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Back in the valley

Scott N. Miller/Enterprise editor
Special to the DailyThe Eagle County chapter of Habitat for Humanity found its footing in the old mining town of Leadville. In the past four years, the group has built and finished six homes; a seventh will be finished this year.
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It’s been a while, but the Eagle County chapter of Habitat for Humanity is ready to build another home in the valley.

The group hosted a ground-breaking ceremony, Aug. 20, at a site on Third Street in Eagle. Foundation work should start in mid-September, and volunteers should begin working on the structure later that month.

The home will actually be a duplex addition, built on a site that now holds a single-family home owned by the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. The upper-valley district, which owns several units for use by employees, agreed to use the site for a Habitat home after a convergence of valley volunteers hatched the idea.

District official Leslie Isom serves on Eagle County’s Homebuyer Assistance Committee. So does a member of the local Habitat chapter’s board. Isom learned that Habitat is always searching for local home sites, and asked district director Dennis Gelvin if that organization had any surplus property.

After some negotiation, a deal was struck for the parcel in Eagle.

“We’re really excited,” said Isom, who added she hopes this deal opens the door to build Habitat homes in other parts of the valley.

That may be happening. Tom Healy of Vail, director of the local Habitat chapter, said the organization has leads on three or four “very promising situations” regarding land acquisition.

Healy is talking seriously of building one, and perhaps two, Habitat homes in the valley next year. Very real prospects exist for even more land in the future, he said.

Generous start

After the local group received its charter from Habitat for Humanity International in 1995, volunteers found land and built a home in Gypsum in 1996. At the time, though, the valley’s most recent real estate boom was peaking, making land acquisition virtually impossible.

In 1999, with Habitat still unable to find property in the valley, the group expanded its charter to serve Lake County, with the idea that building something, somewhere, was better than not building anything.

The group found its footing in the old mining town of Leadville. In the past four years, the group has built and finished six homes; a seventh will be finished this year.

KT Gazunis, former director of the local Habitat chapter and still a member of its board, said the idea to start building homes, even in Leadville, has paid dividends in terms of local interest and donations.

She credited the Leadville program with building enough awareness to make the current drive for property in the Eagle Valley possible. The building program in Leadville has also prompted the local group to expand its staff a bit.

Habitat now has a part-time coordinator for Lake County. That still leaves the local chapter with a small staff. Besides the part-time person in Leadville, there are two paid staff members in the Avon office, and the group employs a construction supervisor on a contract basis.

The low overhead is crucial, in part because the group operates with a budget of about $350,000 per year. Fewer expenses also help to put as many people into Habitat homes as possible.

Homes matter

The people who move into Habitat houses are those who would otherwise be unable to purchase homes of their own. Participating families may earn no more than 50 to 60 percent of an area’s median income.

Need is a major qualifying factor, too. Qualifying families must currently be living in “substandard housing,” a definition that encompasses crowding, or living in rental units with defects ranging from plumbing trouble to problems keeping out the elements.

Those conditions are noted by the board that reviews applications. Those standards are often the determining factor. For instance, a family with no heat in the bathroom would lose out to a family without functional plumbing.

In addition to need and income, families must be full and willing participants in Habitat’s philosophy of helping those willing to help themselves. The group’s rules require each family to put 100 hours into construction, and another 150 hours into other home projects and classes on household budgeting and similar topics.

Families who qualify buy their homes, but pay a principal-only mortgage, since Habitat follows an Old Testament prohibition of charging interest on loans.

Those mortgages are also far below market prices. In this area, Habitat homes are priced well below the actual cost of construction.

Even so, Habitat homes built in this area cost far more than the national average of about $46,000. Homes in Leadville have been sold for around $90,000, depending on a qualifying family’s income. The home in Eagle will be more expensive, since the local median income is just about double what it is in Lake County.

Given the low prices and tight budgets, it’s no surprise that Habitat homes lack a lot of frills, which also reflects the group’s mantra of “simple, decent housing.” While built simply, homes must meet local zoning and building codes, and electrical and plumbing systems are installed by licensed professionals, with much of the rest of the work done by volunteers, who turn out in droves.

Horde of helpers

“We’re just overwhelmed with volunteers,” said Healy. “The challenge will be finding work for everyone.”

Over the course of helping build three Habitat homes in Leadville, Jennifer Doris has become a skilled miter saw operator.

More than building skills, though, Doris said, “I enjoy the community of it, of being able to do something for other people.”

“It’s really a great organization,” added fellow volunteer Earl Glenwright. Building a Habitat home, he noted, “Is a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun and there’s a lot of reward, too. You get so much more than you put in.”

Through her volunteer efforts, Doris has come to know her fellow volunteers and, of course, the families who are buying the homes.

Glenwright said that kids especially get into the spirit.

“I think the biggest beneficiaries are the kids,” said Glenwright. “They get a safe, dry, sanitary house.”

Keeping kids busy on a job site is important, Glenwright added, because otherwise they’ll wander into trouble. Young teens get put to real work such as helping put up siding. Younger kids get small assignments to keep them busy.

One small assignment is important. While houses are being built, kids are shown their bedrooms, and then asked to spray-paint their names on the sub-flooring. That, said Glenwright, helps reinforce the fact this will be their room. For many of the kids, it’s the first time they’ve had a room of their own.

Of the prospect of building in Eagle, Doris echoed the feelings of everyone else involved: “I’m extremely excited. Leadville is very nice, but going there is hard on the gas tank. I think it’s great, and it’s needed. We need to get (another home) down here.”

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

UNSUNG HEROES

Habitat volunteer Earl Glenwright is a member of the group’s construction committee. He said the organization’s home building efforts would be a lot harder without contributions from some local and national companies.

Locally, Avon-based Ground Control does grading and excavating for Habitat homes at no charge.

American Gypsum, which produces drywall at its factory in Gypsum, provides free wallboard for every Habitat home. And, Glenwright said, that wallboard is professionally hung for free as well.

National firms involved with the group include Dow Chemical, which provides insulation for every Habitat home built in America. Additionally, Whirlpool provides every Habitat home in the country with a free refrigerator, stove and dishwasher.


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