Most people recognize Habitat for Humanity as the nonprofit that brings together various resources to build affordable housing in low-income areas. But that is hardly the whole story, according to Fran Normann, executive director of Housatonic Habitat for Humanity.
“We are transitioning our business from being a charity thrift shop to a nonprofit retail business,” Normann said at the Danbury organization’s headquarters at 51 Austin St. “Habitat International was looking for a good vehicle for its affiliates to raise more funds for building homes, and that’s where ReStore came from.”
The Danbury branch’s ReStore ended its fiscal year on June 30 with $542,000 in resales of donated home improvement items, including furniture, appliances and building materials. “We have systems in place to work with not only individuals and local companies, but also big-box sellers in the area,” Normann said.
According to Habitat for Humanity International, 16% to 18% of Americans shop at a thrift store in a year, and about 12% to 15% shop in consignment stores, slightly lower than major department stores and apparel stores, but higher than malls. Thrift and consignment shop sales increased 50% from 2007 to 2017, while sales at discount department stores decreased by 50% and department store sales decreased by 25%.
ReStores in the U.S. contributed $123 million into its communities in 2018, off of nearly $485.8 million in gross revenue. Sales per square foot have increased from $29.66 in fiscal year 2014 to $49.99 in fiscal year 2018.
Normann said that when Housatonic’s ReStore began about 10 years ago, “We started with the same kind of view as maybe a church might do with a thrift shop in its basement.” Since then it has morphed into a 10,000-square-foot facility with a truck, forklift and a part-time staff of 12 who focus on customer-facing and sales jobs.
“We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore,” Normann laughed. “We’re not just working out of a garage or basement.”
About 20 additional people volunteer to do most of the moving of inventory, Normann said. “We look up every piece we bring in and gauge what it might cost in the general market and price it accordingly,” usually at significantly less than the retail price.
“Sometimes a piece might require a little repair, some tightening of a chair’s legs, to make sure it’s in good shape. We don’t put any junk on the floor,” she continued. “Anything electronic like a dishwasher we make sure is in good working order.”
The branch also accepts all kinds of vehicles, including cars, trucks, RVs, vans, SUVs, boats and motorcycles. All proceeds go to Habitat’s mission of building affordable housing in the greater Danbury area.
“Our core business is construction and community development,” Normann said. “We can provide mortgages to the people we sell homes to, working with certain loan originators including Newtown Savings Bank, which is our mortgage-servicing partner.”
She said that when speaking to groups in past years, when she asked if anyone had visited the ReStore, “one or two people would raise their hands. Now probably half of them have been here.”
Housatonic conducts niche marketing through social media, advertising and other outlets to get the word out, as well as meeting with chambers of commerce and other business development groups. It also holds quarterly “lunch and learn” confabs with the Northern Fairfield County Association of Realtors (NFCAR) and the Ridgefield Board of Realtors Inc. (RBOR).
“They have their finger on the pulse of the community,” Normann said of the Realtors. “They have been very important for us.”
Another fundraising program, “Wrapping for Habitat,” involves wrapping gifts at the Macy’s in the Danbury Fair Mall every December. Last year some 300 people wrapped about 5,000 gifts, she said. Similar efforts are conducted during Mother’s Day and other gift-giving holidays. This past spring, over 6,000 Macy’s customers donated to Housatonic during its Round-Up campaign, wherein customers can round up their purchases to the next dollar amount.
The need for affordable housing in the Danbury area is underscored by Housatonic’s recent Out of Reach report, which determined the fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the greater Danbury area to be $1,583, the second-highest in the state, behind the greater Stamford area. A household would have to earn $63,320 a year to afford the fair market rent.
However, the average renter in the Danbury area earns $46,590 and can only afford $1,165 a month in rent, or less than the $1,253 it costs to rent a one-bedroom apartment.
A minimum-wage worker would have to log 121 hours — the equivalent of three full-time jobs — a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment, while the average renter would have to work 54 hours for the same apartment.
“Affordable housing is in such a crisis in this state,” Normann said. “We’ve done a good job in the past, but if we’re going to continue to grow in the future, we have to make a real dent in affordable housing by being more aggressive.”
Housatonic Habitat is debuting monthly DIY classes beginning in August, where area crafters will demonstrate how to repurpose and reuse furniture. “These are creative people who can help people keep their costs down by showing them how they can maximize what they have, or what they’re buying from ReStore,” she said.
The first class will be held on-site Aug. 3 and feature Kristin Crump, owner of Foxtrot Home in Ridgefield, who routinely salvages old architectural pieces and furniture for herself and her business.
“I’ve made corbels into bookends for myself and clients,” said Crump, who will utilize ReStore inventory during her class. “I take remnant tile and create decoupage coasters and trivets. I also love to decorate with old windows, taking salvage antique leaded glass windows to create wall art. The craftsmanship that goes into homes and furnishings built over a hundred years ago is exquisite and tells a story.”
Other DIY classes will be led by Teresa Dorritia, who will demonstrate how to paint headboards on Nov. 2, and Angela Gallo, owner of The Parfumerie Store in Danbury, on Feb. 1, showing how to make sachets and room fresheners by mixing scents.
And on Sept. 21, the organization will bring together a number of local artists and Ridgefield’s Nod Hill Brewery for “Arts and Drafts,” a wide-ranging fundraising event being held at the Danbury Elks Lodge.