Debra Cummins, Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of the Greater Lehigh Valley (HFHLV), an LVMAC member, and her Program Development Director, Thomas Mohr, a veteran, addressed the Council at its 17 March 2013 business meeting on its desire to recruit veterans as volunteers.
She said, “Habitat for Humanity International, the parent organization, has a global vision of everyone having a decent place to live. And Habitat has been in the Lehigh Valley since 1989 improving lives, seeking to put God’s love into action by bringing people together, for it is an ecumenical movement.” She emphasized the organization will work with and provide homes regardless of a person’s religious persuasion.
Ms. Cummins then went onto address a myth about the organization which, in her view, has had a negative effect upon working poor veterans applying for one of their homes. The myth is “Habitat gives their houses away.”
This misperception makes it harder to engage veterans because of their pride. In addition to showing a need, Habitat helps only those in the 35-55% per cent of median income range because a mortgage is involved. The family must also pay a closing fee of about $750 and property taxes and insurance, which are combined with the mortgage payments.
This income range would include veterans on medical assistance (Medicaid), many living on a VA disability pension and those receiving lower amounts of disability compensation – those who banks do not generally serve. Therefore, it is not a program for Ne’er-do-wells because added working income is normally required to pay off the loan and the family must also apply “sweat equity” of at least 250 hours to obtain a house [about a full month’s worth of labor]. [In addition shadow (second) mortgages are arranged to prevent house flipping for profit.]
The advantage to the veteran is the zero per cent interest rate on and the length of the mortgage – typically 25-27 year mortgage (they are moving towards 30 year loans). The zero per cent interest alone saves a family about $50,000 to $75,000 overall – something better applied to the education of their children, for example. The length of the mortgage results in an average monthly payment for a brand new house of about $750. “Compare that with the average of $900 to $950 dollars for renting a home here and you can see the advantages of working with us to mitigate the effects of poverty-level working wages while providing decent housing,” she said, “As evidence by the fact that over the last 25 years there have been no foreclosures on the hundred homes provided.” So, in the end, it is no ‘gimme.’
Cummins related a second myth: the misperception that donations to Habitat International are used to help the local chapter. “Those donations are used towards the global mission and currently the emphasis is on Africa.” Though HFHLV also makes tithes to the parent organization, it sees no funding from them for construction projects. It is entirely dependent upon local ‘keep it in your backyard’ donations and corporate sponsorships to accomplish its mission in the Lehigh Valley.
Finally, it was stated the third myth is the longstanding assumption ex-President Jimmy Carter founded Habitat. While he is an ardent supporter, the truth is an inspired individual named Millard Fuller founded the organization in May 1964. The results of his original efforts in Atlanta, Georgia planted the idea among others elsewhere to affiliate themselves and the movement grew. Today, Habitat’s logo has become the second most recognized nonprofit brand after the Red Cross in this country.
Tom Mohr and she then went on to discuss how the Council and others could help.
About two years ago, the local chapter decided to get into social entrepreneurship in recycling goods, another words, a thrift store called ReStore. It now operates Tuesdays through Saturdays at the old Circuit City Complex beside the Whitehall Mall. The operation has been quite successful. In the last three months at the new location it has generated $130,000 in sales. They will take anything that goes into a house and then resell at a “fantastic price [savings].” A truck can be arranged for pick-ups. It is also good for contractors. Donations are given a tax receipt.
However, the operation also requires storemen, mainly volunteers. They are seeking veterans to help as they are known to be particularly responsible, when they commit themselves.
The Lehigh Valley organization is about to begin a Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. It is one of 250 chapters in Habitat to do so. They are looking at several locations currently – Jordan Heights, the Promise Neighborhood in the vicinity of Sacred Heart, and South Bethlehem – and may ultimately build in all three.
The effort can involve a combination of new construction, rehabilitation, weatherizing and critical home repairs projects. The latter two are particularly suited to something Habitat calls, “A Brush with Kindness”, which typically involves exterior renovation projects in the $3,000 to $5,000 range and tree removals, for instance. “The payback for such efforts is enormous,” Cummins said. They want veterans as volunteers for this new effort also.
HFHLV plans Women’s’ Build again for this summer. Lowes’s is a partner in this effort and is offering volunteer training clinics currently. Men are also welcome to participate, but Mohr said they are after women veterans.
In concluding, Mohr emphasized that the local affiliate especially wants to get veterans involved with the Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative and traditional ‘builds.’ He knows veterans often have skills that Habitat seeks, whether in the office or on the job site. If enough veterans got involved, in time something like a “Home for Heroes” project might even be possible. Meanwhile, they have an urgent need to find more “regulars” – men and women who can participate on a regular basis and act as the core cadre of building efforts once started.
As of 20 March 2013