Habitat for Humanity Builds Tools for Life
Writer / Cindy Argentine
Jeri Veach experienced this first-hand. She was living in a brand-new apartment in Lebanon with her preschool daughter when she learned about Habitat. She thought, “I’d love to own my own home, but there’s probably no way I can do that.” Then she went to a Habitat orientation meeting. “By the end of the hour, they had answered all my questions and given me an application,” Veach says. A month later, she had turned in her paperwork and started the process. That was the fall of 2007. A year later, she moved into her new home.
Now, nearly ten years after that first meeting, Veach is on the board of directors for Habitat for Humanity of Boone County. She assists with wall-builds and landscaping days whenever new Habitat homes are under construction. She serves on the Family Selection and Nurturing committees and acts as a mentor to new homeowners.
So Who Does Habitat Serve?
“Before I got involved with Habitat, I thought there was no way I would be approved for a Habitat house,” Veach says. “I was working, I had a decent job, and I didn’t qualify for any other assistance.” But as she learned, Habitat homes are precisely for people like her – people who have a stable annual income in the $25,000 to $40,000 range, but whose current housing is inadequate.
What made her brand-new apartment “inadequate”? It’s high cost. She was paying a high percentage of her income on rent. Many times inadequate housing is overcrowded or has structural problems. In other cases, like Veach’s, it is simply not affordable. Liz Qua, executive director of Habitat in Boone County, says many people have the same misconceptions as Veach. “I know there are plenty of people who qualify that aren’t applying!” Qua says. One of her goals is to get the word out and encourage more families to apply. She says manufacturing jobs and service jobs that pay $15-16/hour or more could meet their criteria. “Habitat is a well-known brand,” says Qua. “But I want it to be a household name in Boone County. It’s a cool thing to have a house. We build great homes.”
Veach agrees that it is totally worth applying. “If I were still renting, I’d be financially doomed and in tremendous debt. Now I’m able to afford extra things, like putting my daughter in sports.”
Qua said that the last owners to whom she presented closing documents kept staring at her as if in shock. The papers showed a house payment of $398 a month including escrow. “The homeowner was absolutely stunned that it was going to be that cheap,” says Qua. “So not only are they getting a new house, at an affordable rate, but they also then have additional income, which we encourage them to save.”
Home ownership has intangible benefits, too. “In the apartment, my daughter couldn’t look out and see all her friends’ bikes lying in the yard and all the neighborhood kids out playing. We couldn’t just sit on our front porch and watch the trees across the street,” Veach says.
How Does Habitat Work?
Habitat manages all aspects of building and financing its homes. Although the Boone County Habitat staff is small – Liz Qua and a handful of part-time employees – the number of volunteers is tremendous. Sue Burks is assistant executive director and volunteer coordinator. She says there are about 3,000 volunteers and donors in their database. One build alone last year attracted 350 volunteers. Some are one-time helpers; others help repeatedly. Many do construction; others bring in lunch.
Habitat is also the lender. It provides homeowners a 25-year mortgage based on the actual cost to Habitat for the home. This cost is often substantially less than the appraised value of the home because so many materials and labor costs are donated. For example, a recent house appraised at $130,000, but the actual cost was close to $90,000. Qua says a forgivable second mortgage covers the $40,000 difference. “Homeowners never pay it, but that just protects us. Our goal is to put people in a house, not to have them flip it for a profit,” says Qua. To keep this process working, Habitat needs a large amount of seed money. As Qua explains, “The mortgage money trickles in as monthly payments. That is what we use for administrative costs. All of the money we raise from donors goes toward the building of the house.”
The Partnership Model
Liz Qua was drawn to Habitat because of its philosophy. She assumed the role of director at the beginning of 2017 after long-time director Steve Furste stepped down. Like most of the staff and volunteers, Qua followed her heart to the position. Her first career was as a commercial airline pilot. She loved flying, but when her children were born, she decided to stay home to raise them. For the past 10 or 15 years she has been volunteering with her church and various nonprofits.
She got involved with Habitat a couple of years ago and enjoyed working with her fellow staff and volunteers. When this leadership position opened up, she decided to accept it. The cooperative model of Habitat, established by Millard Fuller in 1976, resonates with her practical, can-do, Christian ethics. “His dream was to have a partnership with homeowners so that they would have a hand-up instead of a hand-out, so they would work towards a house along with volunteers and the community.”
Jeri Veach, the Habitat homeowner who now serves on the board, was also attracted to this model. “I wasn’t looking for a hand-out. I just wanted a little help. Habitat showed me that if I was willing to partner with them, they could help me.”
The partnership they are referring to is known as “sweat equity.” Habitat homeowners are required to invest at least 200 hours in building their house or performing other community service approved by Habitat. “One reason I think I appreciate my house so much is that I was able to put my own sweat into it,” Veach says.
Beyond Building Houses
Sue Burks has been on the Habitat staff since 2012. Before that, she spent seven years as a volunteer. As she says, “The first time I volunteered on a site was because as a kid I did a lot of building with my dad. Somebody at church grabbed me and said, ‘You can do this; come out and help us!’ and then I was just hooked.”
She says people know about Habitat from a building standpoint, but “we want to market ourselves as a service organization for our homeowners.” They do much more than hand homebuyers the keys. Kevin Schmidt, for example, is a Zionsville financial professional who teaches a course on budgeting and money management to prospective owners. Others conduct orientation meetings, review applications, and coach families one-on-one as they work through the sweat equity requirements and other logistical details.
Veach treasures the relationships she has made through Habitat. As she says, “I feel like a gained a family as well as a home. I probably never would have crossed paths with people like Kevin and Liz, and now I consider them my friends. All the staff, all the volunteers, are so encouraging. They want to do everything they can to see homeowners succeed.”
Veach recalls the day when a Habitat volunteer befriended her daughter, Grace. “She was four years old, and they gave her this little tiny hammer, and she was able to pound a nail into a piece of wood that went into our house.”
Grace, now twelve, has grown up in her Habitat house. She goes with her mom to construct walls and put in landscaping for new houses. “When I think about Habitat, I think about helping someone in need you don’t even know,” she says. “I think I will keep it up when I’m an adult.”