Home sweet home

Heather Benham helps people buy a place of their own

Home sweet home

Heather Benham

Photo by: Andrew Davis Tucker

 Heather Benham hasn’t forgotten her first visit to Athens’ homeless shelter.

“What I saw that shocked me was how many families were there,” she says. “They had jobs, and they had kids in school that were doing well, and they were living at the shelter because something had happened to where they were living.”

At the time, Benham (JD ’03, MHP ’03) was a UGA graduate student volunteering for the School of Law’s legal clinic. Her experiences at the homeless shelter spurred her interest in housing issues, and she served as a summer intern for the Athens Land Trust, a nonprofit community land trust with a dual mission of preserving natural resources and creating affordable housing. That was 2002, and she joined ALT full time the next year after finishing her degrees in law and historic preservation.

Now ALT’s housing director, Benham oversees new construction—as many as eight houses a year—and renovation projects. For each project, she checks her waiting list to find the client whose needs will best be met by a particular project. In addition to working with architects, attorneys, bankers, clients and contractors, Benham’s job requires that she navigate complex property issues, historic preservation standards and Earthcraft certification—a residential green building standard for the Southeast. Sometimes she chooses paint, flooring and fixtures for the homes, tasks that she takes seriously because she wants to make sure the new owners approve.

“That’s actually what the contractors always tease me about,” she says. “‘You’re not going to live in this house. Why do you care so much about every little detail?’”

Benham “has a great eye for design and aesthetics,” says ALT Executive Director Nancy Stangle (MEd ’79). “She gets the credit for how nice our houses look.”

More important is Benham’s commitment to helping her community.

“She’s very creative in coming up with ideas and ways to help people and make projects work, and she’s very dedicated,” Stangle says. “I’m sure she passed up many opportunities to make a lot of money as a corporate attorney to work at a nonprofit that’s trying to maintain the quality of life we have here in Athens. She works to help people have a better life.”

Jackie Roberts is a homeowner now, thanks to Benham. Roberts completed ALT’s homebuyer certification class several years ago, but delayed buying a home because as a single mother with three children she was concerned about taking on extra responsibilities. She was planning to move into another apartment, but Benham called to ask if she was still interested in buying a house.

“I probably would have put it off had she not contacted me,” says Roberts, administrative manager at UGA’s Vinson Institute. “I thought the timing was just perfect when she reached out and called me, so I just took that as a sign that it’s time to go for it. She was definitely the factor that helped me make the decision.”

Over time, and with Benham’s reassurances, Roberts became more comfortable with the idea of home ownership.

“I was just excited when I saw the colors go up on the outside of the house—it was a thrill a minute. Every other weekend I went by just to look at the house and see as it developed from one stage to the next. I guess you could say I was like a house stalker,” she says, laughing.

The night before the April ribbon cutting at her new home, Roberts found Benham working in her yard.

“She was out there by herself, and it was maybe 6 or 7ish in the evening. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re out here working.’ She had planted a little flower bed at the bottom of the staircase, which I fell in love with.”

Benham’s dedication shows in all aspects of her work, whether she’s landscaping, choosing fixtures or simply listening to a client’s concerns, Stangle says.

“She relates very well to people—all people, of all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Stangle says. “That’s another aspect of her job that’s really important because she’s able to get to know our potential homeowners very well. They relate very well to her, and she gets to know them and what their needs are.”

Often what they need is a little extra help navigating the process of becoming a homeowner. Benham and ALT are able to provide that assistance.

“It seems like a lot of what things come down to is whether you have a backup support system to help you get a leg up or if you don’t,” Benham says. “I had help from my family—that’s how I got my first house. If you don’t have that, then it’s hard to get in the game.”

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Athens Land Trust www.athenslandtrust.org