Homebuyer Spotlight: Tonya Martin

For someone like Tonya Martin who travels a lot for work, feeling at home after stepping inside her new house is especially important. The longtime Amtrak train attendant used to lug a suitcase up four flights of stairs at her old apartment building when she returned from one of her cross-country trips. But now she and her daughter, Kayli, come home to a house they own and helped build themselves. 

“I was half-way miserable every time I came home,” Tonya says of returning to her former apartment. “Now, I feel like every time I come home from work, I stop and think, ‘Wow, this is mine. I’m home.’”

Tonya and Kayli live in a home in Chicago’s West Pullman neighborhood that was built through Habitat for Humanity’s The House That Tech Built volunteer initiative. Last September, a group of Chicago tech companies—including Neighborhoods.com—joined forces to fundraise and help build Tonya and Kayli’s new home. 

Habitat for Humanity works with homebuyers who need affordable housing because their current housing is unsafe, overcrowded, or unaffordable compared to their family’s income. When the home is built, participants are able to buy it using an affordable mortgage.

For National Homeownership Month, we followed up with Tonya, whose new home is the 15th house Habitat has built on a formerly vacant block in West Pullman. Volunteers from the tech community were tasked with raising $150,000 as well as actually helping to build the house—doing tasks that included painting, hanging drywall, and building furniture—on volunteer days across six months.

It's just an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness and gratefulness.

Tonya put in a lot of work too, taking the program’s required homeownership classes—which she credits for preparing for her first foray into buying a home—and putting in at least 250 hours of “sweat equity” into building her and her neighbors’ homes (program participants can also spend the volunteer hours working at Habitat’s office or ReStore).

She said that, besides causing her to appreciate the home itself more, this aspect of the program helped build relationships with her neighbors, a bond she didn’t have in her previous apartment building. 

“What’s so funny is that I lived in my apartment for over 10 years and it was only four families in the building, but I didn’t know anyone’s name. I didn’t really talk to anybody,” Tonya says. 

“But with Habitat, you get to know your neighbors as the house is being built. They’re helping build your house, and you help them build their house, so it feels good to know that I know my neighbors. You know when someone isn’t in town, we watch out for each other to make sure no one is bothering the property. They’ll call me and ask if I’m home... It means a lot to me to get to know people in my area and in my neighborhood.”

Besides learning the value of finding a good neighborhood—something we think is really important around here—Tonya has already seen the benefits of transitioning from a renter to a homeowner. She got involved with Habitat because she wanted to invest in herself and her daughter and have the flexibility to change the look of their home, but Tonya and Kayli ended up discovering the feeling of security and joy that comes with homeownership. 

Tonya says the change in her daughter is noticeable: Kayli’s always excited to come home, her personality is brighter, and she’s constantly talking about plans for the home—she wants to grow flowers in the backyard during the summer, for instance, and have friends come over. And Tonya has noticed a change in herself. 

“One day when we had really nice weather, I was sitting in the backyard and I was just like, wow, this is my backyard. Like, I started crying. I don’t know if it was because I was drinking wine, but I was just so thankful and happy, like I’m finally in my own house.

You know, I started thinking about other people who may not be as fortunate as me and I thought, I am so blessed. Because I think earlier that day, I had overheard someone talking about wishing they had more hours at work, how they wish they had this or that—you just never know what people are going through.

So I was just sitting out there reflecting like, I have a house, I have a backyard. It’s just an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness and gratefulness.”

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