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Building a Village


AN UNUSUAL SUBDIVISION IS TAKING SHAPE in McKinleyville -- a cluster of homes built for the most part by volunteer labor. The first of nine houses is near completion and a family is ready to move in. The down payment on the three-bedroom home is paid in full -- not with cash, with sweat equity.

The home on A Street is part of something called Habitat Village, a development being built by Humboldt Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International.

On a Saturday morning a group of volunteers gathers to help move the project forward. Work on the house is just about complete so the crew is small. There's Megan Cooney, a college student, retiree Harold Hallsten, father-and-son team Tom and Matt De Cesar. Joe Rhodes shows up every weekend. He is working on his own home; at least it will be his when it's done.

[photo of Ross Nash and Tom DeCesar] Ross Nash shows Tom De Cesar a drill bit used in plumbing installation.

When crew leader Ross Nash arrives with his truck full of tools the group splits into teams. Some head inside to finish plumbing work on one of the bathrooms, the rest are put to work building shelves for the tool storage unit that will move from site to site as eight more homes are built.

"I'm a builder by trade, a general contractor," said Nash who serves as president of the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate. "I try to build houses that we can take pride in. It's not just that we're doing something good, we want to do it the best way we can."

During the week Nash renovates houses. He works on all sorts of projects and has done a lot of jobs for the Redwood Community Action Agency and the Eureka Redevelopment Agency, organizations that help improve housing conditions for low income families.

Nash said he was working on a woman's house when she told him about Habitat and asked if he'd be interested in joining.

"I'd heard of them -- former President Jimmy Carter -- that's the big name. I knew what they did, but I had never given it a second thought. She asked if I'd come on board.

"I thought about it and realized, this is something I was meant to do. Building homes is what I do every day. It's what I have a talent for, so I've fallen into a leadership role and it's very rewarding.

"You have an opportunity to make things better for someone else and I really enjoy it. This may sound corny or philosophical, but I think it's everybody's right to have decent housing to live in. And not everyone has a house available, often because of circumstances beyond their control."

Megan Cooney, who attends College of the Redwoods, joined Habitat recently.

"I'd been hearing about the organization for years and decided to see what it was all about. I'm an engineering major so I thought it would be good to learn about how to build a house. Everyone here has a lot of experience and they teach you for free."

[photo of volunteer workcrew] Volunteer crew -- Megan Cooney, Harold Hallsten and
Humboldt Habitat Executive Director John Diskin --
spending a Saturday morning on the site.

Nash says he is happy to provide instruction to those who are "in it for the long haul. We try to teach people how to do things right so that as we build other houses they have the knowledge, that way we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time we start over."

What has Cooney learned?

"I learned that sometimes it's best to start at the bottom," she said. "A lot of people come out thinking they're going to be raising the walls, but it's just as important to sand the baseboards or set nails and put spackle over them. Those things don't seem as exciting but they still have to be done. Someone has to do it and it could be you. That's how you learn."

Most weekends the crews are made up of members of Humboldt Habitat for Humanity but on occasion the numbers grow as other volunteers join in.

"There are days when we have 20 or 30 people out here. Groups call up who want to participate en masse," said Nash. "We've had youth groups, church groups, student groups -- just killer workers. Nobody can match their spirit. It's just great to have their energy channeled in a positive way like this. They're not out hangin', not out chillin', they're working.

"And they work hard. They're in the ditches getting dirty, hauling trash and loving every minute of it. We all have lunch together and this camaraderie just happens, a sense that everyone is all working towards a common goal. It's a great feeling."

According to John Duskin, new executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Humboldt, the local affiliate of Habitat International got its start in 1989 and built its first house the next year.

"They started with major rehabilitation projects, older homes with people on fixed incomes who could afford to live in a house but had no way to keep it up, people whose houses needed new foundations or insulation or had leaking roofs, or the bathroom floor was falling through.

"They did maybe a dozen major projects, then about four years ago they bought this piece of property on A Street in McKinleyville from Red and Irene Adams."

In 1990 the Adams split a portion off the parcel and sold it to Habitat. After living as neighbors with a Habitat family, they decided to sell the group the rest of the land, a little less than two acres.

The remaining property was appraised at $220,000 but Adams sold it for just $120,000. Six Rivers Bank came up with a loan that covered most of the purchase.

Spencer Engineering took on the task of designing a subdivision. Initially the plan was to run a short road into the lot and divide it into four pieces. But when "planned unit development" options were added to the county general plan they decided to go that way. The final plan, which has been tentatively approved, calls for nine homes built around a central common area.

The first house is just about finished. All of the interior work is done. Outside the only thing that remains unfinished is the front porch steps. When complete the house will be home for the Rhodes -- Joe, his wife Julie and their two sons, Joey and Jonny.

When the family applied for a Habitat home five years ago they were turned down. They tried again and were approved for the A Street house two years ago.

"There's a screening process and it's a tough responsibility deciding who to pick," said Nash. "We open an application period for 60-90 days and will usually get 40-50 applicants. The family selection committee and the family nurturing committee narrow the list to three to five and present them to the board to make the decision.

"To be selected, families need to fit into a specific income bracket. They need to earn enough to pay back the mortgage, but they can't earn too much so that they exceed the low income level."

The 1,190-square-foot home is a major step up for the family of four. They currently reside in an apartment in McKinleyville that's about half that size. Julie says she is ready to stretch out a little bit.

Jonny is 5 and about to enter kindergarten at Dow's Prairie School. Big brother Joey will be a third grader. Right now they share a bedroom and sleep in bunk beds. In the new house each will have his own room.

"The kids can't wait to have their own rooms," said Julie. "And I'll never have to make up bunk beds again. No more cracking my head when I'm making the bottom or climbing a ladder to make the top.

"The kitchen is what I'm waiting for. The kitchen is just awesome. I'll be able to put a large pizza in the oven without having the sides touching and burning. And the cabinets are beautiful. I can't believe someone donated them."

[photo of Rhodes family] The Rhodes famliy in their new kitchen.

Besides giving them more room, the new home is a good deal financially. "We're paying $395 for a two-bedroom apartment and my house payment, when all the insurance and taxes are included is going to be $390. And the money isn't going to someone else, we're buying a place."

"When you get the house, you get it on a 20-year no-interest loan with no down payment," said Joe. "The partner family puts in 500 hours of sweat equity. That's your down payment."

Duskin said that the Rhodes family has actually put more "sweat" into the organization than they had to. "Julie and Joe each put 500 hours in and the two kids put in another 500 hours. So altogether they have exceeded the requirement by several times.

"A few weeks ago we had about 20 Humboldt State University student volunteers from the athletic department out at the house working. We were sitting around eating lunch and Joey Rhodes says, `You know I put in my 500 hours so now every hour I put in I'm a Habitat volunteer helping someone else get their house. We've got our house and I want to help the next person else get theirs.'"

Habitat sets the mortgage value for the house at $69 per square foot, far below what a comparable home might cost.

"The family that gets the home is actually buying the home from us," said Duskin. "If someone donates material or labor to the project, the donation is not really made to the family, so the value of the donation is factored into the price of the house."

The $69 figure is somewhat arbitrary since the building cost for each project varies according to what is donated. Volunteer labor helps keeps the cost down, but generous contributions from area businesses are just as important.

"We've been starting to cost out the house now that it's done," said Nash. "We figured we've only spent about $150 on the kitchen and it's a nice new kitchen. Whirlpool donated the refrigerator and the range. Thrifty Supply (Eureka) donated the sink and faucet. I got a good deal on the counter tops from Humboldt Counter Tops.

"The cabinets are beautiful -- custom made for an extra tall couple who sold their house to a short couple. We have some volunteers who do cabinet work, they cut them down and modified the layout to make them fit. It's not perfect, but there's probably $6,000 worth of cabinets in there.

"The majority of the flooring was donated by Eureka Floor. It's remnants and ends of rolls. The homeowners picked what they wanted and Eureka Floor donated the labor to install it. We floored the whole house for $160, a job that for a house that size might normally run around $4,000."

As soon as the porch is done and the building inspections complete, the Rhodes family will move in. Habitat usually holds a deed ceremony when a family takes residence, but this house is different because this is the first house completed in the "village."

Technically the Rhodes' lot is still part of the larger subdivision and while the plan has tentative approval, the lot split won't take place until the final map is approved. In the meantime Joe and Julie will technically rent the house from Habitat.

With the first home done, the organization is shifting its attention to work on the rest of the village. In July the original Adams home was burned by the Arcata Fire Department to make way for a new road and underground power lines.

[photo of fire] Arcata fire crew supervises the burning of the old Adams house, making way for Habitat Village.

Two more families have been chosen to become the next villagers. Work will begin on at least one more house and maybe two as soon as the infrastructure is in place.

Usually Habitat affiliates build one home at a time. Multiple home projects are not uncommon back East, but this is the first in Northern California and certainly the first under a planned unit development higher density provision.

"It's very rare for Habitat and for anyone to have an opportunity not just to build a house, but to build a neighborhood," said Nash. "This is a great vision we have and it's getting closer to reality every single day. It's absolutely thrilling to be able to provide a neighborhood and watch these families and these kids thrive."


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