Has there ever been a better-named nonprofit organization than Habitat for Humanity? Founded in 1976, this Christian organization identifies the whole world as the target of its efforts. As their website proudly proclaims, “Habitat’s vision is of a world where everyone has a decent place to live.”
In all 50 states and more than 70 countries, with roughly 1,000 employees and a boggling 2 million+ volunteers, Habitat does an impressive job of putting people beneath the roofs of homes they not only buy but have helped build.
Throughout its existence, Habitat for Humanity has helped construct, rehabilitate, or preserve more than 800,000 houses. More precisely, they have made it possible for that many families to take ownership of a home – many times one that the family has built. Once a family is chosen to participate in Habitat’s homeownership program, they begin taking classes in finances, homemaking, budgeting, and other practical skills.
Once construction begins on a Habitat home, the participating families become part of the construction crew. As Alex Kaul, Corporate Relations Manager for Habitat Seattle, explains, “Participating families are able to work on 90% of the construction stages: putting rebar in the foundation, framing, putting on the roof.” Over the course of the home-building project, a family is expected to put 250 hours into the construction of their house.
In King County, Habitat currently has three construction sites. In October 2019, they broke ground for 16 townhomes in Lake City – four blocks of four units each – that will house 16 families, a total of 66 residents. As Alex points out, “Projects look different, because each is built to match the neighborhood.” Therefore, in the small town of Pacific, “It made sense to build single-family homes – cottages.”
In a town that now has only five three-bedroom homes for sale under $350,000, the Habitat project will add three homes affordable for low-income families. A third project is in Loyal Heights, where Habitat is adding 12 new homes at the end of a private road where Habitat has already built 16 homes.
Such homes are not given away, as Habitat volunteer Maryann Savina points out: Participants buy the homes on a sliding scale with money and the “sweat equity” they earn working on the construction site of their houses. As a Family Support Partner, Maryann helps families prepare for homeownership through tasks such as helping them decide how much to save each month. The family she supports is on the list for one of the Lake City homes, where Maryann was on hand “for the Golden Shovel and all that,” as she puts it. Though the construction site was not yet ready for volunteers at the time of her interview, Maryann says her family is “excited about working on the site.”
Maryann came to Habitat as a volunteer through RSVP after a career as an occupational therapist. “Being a Family Support Partner is a great job,” she says, one that has very clear parameters. She was especially excited to learn about the Habitat project in Lake City: “Most projects are found in outlying areas, because building in Seattle is so expensive.”
Volunteers have the option of earning sweat equity that they can contribute to the purchase of the home for the family they are partnered with, both by doing construction work onsite or in another of the agency’s several programs. Maryann says, “I do my sweat equity at the ReStore,” a Habitat for Humanity thrift store dependent on donated goods, “and donate it to my Habitat family.”
Alex adds, “People don’t know a lot about these stores. They think they’re like Goodwill, but they only have the model of accepting donations.” In a Habitat ReStore, the focus is on home furnishings and construction supplies, both new and used, but often new and marked down 50%. The stores – in Auburn, Bellevue, and Tukwila – are open to the public, not just Habitat participants. The stores can always use volunteers, whereas the construction sites fill up two-to-three months in advance.
“Habitat homes are not all new builds,” Alex explains. Another Habitat program is for the repair and recycling of existing houses, most of which take place south of Seattle, where prices are lower than in the city. “Repairs” are houses purchased by Habitat and refurbished and renovated by Habitat volunteers. As Alex and fellow coworker, Employee Coordinator Nicole Errotabere, points out, this project is very volunteer friendly and needs volunteers.
“The future of affordable housing in Seattle has to be with single home ownership. Habitat needs to be adaptable, get better at fitting into all the construction projects out there. We are pushing the limits of what we can do.” ~Alex Kaul, Corporate Relations Manager, Habitat Seattle
A “recycled” home is one that has been built by a Habitat family who, when they decide to move, sells the property back to Habitat, which then cleans it up and sells it at a subsidized cost to another family in need – “another way to maintain an affordable home,” Alex explains. For example, in Sammamish, where Habitat has built 10 houses, housing prices are high, and getting permits can take years. The organization recycled one house from a family and sold it to another for $250K. Without the subsidies made possible by Habitat’s volunteers and sweat equity, the cost would have been more like $880K.
Overall, as Alex points out, “The future of affordable housing in Seattle has to be with single home ownership.” High-density urban areas throughout the country need affordable housing. “Habitat needs to be adaptable, get better at fitting into all the construction projects out there. We are pushing the limits of what we can do.”
One such limit may be met adjacent to Seattle’s Discovery Park, where old military barracks and parking lots will eventually be turned over to the municipality. Federal law allows the military to donate former base land so long as it is used for facilities such as schools, public housing, and parks. A proposed project is for 260 affordable homes, with 52 to be built by Habitat. The timeline for the project, which would be Habitat Seattle’s single largest project, is three-to-five years.
Habitat is always looking for new ways to innovate and expand their development projects. Future projects could include building more vertically and densely, co-op ownership, and other ways to provide affordable housing. Of the 800,000 homes that Habitat has built worldwide, Alex and Nicole are proud to claim 390 homes and 190 repaired/recycled homes for the Seattle branch.
However, as Nicole points out, this balance between new and refurbished homes may be changing: In 2019, 19 homes were new, and 40 were repaired/recycled. Regardless of whether your skills are strongest in bookkeeping or pounding nails, Habitat can always find a place for more hands. As Solid Ground neighbor and Habitat volunteer Maryann Savina puts, it, “Habitat is a wonderful partner.”