Phyllis Snodgrass Works on Affordability One Family at a Time at Austin Habit for Humanity
The Forrest Files: September 29, 2020
Phyllis Snodgrass has been a leader in community engagement for almost two decades. During her 17 year Chamber of Commerce Career, she served as President/CEO of three local chambers before going on to become the VP of Chamber Relations for the Texas Association of Business.
Snodgrass then spent four years as the COO of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce before coming into her current role as CEO of Austin Habitat for Humanity, where she works to maximize AHFH’s impact on the most critical issue in the community today — affordability.
She was the recipient of the Executive Leadership Award from the Austin Chamber of Commerce in August 2018 and was named a top CEO in Austin by the Austin Business Journal in October 2019.
When travel restrictions eventually ease in a post-COVID world, Snodgrass hopes to embark on another Habitat-related service trip:
“I had made plans to visit Israel in Spring 2020 and to participate in a Global Village Build with Habitat for Humanity International in Fall 2020. Both trips were sidelined due to COVID, but my passport is ready and I look forward to the adventures that await when these trips can be resumed safely. I visited Vietnam on a Global Village Build in 2018 and it was truly life-changing, I can’t wait to do that again!”
How has COVID impacted the day-to-day operations at Austin Habitat for Humanity?
COVID turned the world upside down and we were no exception. Much of our funding for home construction comes from companies who pay for the opportunity to volunteer onsite and help us build affordable homes. Ensuring that we could safely accommodate smaller groups was necessary to get home production moving forward and the funding necessary to pay for those builds. Our ReStores had to navigate new protocols as well for the safety of both customers and staff. Additionally, early on in the pandemic our Housing Counseling program went virtual — and much to our delight, we discovered that we can now serve more of our service area through this online counseling model. Like any business, our non-profit had to find new ways to get our work done and we are extremely proud of how our teams responded to the challenge
In 2018, the Austin ReStore moved into the top spot in Habitat for Humanity’s nationwide network for gross sales. How has the pandemic impacted business at the Austin ReStore?
ReStore business took a nosedive back in early April when the first stay at home orders were issued and folks were still trying to figure out how to stay safe. Additionally, donated product volume declined as many of our corporate partners put their remodeling projects on hold and our home pickup service was halted. But after a few weeks at home people started doing more home fix up projects and our customers began coming back. We were excited to see August numbers actually beat our budgeted projections. Probably the most unexpected win was a huge rise in interest in our new online ReStore shopping experience
Habitat’s annual fundraising gala Blue Jeans and Blueprints was canceled because of the pandemic. What will take the place of this event?
Our annual fundraiser has been reimagined for 2020 as a virtual event we are calling “Building Community from Home.” It all begins with a 3-part community conversation series that kicks off on World Habitat Day, October 5th. Series topics will address important issues surrounding housing such as equity, corporate responsibility and women empowerment — all culminating with a virtual 35th Anniversary Celebration on November 19th with live music, special guest appearances, food and fun from home, all to raise funds to build five Habitat for Humanity homes!
In 2020, what is the biggest area of need for Austin Habitat for Humanity?
I often joke with people that there are only two things Habitat needs: land and money. The current crisis is creating a lot of uncertainty for nonprofits as we navigate how to best serve our communities over the next two — three years while the economy is likely to suffer from lingering results of the pandemic. Funding for home construction by companies wanting to give back to the community is a top need followed closely by the need for additional social impact lending to fund future construction projects.
Affordable home ownership is one of the city’s biggest ongoing challenges. How does Austin Habitat for Humanity fit into the solution for this problem?
Austin Habitat for Humanity has a variety of programs aimed at providing access to affordable homeownership for individuals and families earning less than 80% of Median Family Income in our community, which is currently $78, 100 for a family of four. Our critical home repair program helps to alleviate substandard living conditions and serves those with limited resources including seniors, veterans and people with disabilities. Additionally — through our HUD-certified housing counseling program we are able to work with the general public to help them gain financial stability.
“You know that saying ‘love your neighbor as yourself’? We were founded on that principle and live by it every single day.”
What part of your job do you find most rewarding?
The opportunity to make people’s dreams come true. Habitat for Humanity is uniquely situated to have a significant impact on affordable housing in our community and through this incredible ministry I get the chance to work alongside community leaders, volunteers and homeowners and an incredible team to build homes communities and hope in Central Texas. I get to see people at their best, giving generously because they believe in what we do. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
What part of your job do you find most difficult?
Telling hard working families that we can’t serve them, either because we weren’t able to raise enough money to help make their dreams become a reality or because they don’t make enough money to qualify for affordable homeownership. Many people do not realize that we do in fact sell these homes, and the purchasers must be able to qualify for a mortgage in order to purchase their home. There is so much need out there and we can’t serve everyone in need of affordable housing but it is never easy to deliver that message.
How knowledgeable of the Austin real estate market were you when you took over the leadership role at Austin Habitat?
I was well aware that Austin was growing increasingly more expensive, in fact I was actually living in San Marcos at the time, but the world of affordable housing, with all its nuance and an inexhaustible list of acronyms was a bit overwhelming. I walked around for months with a notepad and pen scratching down new acronyms and finding out what they meant, read as much as I could get my hands on and asked a whole lot of questions. Probably the best thing I did to accelerate the learning process was to accept a public speaking engagement on a policy panel discussing affordable housing three months after arriving at Austin Habitat. The potential for public humiliation is a powerful motivator to figure things out pretty quickly!
One of your initiatives at Austin Habitat is to start building denser, multifamily housing. Tell us more about how this project is unfolding.
Land is expensive and as a result — it only makes sense to build more houses on less land. Its simple math. Austin Habitat is selling more condominiums, townhomes and rowhomes today than we are single family residential properties. If we want to solve this affordable housing crisis, we need to commit together to end housing scarcity. We can do this by building more homes, of all types, in all parts of our community, while increasing the amount of income restricted affordable housing.
Can you give us a picture of the typical Austin Habitat for Humanity homeowner?
Austin Habitat for Humanity serves first time home buyers earning less than 80 percent of Median Family Income, ($78,100 for a family of four) that can demonstrate they have a need for shelter, willingness to partner and ability to pay. Most of the families on our waiting list are living in overcrowded or substandard conditions or find themselves paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Approximately 70% of the homes we build are for families with children and half of our Habitat homeowners are single mothers.
Safe and stable homes are the foundation of successful families and communities. But owning a home is not possible for many of our neighbors. As the cost of a home in the area has soared to $400,000, more than one-third of local households are earning less than $50,000 a year. Habitat homeowners include teachers, hospitality and service workers, nursing aides and lab techs and office workers that are looking for the opportunity to put down roots and build financial security.
What did you learn about Austin via this role at Habitat — in other words, what have you learned about this city in this new job that you didn’t know when you were part of the Austin Chamber?
At the Chamber I clearly saw the value of a growing economy and believed strongly that a “rising tide lifts all ships.” And I still believe that is true today. I would rather live in a community with a robust economy, educational and job opportunities than a community with low cost housing but no jobs and no opportunities for its citizens.
But what I see today is that our economy is growing on two tracks, and those who serve our community on the frontlines are not seeing their incomes and opportunities rising fast enough to keep up with real estate inflation. As more and more people discover the beauty and charm of Austin, long time residents are finding themselves moving further away from the center of the community with longer and more stressful commute times. Finding solutions to these problems will require creativity, collaboration and community will power.
How has the city’s recent ascent as Tech Boomtown over the last decade helped or hurt non-profit organizations like Austin Habitat for Humanity?
It’s an interesting question. Some of our biggest supporters are tech companies — especially those who believe they have a responsibility to make a difference in the community they reside in and benefit from. But the decisions of which causes to support are often made at headquarters — often in another community — and because of that we don’t see the dollars invested in Austin that you would see in a community with more company headquarter locations.
The many crises of 2020 has exposed some pretty significant fractures in our society. Does working at a community-focused non-profit like Habitat for Humanity give you perspective and optimism that these fractures can be healed?
Habitat for Humanity was founded on the vision of a world where we share one humanity, and that’s a world that we believe in and fight for every day. We are a faith-based organization, but we realize that faith alone is not enough. Our faith must be coupled with works and action. We will continue to be a space where people of all races, all faiths, all political beliefs and all backgrounds can come together in common cause to create a world where everyone has a safe, decent, affordable place to live. You know that saying “love your neighbor as yourself”? We were founded on that principle and live by it every single day. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing people from all walks of life come together with future homeowners and their families to build a dream — the dream of home ownership. It never gets old.
Phyllis Snodgrass photo by Annie Ray at an Austin Habitat for Humanity build in November 2019.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals.
He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world. Browse here for the full list of these interviews.