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    Photos by Mickie Winters

    An open window invites an unusually warm February breeze inside Airraka Murphy’s kitchen. White curtains breathe out and in, out and in, hovering like lazy ghosts over dishes in the sink. At the table nearby, Murphy’s three kids  — Ta’Nyah, 10; Trenton, nine; and Tyrell, eight — finish their second helping of twice-baked potato casserole. A new black and brown puppy named Coco Chanel whimpers in her crate, craving attention or food scraps.

    It’s a typical Thursday evening in the home that Murphy rents on West Muhammad Ali Boulevard. There will be baths and bedtime at 8 or 8:30. But there’s a bit of chaos, excited chaos, because the packing has begun. Trash bags hold clothes, and toiletries are stacked into bins. In a few weeks, Murphy will officially become a homeowner, moving her family into a 1,200-square-foot two-story home in Portland. The old couch has been sold so a new one can complement the new space.


    Photo: Airraka Murphy serves dinner to her three young kids at the rental home they will soon be moving out of. // by Mickie Winters

    The 31-year-old with a shy smile and prominent cheekbones says she “never thought I’d be a homeowner.” But in 2016 a coworker recommended that she apply for a new home through Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds new homes for individuals who make 30 to 80 percent of the area median income and might struggle to become a homeowner otherwise.

    Murphy had applied to Habitat once before, nearly 10 years ago when her youngest was a baby. She was denied. It was a hectic time in her life back then. The single mother was having trouble making rent, getting evicted “four or five” times in about four years. Landlords wouldn’t rent to her because of her eviction record, so she had family and friends put their names on leases.

    She applied for public housing and was offered an apartment in the Park Hill housing projects. “I didn’t want to raise (my kids) up there,” Murphy recalls. And about eight years ago, she got onto the waiting list for a Section 8 voucher. As far as she knows, she’s still on that list. “I just completely gave up on it,” she says.

    In the last few years, life has stabilized. Murphy works as a customer-service rep at a home-warranty company. She has a longtime boyfriend who helps with the kids and the bills, and the couple has lived with her kids in the same rental home for six years. To qualify for a Habitat home, an applicant must hold less than $3,000 in debt, have a steady income and be a first-time homebuyer. Last year, Murphy’s second application was accepted. It typically takes two or three times for an individual to get selected, often due to bad credit. Plus, demand is great. Last year, Louisville’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity received 1,300 applications. The program only accepted 32 individuals.


    Photo: In early September, volunteers began work on the foundation for Murphy's home on Bank Street. // by Mickie Winters

     

    Recent data shows that 16 percent of Louisville’s population lives in poverty. Among African-Americans, that number climbs to 35 percent. And 40 percent of female-headed households live in poverty. Nearly 6,000 kids qualify as homeless in Jefferson County because they either bunk with relatives or friends or rely on a shelter or hotel. The homeownership rate for African-Americans is 38 percent compared with 73 percent for whites.

    Habitat for Humanity seeks to chip away at those stats through homeownership. This year, Habitat will build its 500th home in Louisville, with 100 homes in Portland, 100 in Russell and dozens in other west Louisville neighborhoods, as well as Smoketown and Shelby Park.

    Habitat’s focus has shifted to south Louisville and even east Jefferson County. But it’s a balance. While the organization wants to create mixed-income communities and expand affordable housing beyond west Louisville, there is a great need to strengthen neighborhoods that suffer from a glut of abandoned and vacant properties, in part due to disinvestment and damaging practices like redlining. (In Louisville, there are 4,100 abandoned or vacant parcels of land with 2,700 homes or buildings on them. The majority are in west Louisville.)


    Photo: In October, house leader Steve Holm preps Murphy on how she will help erect the first wall. // by Mickie Winters

    “We want to increase property value and homeownership,” says Rob Locke, CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville, which has been around since 1985. “Houses are part of an ecosystem. They aren’t the only part, but they’re a powerful part.” Much of the land Habitat builds on is acquired through the government-sponsored Landbank Authority. Sometimes, property can cost as little as $1; other times, a competitive bid process takes place.

    Once Habitat accepts an applicant for a home, the homeowner must put down a few thousand dollars, mostly for closing costs. In Murphy’s case, that amounts to about $1,800. Habitat then acts as a bank, offering a 20- to 25-year zero-interest mortgage. (Homeowners’ mortgage payments help fund the building of other Habitat homes.) Murphy will pay a monthly mortgage of $555 on her $80,000 home, which is actually $7 less than her current rent. Most importantly, she’ll be paying less than 30 percent of her income on housing. According to a recent report from the Metropolitan Housing Coalition, about 40 percent of Louisville residents pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing, meaning they are often unable to afford health care and quality food.

    Murphy felt pulled toward homeownership in summer 2016. Her middle child, Trenton, ran after a ball in the street and was hit by a car. He broke his leg and had to get stitches on his face and back. When the family found out he’d get a settlement from the accident, Murphy asked him what he’d like to do with the money. “He was like, ‘I’ll buy you a home,’” Murphy recalls. “I said, ‘It’s your money. I’ll use my money to buy us a house.’ Trenton inspired me. I wanted stability for my children.”

     

    Photo: Murphy drives the first nail into her home's first wall.
    // by Mickie Winters

    On a gray morning in October, Murphy walks to the lot on Bank Street, the site of her future home. She holds a large Mountain Dew and is handed a little apron for nails and a hammer. It is the start of a three-day “Raise the Roof” event in which a crew, including Murphy, will build the home’s entire frame. Dozens of volunteers from Google Fiber and FedEx mill about. Google Fiber is the corporate sponsor of Murphy’s home, donating $45,000 for construction costs.

    Murphy will dedicate many Thursdays (her day off) to building her home. All Habitat homeowners must put in 400 “sweat equity” hours, as well as complete an eight-week budgeting class and monthly homeownership workshops. A few days earlier, Murphy sat in a compact room at Habitat’s Portland headquarters and chose all the design elements of her home — blue siding, black kitchen appliances, a ceiling fan in the living room, carpet the hue of “desert sunrise” for the stairs and bedrooms.

    It’s tradition for the homeowner to hammer the first nail. But before that happens, Locke gathers the dozens of volunteers for a prayer and a pep talk. “Children of homeowners are 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school,” he begins. According to Habitat, children of homeowners are also more likely to graduate from college and less likely to become teenage parents. “I like those stats,” Murphy says with a smile under a regal tree that leans away from her future home and toward the street, like it’s eavesdropping for neighborhood gossip.

    Murphy chose this Portland site over potential lots in south Louisville. She doesn’t drive, and right down the block she can catch the bus to her job in Indiana. The Portland Promise Center is two blocks away, giving her kids a place to go after school. Also, she saw it as an investment. “It’s an up-and-coming neighborhood,” she says, adding that she read that “they’re bringing NuLu down here.”

     

    Over the next several months, Murphy pounds nails, paints doors and does whatever the house leader, Steve Holm, directs. Holm, a no-nonsense man with a white Papa Smurf beard, has built about 100 Habitat homes. The collaboration between homeowner and house leader and volunteers can be bumpy. Often homeowners have no experience with construction and longtime volunteers want things done a certain way. “Everybody was grumpy because they were grumpy old men,” Murphy jokes. “But they weren’t grumpy as far as me asking questions. They showed me how to do stuff when I had questions.”


                                                                                                     Photo: Murphy helps paint a door in February. In a few weeks her home will be ready to move into. // by Mickie Winters

    Locke, Habitat’s CEO, mentions how the hours and months of collaboration between strangers can lead to empathy, understanding. “It takes 200 volunteers to build a home,” he says. “When you’re interacting with the homeowner and neighbors, perhaps it’s allowing people to see life outside their little bubble.”

    By early March, Murphy’s family will be in their new home. She’ll be handed keys and a blue Habitat shirt that reads: “I did it and so can you.” Murphy can’t wait. Though she’s a little nervous too. “Everything will be different,” she says. She’ll no longer be able to call a landlord for a leak. She’ll want her family to care for the home, to take pride in it.

    On that warm February night at the kitchen table, Murphy and her kids discuss what they’re most looking forward to. “Making memories,” Ta’Nyah chirps, adding that she’s also excited to host her friends for sleepovers. “I like that when we get done with school we’ll have something to do,” Tyrell says, referring to the Portland Promise Center.

    Murphy sighs and smiles. “The first thing I’m going to do when we move in is take a long hot bubble bath.”


    Photo: Habitat for Humanity intentionally designs homes to fit the historic look of Portland.
    Murphy picked the blue-gray color for the siding as well as the home's white trim. // by Mickie Winters

    This originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. Every story in our March issue is about west Louisville, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. Click here to read more from part four of our series on the West End.

    To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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