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Habitat hits home



The construction crew can always use additional workers. "The great thing about this is that no matter what your level of ability is (with regard to construction skills), there is a place for you."

There are numerous families across the country — and even in Ozaukee County — for whom life is a daily struggle. They’re working hard, but just can’t seem to get ahead. The American dream of a clean, functioning home of their own seems to be out of their reach. Those are the families for whom Habitat for Humanity seeks to turn dreams into reality.

Habitat for Humanity members want to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness worldwide. They also strive to prompt others to take action in their cause. The Ozaukee County Chapter of the organization is just barely a year old, so they have only two goals for the upcoming year, but they are ambitious ones — to build the chapter’s first home and to raise $60,000.

The group’s members face a number of challenges achieving these goals. One of the primary obstacles is to overcome the "we don’t have poor people here" belief that they say seems to exist in this area.

"In certain parts of our county, there is no need," says Dan O’Connor, the chair of the fund-raising/PR committee. "Those residents may not have been exposed to areas where there is a real need."

O’Connor’s personal Habitat experience, from working on a project in Sheboygan County, helps illustrate that there is need in this area. "We built a home in Random Lake for a woman who has eight children. At the time of construction, the family was living in a trailer in Fredonia — in Ozaukee County."

The price of land in the area has created a significant quandary for the group. Says Andy Weber, the site selection/construction committee chair, "We’re scouring maps to find a suitable property (for the first Habitat home), but everything here is outside the norms. Prices are out of the realm of Milwaukee and Sheboygan property."

The group is investigating potential locations in Belgium, Saukville and Port Washington. Remodeling is an option, but the construction foreman says Habitat history shows that process can often create more problems than it solves.

Another factor the organization faces is that zoning regulations within communities often don’t allow homes as small as the 1,200-square-foot Habitat projects. The houses are also constructed without a garage since, Weber explains, "Habitat says, ‘We house people, not cars’ — even though in Wisconsin, we wish we could consider a garage a necessity."

He notes that Habitat International regulates everything about the structure from materials used down to the number of bedrooms, which is based on the number of children in the family and their sexes. Homes in the U.S. are one-floor, ranch homes with vinyl siding. "They are nice, comfortable homes with decent space," Weber remarks.

Thanks to a donation of $150,000 in windows from contractors Colby and Colby, the Ozaukee property will have "windows galore." The windows that are not used in the house will be sold to area builders to add funds to the Habitat treasury. Additionally, Cliff Bergen and Associates have donated all of the plumbing/heating equipment and services for the home-to-be.

While the construction work is being pondered, the three other committees in the Ozaukee County Habitat chapter are working on their particular duties.

O’Connor and fellow PR committee members have been speaking to churches and civic groups, such as the Rotary, Optimist and Lions clubs, to share the Habitat’s mission and goals. The group has been quite pleased that attendees are receptive and enthusiastic about the project.

Several fund-raising activities have already taken place and about $10,000 is already in the bank account from those endeavors and other cash donations. A year-long raffle that will be featured at numerous Ozaukee County events throughout 2002 will add to that figure. A Harley- Davidson motorcycle is one of the raffle prizes.

"This is a tough committee," the chairperson remarks. "We deal with the human aspect of the project. We look at all the applications to make sure that they all fit the Habitat criteria and then we have to pick which family can best fit the program." She says they wish they could build homes for all the candidates.

The first determining factor in selecting the recipient family is need. Candidates must have current housing that is not adequate. An additional qualifier is more than half of the family gross income going to rent or house payments. Family income cannot exceed federal poverty guidelines, which in 2001 was $26,475 for a family of four.

The ability to pay all of the costs related to home ownership and family living — monthly mortgage payment, taxes, insurance and all family expenses, including food, clothing and health care — is the second factor in selection process. Homes are not given to the families; they must be purchased from Habitat. However, the participants are given a no-interest loan on the property. Owners are also responsible for the upkeep and repair of the homes.

The final criterion is a willingness of the potential participants to work with the Habitat program. In order to be considered, families must complete 500 volunteer hours, called "sweat equity," before they can become homeowners.

It takes a lot of hands to get all the work accomplished. Emily Jacobs and the volunteer committee locate those workers. "We have some volunteers on board who already have their hammers in their pockets," she laughs.

The construction crew can always use additional workers. "The great thing about this is that no matter what your level of ability is (with regard to construction skills), there is a place for you," Jacobs says.

The Habitat office is located in the First Congregational Church in Port Washington, next to the high school. The office space, as well as the group’s monthly meeting space, is donated by the church and is a wonderful cost-saver, Jacobs notes.

And the experience? "It’s incredible," Jacobs comments, "You just can’t explain the feeling. I worked on projects during spring break from college, but I never got to see those houses completed. I’m so looking forward to being with this one until the end."

For more information about Habitat for Humanity in Ozaukee County, call (262) 284-6880 or e-mail