untraditional ranch on a quarter-acre lot in Willimantic, she pivoted. The Norwich home is part of a 10-unit development of attached houses, and the idea of being on her own without neighbors sharing a wall convinced Dodson that she should take the Willimantic property.
“It’s a bigger house, with a bigger back yard, and a full basement. I talked to my kids about it and my older son said, ‘You’re stupid not to take the house.’”
Her children are 22, 17, 11 and 5.
For Dodson, who works full time at the Stop & Shop in Old Saybrook, it will mean more miles on her 2016 Nissan Sentra, but worth the commute and upheaval to be a first-time homebuyer. After the move, she is hoping to be transferred to a Stop & Shop closer to Willimantic.
In 1996 Dodson’s family moved to New London when she was a senior in high school. Over the years, she heard about Habitat but said she didn’t know very much about the nonprofit until she reached out last year.
“I applied not thinking that I was going to get chosen because I thought, ‘Oh, they will have a lot of applications,’ but then I just kept going from step to step … I knew it wasn’t a free house. I didn’t think I was going to get a free house and that was it. I knew I had to put in hours and that I was going to have a mortgage,” she said.
At Habitat, selection is based on three criteria ― the need for better housing, a willingness to partner by putting in hundreds of hours of sweat equity and taking classes such as home maintenance and personal finance, and the ability to pay an affordable mortgage.
Dodson sailed through the initial application process, which typically attracts about 150 applicants in each of two annual rounds, one in March and the other in September. She first filed her application in March of 2022, providing financial information and subjecting herself to a credit check, which she had to pay for herself.
Tara Filip, the homeowner services manager at Habitat, said that the initial 150 applicants typically winnows to about 30 hopefuls still in the pool after the first round, and down again to about 20 after the second, more intense screening.
“It’s not a quick process. It can take up to two years,” said Filip. “I get a lot of phone calls from people who are homeless or on public assistance who want a house, but it’s not just about the house, it’s about the program itself.
“It is a partnership agreement with Habitat for Humanity to build their skills as homeowners. It is a big shift from renting to owning.”
Dodson knows that. One of the Habitat requirements was that she open a savings account and make a deposit every week. It’s an IDA, or individual development account, designed to help low-income families build assets and achieve financial stability.
She can only deposit, not withdraw, and she needs to have $1,000 in the account before she takes possession of the Willimantic property. Once she meets the goal, United Way of Southeastern Connecticut and Liberty Bank will each contribute another $1,000, for a total of $3,000, as her contribution towards her closing costs. Anything above that, Habitat will cover.
The small amount of interest that Dodson earns on her contributions to the account will be rolled over to a new checking account, which she will continue to add to, and from which she will make her mortgage payments.
When she opened the account, Dodson said she was putting in $15 a week. More recently, she has upped her weekly direct deposit to $50.
“At 45, I never thought I’d be a homeowner,” she said. “I always thought about it but I never thought I would be able to save the money. I’ve always lived paycheck to paycheck, so my paycheck is gone before the next paycheck comes. So, am I spending beyond my means? I think I am. Well, I know I am.
“But something always comes up,” she said. “I’ll have a little bit of money saved and then the car will break down, or the kids need something from school, or something happens.”
She listed her monthly expenses: $1,190 for rent, $209 for car insurance, $259 for her car payment, $330 for cable including Wi-Fi. For utilities, gas and electric, she is on payment plans and said she pays about $270 for each service every month. Her health insurance is through her employer and she gets additional coverage for the children and herself through Husky Health, Connecticut’s public health insurance program.
In addition, Dodson has weekly payments ― $73 for her son’s braces and $37 to rent a washing machine and dryer. She is counting down the days until May when the braces are paid off.
Once in Willimantic, she will have her own washer and dryer, and hopes to give up cable and use streaming services instead.
At Stop & Shop, she recently was promoted to head of online pickup at the Saybrook store and said she makes about $19 an hour and brings home about $3,500 a month. She takes whatever overtime she can get, especially on Sundays which pay more, and typically works six days a week.
Recently, she did her taxes and Dodson was stunned to see she earned about $40,000 last year.
“I was shocked I made that much money,” she said, “but I need more. I am working my butt off and I don’t have any extra money. If a friend calls and asks if I want to go out to dinner, I tell them I can’t, I say, ‘I don’t have money for that.’”
Her youngest child suffers from epilepsy and is developmentally delayed and Dodson gets some support from Social Security Disability for her. The amount varies every month, Dodson said, depending on what she makes at her job, and has ranged from nothing some months to $200 to $500. The benefit is counted by Habitat as part of her income.
The father of her youngest two also helps when he can, and she is grateful for that, but it is still a struggle, she said.
When she moves, the oldest will stay with his father in Waterford, but the three youngest will go with her to Willimantic.
Dodson is already imagining life in her new home.
“I feel like it’s going to be a new start and it’s going to change my life for the better,” she said. “It’s going to be different than what I’m used to and it’s going to be worth it.”
It is the simple things, like the fact that she will have a pantry, a washing machine and a dryer of her own with a folding table in her basement, and a bathtub, none of which she has now. And much appreciated things, like brand new appliances, a yard with a hookup for a hose so she can set up and fill a kiddie pool for her daughter, and a lawn separating her home from the one next door.
“I imagine putting a swing set back there for the kids, and my son loves basketball, I could put a hoop here when the driveway gets paved,” she said pointing around the yard.
“This house will be my own. I can do what I want and I will be able to finally have my family over for a nice Thanksgiving dinner and not have to worry about the drunks on the corner loud at night.”
They have been waiting for asphalt plants to open in the state so the driveway can go in at the Willimantic house, Filip said. Then, Habitat will have the final numbers to provide to Dodson so she can complete her mortgage application. The driveway and landscaping are the last things that need to be done.
Once completed, Habitat will be looking for updated numbers ― how much is Dodson making now, how much is she spending? There will also be another credit check. Habitat will determine the final cost of the new house and its assessed value. Filip has estimated the cost of at about $190,000.
Ideally, Dodson’s mortgage payment will be no more than 30% of her income.
“If her assessed value is higher than her affordable mortgage, then we do a second mortgage to cover the gap which is only repayable if she sells early,” said Filip. “So, if she finishes her 33-year mortgage then that silent second mortgage disappears.”
A second mortgage only comes into play if Dodson’s monthly payments are more than 30 percent of her income, which is unlikely. However, if they are higher, Habitat holds the second mortgage and pays it, and Dodson only repays Habitat if she sells the home before she pays it off.
“It’s going to be a stressful time,” Dodson said, of the mortgage application and closing.
“Yes, but the difference is we go through it together,” said Filip. “I think that anxiety turns to excitement when you work with Habitat.”