Habitat for Humanity CEO Feels ‘a Plan Bigger Than Me Going On’

Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville’s home in the Portland neighborhood is a former bakery built in 1924. Six years ago, Rob Locke led efforts to buy the building that he said was in shambles, with a leaking roof. Now, it houses the organization’s operations, including construction, back office, and development staff. It even has a building area where walls for homes are assembled.

“We had been looking for 18 months,” he explains. “I got a cold call from a guy in Portland who said he had a building. Many moons later, we found we had a construction building right next door. I think that was a God wink. I think there’s a plan bigger than me going on.” 

Locke has been a part of Habitat for 21 of the organization’s 32 years in Metro Louisville, the last four as CEO. But he is more than a business leader. He is a compassionate individual who loves to recite the organization’s mission.

Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat brings people together to build homes, communities and hope through housing solutions of home ownership, community development and home repair,” he recites for a visitor, then points out that there exists a widely repeated misconception about Habitat’s purpose.

“There are still myths out there that Habitat is giving away houses,” he says. “That is absolutely not the case. We will hit our 500th home ownership project in 2018. About 10 percent of those owners have paid off their home. More than 50 families have paid off their homes.”

To qualify, potential homeowners must have income of $20,000 to $50,000 and agree to pay off a first mortgage that includes the organization’s cost for building. Habitat makes no profit on homes.

“The way it works is we use community effort to build a quality home and to sell it to a family at no profit through a zero-interest loan,” Locke says. “The families that have bought Habitat houses are typically wage earners, such as package handlers at UPS, CNAs at Norton HealthCare, teachers’ assistants in the public school system. Honestly, it’s parents who want the opportunity for home ownership and want to provide that stability for their kids.”

Habitat for Humanity of Metro Louisville reported $5.7 million in revenue in 2016 and built 16 homes – four by faith-based sponsors. It expanded its mission to include community development and home repair, and in 2017 held “Love Your Neighborhood” events in Portland, California, and Russell.

While Habitat is expanding geographically, including a new building project in the East End, Locke estimates the organization has built about 100 homes each in Portland and Russell. It originally found land by searching the vacant property listings in the West End.

“Our West Louisville work, we realize we have to think of not just the house, but what’s going on around the house,” he says. “That’s why we added the community development and home-repair components to our mission statement. We know that a house, in and of itself, doesn’t really make for a sustainable community change.”

The “Love Your Neighborhood” events have been a success and have become what Locke calls “festivals with a purpose.” Neighbors are able to discuss concerns about public spaces while talking about ways to improve the neighborhoods.

And Locke is confident the work Habitat is doing in the West End will pay off, as he expects property values to appreciate in the next decade.

“One of the realities is the property values west of Ninth Street are low. The hidden secret is ‘Don’t sell yet,’” he says. “Take a look at Shelby Park and Smoketown now. That’s what California, Russell, and Portland will be in 10-15 years. Today those have double-digit appreciation. Get in, invest, be a part of this change, and we’re all gonna rise together.”

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