Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter/ Habitat for Humanity President and CEO David Butler speaks during a dedication ceremony for Vanester Steele and Betty Hurd's homes on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Hurd's and Steele's homes were the 15th and 16th homes built by Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga in The Villages at Alton Park neighborhood.

The first Habitat for Humanity house constructed in the Chattanooga area was built in 1986 for a family on Signal Mountain.

The owner was a mother with five children. The family had been living in an old school bus on Walden's Ridge, where the children were known to do homework under a streetlight.

Thirty-four years later, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga is still a force for good, building eight to 10 houses a year for low-income residents and repairing up to 100 more through collaborations with Parkridge Medical Center and the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

When Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga President and CEO David Butler, 72, hangs up his hammer in March, he can transition into retirement knowing that the organization here has a solid foundation and a clear blueprint.

The former Olan Mills Portrait Studios president said there's another Habitat story that really gets to him. When he became president of Habitat here seven years ago, Butler asked to meet with some of the homeowners.

One of them was a refugee from South Sudan in Africa, he remembered, who got a job here working the third shift at a chicken processing plant. When Butler asked him to describe a typical day in his life, the man said he finished his shift at the chicken plant at 6 a.m., spent a couple of hours with his children, then volunteered at Habitat for 6 hours a day. Next, he went home, had dinner with his kids and then headed straight back to the chicken plant.

"When do you sleep?" Butler asked.

"On weekends," the man replied.

"He said, 'It's more important for me to get my family under a roof than to be wasting my time sleeping,'" Butler recalled.

To Butler, this story illustrates the "offer a hand up, not a handout" philosophy that drives Habitat.

Habitat homeowners make about 30 to 80 percent of the median wage in Chattanooga and pay about half the market rate for a two-bedroom apartment for their home mortgages (about $450 on average).

"[Habitat homeowners] are at or close to poverty, and they are having to make some difficult decisions about food and clothing and basic necessities," Butler said.

"Many of the families we deal with are losing hope. They can't see how to get to a better place. They are managing their life on an hour-by-hour timeline."

Habitat has been in place here long enough for more than 70 local families to have paid off their no-interest Habitat mortgages, Butler said.

That matters immensely for inter-generational wealth building, he said. Studies show that about half of the children of Habitat homeowners will eventually become homeowners themselves.

During Butler's tenure here, Habitat of Greater Chattanooga has expanded to include home repairs in addition to home building. Many senior residents, with only Social Security as retirement income, cannot afford expensive home repairs.

It's a sad irony that people on a fixed income cannot afford to fix things.

"When you see some of the conditions these people live in, it's unhealthy, it's dangerous," Butler said.

Were it not for Habitat volunteers, many of these older residents would be evicted from their crumbling homes, he said. Keeping them at home contributes to the tax base and keeps the elderly homeowners out of costly assisted-living facilities, Butler said.

COVID-19 cut into Habitat's productivity in 2020. Building crews were sidelined for months because of the pandemic. Home starts — 8 to 10 in a typical year — were cut in half.

This year, Habitat hopes to repair at least 45 homes here, Butler said, as things inch back to normal.

Butler said he plans to retire to Atlanta where his two adult children live. He wants to bike, play the piano more and learn to cook.

Too, he wants to do volunteer work, he said — perhaps on Habitat for Humanity work sites. He has a good mentor, former United States President Jimmy Carter. Butler said he has volunteered on two home builds with Carter, including a sweltering summer project in Memphis.

"It's kind of hard to complain when you see a 96-year-old man out there," Butler said of the former president.

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Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo