By Judy Ripley
What a spectacular concept! Develop an ecumenical, nonprofit, Christian organization to eliminate substandard housing by building new homes. Work with families who are hard working, caring folks and in the process help them towards the goal of financial independence. Have a “pay it back” component so that they can be a part of helping others towards the same goal. Now all you need is the incredible generosity of land donations and volunteers and material and it works! Ah, yes, a centralized organization set up with a franchise-like base with a solid Christian focus and a firm belief in the goodness of people and you are in!
Sounds like a huge leap of faith. But in 1976, Habitat for Humanity International was founded. Since its beginnings this non-profit, ecumenical Christian housing ministry has built over 300,000 homes around the world. This makes them the 14th largest home builder in the USA. It has spread to many of the different counties in Virginia as land has become available. The counties of Middlesex, Gloucester/Matthews, Richmond/ Westmoreland and now Lancaster/ Northumberland are members of this lofty project. Throughout these areas there are areas of substandard housing. Proper sewage, clean water and overcrowding are concerns. Each of these branches operates under the international guidelines with strong support in all their functions. In Gloucester/Matthews and other affiliates, they have a ReStore. This unique space is used for donations of new or gently used building materials. Building materials and gently used furniture are sometimes in excess of what can be used for particular projects or are not appropriate for a build. These items become available to the public as a means of raising needed funds. Check the websites, Habitat for Humanity with the affiliate name, to see these “thrift stores” with contact information. The Westmoreland/Richmond affiliate has an active website with a photo gallery showing projects in various stages of completion and gives the public an opportunity to volunteer or apply for a build (804-493-1500). Lancaster/Northumberland was formed when land was donated and in the fall of 2011 completed its 13th home. Earthcraft green build standards are used to create an environmentally friendly building. John O’Keefe, president of this branch stated that “in this area with all the retirees, volunteers are willing and able to tackle the work.” Seminars, recruiting, local resources, bylaws and all other aspects are readily available. Manuals are provided with a range of information from how to select families, enrolment periods, the consultation process and all the support needed for the affiliate to function seamlessly.
The process begins with the advertising of the enrollment period in local newspapers and radio stations. Interested families go through a vigorous series of interviews conducted by a selection committee to determine their potential success as a homeowner. Information on employment stability, financial knowledge, and the ability for the family to participate in their “build” as well as future builds is provided. Extensive background information is obtained including employment history, those qualified to pay a mortgage while not having too high of an income and criminal background checks. Home visits are conducted and verification of need is determined using HUD guidelines. Selection is nondiscriminatory, “neither race, gender, nor religion is a factor in choosing the families that will buy Habitat houses. “ Homeowners are required to make a down payment of $1500. Zero interest mortgage loans are available. All families are considered “partner families”. They are required to complete at least 300 hours of “sweat equity,” equivalent to 7 ½ weeks of fulltime work as they help build another home for another family as well as contributing to the build of their own future home. Coursework is required which covers areas to assist them to be more prepared to meet the challenges and responsibilities of home ownership. Land must be procured for the house site and materials must be readily available at a reasonable cost. Often land and materials are donated by generous benefactors. Sometimes land donations become neighborhoods of new families. The homes constructed are simple and decent. With all these components of the approximate 6 week process completed, the construction begins. Average home builds take 6 to 9 months. So it begins. Willing volunteers participate in construction with supervised builds held twice a week. With active family participation and all the variables, in six to nine months a house takes shape. Beginning with the foundation then the framing, roofing, electrical and plumbing, drywall, paint, finish trim, doors and windows and a house is born. A house sitting on a muddy construction-trod lot! So what about the yard? Who can help with that? In the Lancaster/ Northumberland area that expertise falls to the Beautification Committee of the Kilmarnock Garden Club. Olga Specht and her committee tackle the gardens with gusto. Using plant material mostly from their own properties and donations from local garden supply stores, this dedicated group of women has landscaped 4 houses in each of two different locations. Any assistance can be offered by calling 438-5504. Other affiliates are assisted by other garden clubs and local volunteers. The focus is on basic plantings requiring low maintenance. Habitat for Humanity of Peninsula and Williamsburg, Janet V. Green executive director, is involved in another way. The Virginian Horticultural Foundation during its 9th Annual Home Gardener Day was involved in something new. Janet was invited to help focus the seminar towards the landscaping of Habitat homes. This seminar featured speakers with credentials in landscape architecture and authors on topics such as designing kitchen gardens and edible flowers. The afternoon session was a design workshop giving the participants an opportunity to design garden spaces to be used in Habitat for Humanity homes.
The Lancaster/Northumberland area Habitat overall goal is two homes constructed annually. That is lofty! Just think about it, two families in new homes helping with other new homes annually! Individual affiliates set their goals according to donations of land and volunteer availability. After the build is completed there is comprehensive follow up for the families. Job and employment records are checked ensuring the success of their new lives in their new home. The Lancaster/Northumberland area Habitat overall goal is two homes constructed annually.
Volunteers are an ever present need and joy. There are many creative features to this aspect. There are annual “Women Builds” and “YouthBuilds”. YouthBuild is an independent, government funded program that involves low-income youth between the ages of 16-24. The participants must complete high school or earn a GED. They learn construction trade skills, develop leadership and job readiness and find and keep employment. They are in partnership with the Workforce Investment Board, Inc. Habitat builds community by bringing together our community’s resources; volunteers, participating businesses, clubs, schools, civic organizations and church work jointly toward eliminating substandard housing in our neighborhoods. New homeowners contribute real estate tax to the economy. When a new home is dedicated a bible is presented to the homeowners as a symbol of the spirit and purpose of the organization.
Building the Future
Currently land is being sought in many areas including the Northumberland area for their next Apostle Build. Apostle builds were originally 12 churches (symbolic for the 12 apostles) that got together to build a home. The reality is that sometimes there are 12 and sometimes less. The many affiliates also help with funding for houses around the world. When a donation is received that is not restricted to local use, the affiliate pays a percentage as a tithe to HGHI to aid in the mission of addressing substandard housing worldwide. Donations can be specified as “local” or for a specific purpose such as lumber, roofing or plumbing or even an upcoming project. It is essential that the public knows that funds are not channeled through Habitat International to local chapters. Each county or local chapter must obtain its own funding. Volunteers can contribute to the specific build sites, office work or fundraising campaigns. The public can make a financial contribution or donate tax-deductible building materials. There is also an annual construction yard sale. Habitat uses the expression “It’s a Hand Up and not a Hand Out. It is a proven fact that clean, decent and stable housing do more than put a roof over someone’s head. It provides stability for their children and an increased sense of dignity and pride.” As John O’Keefe mentioned when asked why? He replied “You can listen to the kids of families and they will tell you. A child mentioned ‘Ma Ma, I can see the house and now when it rains, we do not have to go to Grand Ma’s”.
Now that is indeed a worthy goal, well spoken! To make a difference, go on line for Habitat for Humanity and look up the chapter in your area firstname.lastname@example.org. Then consider volunteering or make a donation of material or funds to help in this worthy endeavor.