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Habitat Chief Builds His Next Chapter

By Cece Nunn, posted Mar 5, 2021
After serving since 2013 as Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity’s executive director, Steve Spain is retiring next month. Spain looks back at the nonprofit’s growth and what’s next for it. (Photo by Aris Harding)
Steve Spain, executive director of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity, plans to retire in April after more than 16 years of helping families find shelter and permanent, affordable housing.
 
Spain began his local nonprofit work with Wilmington Interfaith Hospitality Network, now called Family Promise of the Lower Cape Fear, in 2005 before taking the helm of Cape Fear Habitat in 2013.
 
The homes Cape Fear Habitat builds with the help of volunteers are sold to qualifying, low- to middle-income families with an affordable mortgage at no more than 30% of their monthly income.
 
“Steve’s vision has driven tremendous growth and service through our organization in the eight years he has served as executive director,” said David Parks, Cape Fear Habitat’s board president, in a news release. “When Hurricane Florence impacted our region, Steve led his team to pivot and focus on home rehabs and rebuilds which was so desperately needed – and still is. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, he continues to lead his team to build and provide affordable homes, all while changing the way volunteers are being used, how donations are being obtained, and how the homeownership and construction process occurs to keep everyone safe.”
 
Spain’s successor, Lauren McKenzie, will begin as executive director April 1. McKenzie currently serves as Cape Fear Habitat’s director of finance and operations and has been in this position for three years.
 
Spain recently answered some questions about his time with Cape Fear Habitat and his plans for the future.
 
GWBJ: Since your start as executive director at Cape Fear Habitat in 2013, how were you able to grow the organization to double the amount of house closings?
 
Spain: “Over my tenure, we have doubled the number of new homes closed annually from 8-12 a year to 16-24 a year. We were able to do this by increasing our construction staff and volunteers, acquiring more property through purchase and donation and finding new, cost-effective ways to raise capital.”
 
GWBJ: What do you consider your greatest achievement with Cape Fear Habitat and why?
 
Spain: “Well, it’s not my really an achievement of mine but of our homeowners that makes me the most proud: The homes built during my tenure have already produced over $2 million in home equity for the owners.
 
“Home ownership is the most reliable way to build wealth for moderate income Americans, and Habitat helps make it available to individuals and communities who traditionally have not had that opportunity. Home equity means being able to weather financial hard times and make dreams come true: dreams of children going to college, of buying another home, of retiring securely and leaving something of value for the next generation.
 
“I am also very proud of the relationships Habitat has built and strengthened with local governments, businesses and other nonprofits. Hurricane Florence and the pandemic have served as potent reminders that we can do so much more together than by operating in our own separate silos.
 
“From an organizational management point of view, my greatest achievement has been to build, encourage and support an incredibly talented staff – and to stay out of their way!”
 
GWBJ: What were some of your biggest challenges?
 
Spain: “The biggest challenge for me was learning to manage an organization that is a construction company, mortgage banker, retailer and financial education agency all at once! Getting those disparate endeavors to all pull together to meet our mission of providing affordable homeownership opportunities is the most challenging – and rewarding – part of my job. Some of the bigger ongoing challenges have been finding affordable land in New Hanover County, connecting with potential homeowners in Pender and Duplin County and running three retail stores during a pandemic.”
 
GWBJ: How do you feel about your successor, Lauren McKenzie?
 
Spain: “Lauren is just the right person to lead Habitat at this time. In her three years here she has really embraced our mission and brought incredible expertise and enthusiasm to the organization. After Hurricane Florence, she created and directed our ReBuild program that has mucked out, repaired or replaced more than a hundred homes severely damaged by the storm.
 
“She also led our board of directors in creating our 2020-2025 Strategic Plan. To say that she’s going to hit the ground running is an understatement. She’s been on the ground and running hard for quite a while already. I feel very happy knowing that the future of Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity is in her very capable hands.”
 
GWBJ: What do you plan to do during your retirement?”
 
Spain: “My wife and I plan to do a lot of traveling in the next few years, once that is more possible again. Earlier in our careers, we lived and worked overseas, and that has given us a larger than usual ‘bucket list’ of places to visit across the globe. Our adult children both live in Wilmington, so this will remain our U.S. base. One way or another, I’m sure we’ll both stay involved in the ‘do-gooder’ business through volunteering and advocacy.”
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