After the pandemic exacerbated housing costs in Orange County, Jennifer Player plans to build over 100 low-income dwellings
By Emily Padula | Photo by John Michael Simpson
As president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Orange County, Jennifer Player’s schedule – with donor meetings, build site visits and balancing the ever-changing landscape of affordable housing – never looks the same. But there are some constants in her office: a clothespin collage with photos of inspiring people she has met along the way not far from a wall map of plans for the nonprofit’s largest project yet.
After growing up in Wayne County, just southeast of the Triangle, Jennifer attended UNC, where she met her husband, Jon Player. After graduation, she worked in health care consulting and volunteered with nonprofits. Wanting to make her passion for volunteering a career, Jennifer got her master’s degree in public administration for nonprofit management at UNC Charlotte.
In 2014, the director of development job at Orange Habitat brought Jennifer and Jon back to Chapel Hill, where they now raise their sons, Winston, 12, and Fletcher, 9, and a poochon puppy named Wallace (affectionately named after UNC basketball player Rasheed Wallace). In 2019, she became president and CEO of the nonprofit.
A core part of Jennifer and Orange Habitat’s vision is making sure everyone in the county has a decent place to live. One huge step toward that vision hangs on the wall behind Jennifer’s desk: a development called Weavers Grove. Walking distance from East Chapel Hill High School, the 32-acre project will consist of 237 homes, including 101 Habitat dwellings for people who live or work in Orange County. The remaining homes will be market-rate, creating a mixed-income community. “We really believe in the benefits of different types of people living in the same neighborhood, being able to learn and grow and share with each other,” Jennifer says.
One of Jennifer’s favorite memories on the job happened at her first closing. She met a fellow mother named Judit Alvarado, who was purchasing a Habitat home in Hillsborough with her husband, Angel Davalos. Fast forward to this year, Jennifer hopped on a recent affordable housing call and saw none other than Judit sharing her experience as a leader in the Fairview community.
“I’ve just really been able to see how this stable home has helped their family, has helped them to go back to school, to better their education, to get better jobs and to really get connected in the community,” Jennifer says. “Now that they’re stable, they found a place they want to invest in and they want to get involved and they want to give back.”
The organization recently got a boost in late March. Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott announced a $436 million donation to Habitat for Humanity affiliates, with Orange Habitat set to receive $5 million of the transformational funds.
Jennifer says, “To me, it’s really a vote of confidence that a philanthropist like this looked at our organization and said, ‘They are doing all the right things and have all of the foundation in place to really launch and do something big.’”
As more flock to the area, she says it has become harder for long-term residents or service workers to stay in this aggressive housing market. She says this “life-changing” gift will have a generational impact for local neighborhoods. “The bottom line, it allows us to be able to keep more of the people who are the fabric of our community in our community,” Jennifer says.