Building opportunity: Habitat for Humanity seeks to break cycle of poverty in Nevada County |

Building opportunity: Habitat for Humanity seeks to break cycle of poverty in Nevada County

Jennifer Terman
Staff Writer

Habitat for Humanity volunteers are building a two story home on Joyce Drive and Whiting Street, Grass Valley. Volunteer Betsy Wagner is working inside the home.

Nevada County Habitat for Humanity was established in 1995 by a group recognizing the need for affordable housing, said one of the founders Dave Emanuel, who was impressed by a Jimmy Carter Work Project in Watts, Calif., in which he had lent a hand.

"When I got back here, I decided we had to start a Habitat affiliate and in checking around I found there were other people interested," Emanuel said.

A Penn Valley developer, Don Fultz, donated the first piece of land to Habitat and the first house was completed in early 1997, Emanuel said. The next land acquired was a lot on Slate Creek and Ridge roads where six houses were built and completed in 2003.

Five homes were built on North Church Court in Grass Valley between 2003 and 2007, said Nevada County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Debbie Arakel. By 2009, five more homes followed on Ivy Street; another was built on Eden Ranch in Nevada City.

“Believe me, considering where they were living before, this feels like a mansion to these families. It’s like nothing they’ve ever had before.”
Lorraine Larson
Nevada County Habitat development coordinator

Some of the other original founders were Marilyn Hodgkins, Evan Hushbeck, Garvin Jabusch and Joan Lancaster, who were really concerned about the affordable housing need, Emanuel said.

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"Nobody was really involved or doing anything about that until we came along," Emanuel said. "So we were able to help the city and county with affordable housing goals and at the same time get people into homes that deserved it."

The original office was located at Emanuel's house, which was moved to an office space in the parsonage next door to Grass Valley United Methodist Church, where Hospitality House is currently located. Eventually the church allowed Habitat to move downstairs into the main building.

"That was a big help because we had a conference room, offices, telephones, all those things," Emanuel said, adding that the growth Habitat has accomplished since its inception is "absolutely amazing."

"I do have a little pride in seeing as I was a part of it, and I know the families that moved into those houses appreciated not only the effort I did, but the whole organization," he said.

Sixty percent of Habitat homeowners are single mothers who tend to fare much worse when they are sole providers in an economic downturn, said Nevada County Habitat development coordinator Lorraine Larson, adding a community with a higher number of homeowners allows for more stability, with less reliance on social services and ability for the families to stimulate the economy and save.

"It breaks the cycle of poverty for the family and changes their outlook on life," Larson said. "Besides making their dreams come true, without this opportunity, they would never have the chance to own a home."

Families that own their home are also at a statistically lower likelihood of drug use, crime, teen pregnancy and reliance on social services, and have a higher likelihood of graduating high school and college, better health and financial outcomes, according to a 2000 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.


One of the perceptions Habitat for Humanity regularly addresses is the organization "giving" people houses. In reality, the homeowner pays a mortgage and has to provide 500 hours of "sweat equity labor," in addition to volunteer hours — into the building of their own or other Habitat homes, working at the organization's "ReStore," or helping out with fundraisers or events.

Families must be able to pay a mortgage based on one-third or less of the family's income, including taxes, so a family is able to maintain economic stability to take care of necessities and build savings, said Larson. Such an affordable mortgage is largely made possible because the homes are built with volunteer labor and many donated materials. Families are also screened and assessed by a selection committee that reviews applications, conducts interviews and financial, credit and reference checks, and also visits the applicants' home.

Habitat homeowners do have restrictions and expectations. Each family selected is expected to maintain the home and make requests before any changes are made to the house's structure. Habitat homeowners are also restricted to a certain number and size of pet, within reason, and exterior home color, which is already chosen by the county to preserve the historical feel of the area.

Homeowners are also assigned a partner family that helps organize the sweat equity hours and offer guidance and assistance for a year before and after the family moves into the home.

"Somebody that's been a homeowner before can give advice and support and help with all the paperwork," said family support committee chair Ann Davis.

If a homeowner wishes to sell the home, which has not happened with any Nevada County Habitat homeowners, Habitat has the first right of refusal to buy back the home and requalify the property to another family. If a situation changes and the family cannot afford a home, Habitat can renegotiate the terms of the loan or work with the family like a bank, but payments are required like a regular mortgage, and the home can go into foreclosure.

Habitat for Humanity offers classes on home repair and maintenance as well as individualized consulting.

"There is lots and lots of follow-up and people connecting and making sure folks have the right kind of support and community," said family support committee chair Ann Davis. "When we see something that looks like it could use improvement, we're eager to work with that to the extent that it's not that formal. These are homeowners. It'd be like somebody calling me and saying something about my house. So it's a partnership. It's ongoing."


Nevada County Habitat is responsible for its own operations and finances, but receives grant opportunities and partnerships from the international organization, as well as templates to follow on best practices and successful operations, training and support, Larson said, adding that 97 percent of the materials used to build the homes are purchased locally.

The mortgages and the ReStore pay for administrative costs and the donors' dollars go directly into the building of the homes, she said.

This year, the organization anticipates about $150,000 in straight donations, Larson said, while the cost to build a single home, excluding land and infrastructure is about $65,000-$85,000, depending on the size of the home.

The value of appliances and services donated from various companies totals about $10,000-$15,000 per home, Larson said, including dishwashers, range ovens and refrigerators from Whirlpool, paints from Valspar and blinds by Hunter Douglas, etc, which are partnerships established through the international Habitat brand.

"By being a Habitat affiliate, we are eligible to get these donations," said Nevada County Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Debbie Arakel. "With Whirlpool, we say 'Here's the family and address' and they ship us the range so we get appliances for every single Habitat home."

Local donors also help on a case-by-case basis, Arakel said, including Grocery Outlet, which has donated groceries and gift cards in recent years.

The homes are being built with sustainable green technology, with solar panels donated by Pacific Gas and Electric to Habitat homes in California that use geothermal heating and cooling so the home produces as much energy as it uses, Larson said.

The land for building homes is either donated or purchased at a reasonable rate and approved for planned use development, subject to city permits and fees that contribute to the local economy. Homeowners pay property taxes, spend and shop locally and contribute to schools, city and county coffers with taxes, Larson said.

The cities in which Habitat homes are built take an active role in what the development should look like, including how it fits the historical vision, from the size and location of the homes to the colors each home can be painted — forest green, brick red, light yellow, medium blue or a salmon pink.

Families can pick out their own countertops and flooring from prices negotiated for each development, Arakel said.

"I went out and got competitive bids on flooring that is decent, new, environmentally responsible and affordable," she said, adding that the cost per home with utilities, sewers and all materials is about $150,000-$170,000 per 800- to 1,200-square-foot home.

"Believe me, considering where they were living before, this feels like a mansion to these families," Larson said. "It's like nothing they've ever had before. A lot are first-time homeowners of any generation of their family."

One of Habitat's focuses is on community building and partnership, an extension of which is manifested in the building of neighborhoods on vacant land when possible.

"We knew that we were really building a neighborhood, but now that it's come together, it's really nice to see the camaraderie and support," Larson said.

"Some people think I can feed 20 families and make a bigger impact, but the impact on that one family is permanent and ongoing."


Family selection committee chair Barbara Dean has worked as a volunteer almost since the beginning of Nevada County Habitat For Humanity.

She works with 10 other committee members to complete the daunting task of selecting families, typically two to four families at a time from a pool of 50 applicants.

"Being on the committee for family selection and listening and learning a lot about folks who didn't have homes, I wanted to participate in whatever way I could," Dean said. "It's a wonderful way to work with people because you work not only with the community and the volunteers who build the houses, you meet the folks who are interested in a house."

The first meeting with an applicant family includes an invitation so those interested can understand the application, eligibility requirements and deadlines.

"Being a Habitat homeowner means a lot of things," Dean said. "The community is donating a lot to a house and the volunteers are donating a lot, so the families that are selected need to be willing to partner to make this all work; and that they are willing to be part of the community. It's not just take a house and run. It's all synergistic.

"We have to find people who are going to really fit with Habitat and in the 16-home development, with each other," she continued. "We have to look more at who they are and how they contribute to the community and where they live than just a need."

Dean has seen a number of unfortunate living situations, some of which are the responsibility of a careless landlord, whom she wishes she could reprimand. She has also seen people who are crowded, living in an unhealthy environment with mold, which she hopes to change.

"That's one of our priorities — providing for families a place where they feel their kids are safe," she said.

It's a sad experience, Dean said, when a family has to be turned away because they cannot meet the financial criteria.

"They are not getting a free house, they are getting a good deal and they need to have money coming in," she said. "To have to say no, you don't make enough money for our program is heartbreaking."

Dean said such decision-making is difficult for the committee, whose members must meet consensus for all family selections.

"Sometimes we have disagreements and we work them through and talk about various things," Dean said. "We work together and wait until we really feel this is what we choose. It's great that we have people who work together and like doing this."

That decision is sometimes made for the committee, as in a time where 16 families were considered and only four could be selected; some families were found to have insufficient finances or credit, which narrowed the pool automatically.

"Sometimes they are subtle things that we need to look at and ask ourselves questions," Dean said. "We want them to be folks who appreciate a home, who are going to take good care of it. If we get any ideas along the way that they may not value having a home and wouldn't take care of it, it doesn't make the whole process work."

Applicants occasionally decide the process is not for them, that they do not want to live in a situation with restrictions, or undergo the partnership and maintenance requirements.

The best part of the process is informing the applicants of their selection, where as many committee members as available visit the family with balloons and flowers.

"That's probably the most fun of it all," Dean said. "We always make sure there are enough balloons for the kids and the families are so excited."

Dean said she wishes to educate people as much as possible about the Habitat for Humanity process to inform the public and dispel any misconceptions.

"Yes, this is a great deal for somebody, who for whatever reason could not have a house any other way," she said. "But they have to work hard, pay their mortgage and if they don't, we will foreclose."

Habitat homeowners are also subject to scrutiny, expected to keep their home in good condition and must request any changes to the home, something regular homeowners do not have to endure.

"In a sense, they have a harder deal because people are looking at them and what they do once they get a house," Dean said. "It's kind of like living in a fish bowl. A lot of people don't ever have to deal with that. … In a sense it's a tough decision for them to say 'Yes, we'll do this.'"

Dean said she understands some people view the whole Habitat program to be a handout, but believes those people to be misinformed.

"There's always going to be people who think somebody shouldn't have it that easy. Who feel like you shouldn't feed the homeless. That people need to help themselves," she said. "It's the same way I think when we look at people and make judgments about them by how they look or where they're employed. We really have no idea about what got them to the place they are. We really have no idea how hard it has been for someone else who really couldn't get there unless others of us who have something could share it."

To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email or call 530-477-4230.

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