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ON THE SCENE: Volunteers help Habitat build affordable homes

December 22, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

In resort communities around the United States, towns like Lake Placid and Keene, once-thriving neighborhoods are being decimated by homes being turned into rentals and housing for seasonal residents.

Rents and housing stock are being priced out of the reach of many who work as sales clerks, teachers, in hotels and restaurants, as well as for local governments, many of whom have been the backbone of such volunteer-driven agencies as fire departments, rescue squads, churches, museums and concert halls, and those that host sporting events.

One organization that's countering the trend is Habitat for Humanity, which helps people of modest means build their own homes. The deal is the home owner agrees, with the help of their family and close friends, to put in a minimum of 500 volunteer hours, plus cover the cost of materials. The balance of the labor, outside of excavation, plumbers and electricians, is donated by volunteers. The outcome is a family gets a house at about 40 percent of the cost.

Article Photos

Susan Doolittle and Shelly McKinley, president of the Ausable Valley Habitat for Humanity, work on the Beede Lane house in Keene Valley.
(Photo provided — Naj Wikoff)

Habitat for Humanity's roots go back to 1969, when members of the Koinonian Farm of Sumter County, Georgia, volunteered to build a house for members of their community. In turn, the owners of that first home, Beau and Emma Jordan, helped build homes for other members. In 1973, they took the concept to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. After three years of helping build houses in Zaire, they returned home to the U.S., and with the help of friends, they launched Habitat for Humanity in 1976.

The idea slowly spread across the U.S. and into other countries, until in 1984 when Sumter County's most famous residents, Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, started volunteering their time. Having the former president and first lady of the U.S. help build Habitat for Humanity houses generated international publicity for the program. People seeing photographs of the Carters pounding nails and taking on a variety of tasks understood that no matter who you are, or what your skill level, anyone could help build a house for people of modest economic circumstances.

About 20 years ago, Sydney Ward, of Ward Lumber in Jay, and Don Peterson decided to establish an Ausable Valley chapter, initially building homes for people living in Jay and Wilmington. Janice Palm, then pastor of the Wilmington Methodist Church, pitched them on the idea as a way of creating affordable housing for low-income families. The first house was built in 1995 for a family in Upper Jay, followed by a house in the Ausable Acres one or two years later. Since then, nearly a dozen houses have been built or modified, the most recent currently under construction on Beede Lane in Keene Valley.

"Janice brought up the idea of a Habitat for Humanity chapter," said Syd Ward. "Don and I got it incorporated through Nancy LeBlanc, who did the paperwork at no charge. The first three houses were built mostly by people from our church. I served as the project manager. Karen Glass of Keene Valley got volunteers to provide food for the group each Saturday. We built the first house in four months and the second in two. The third took four months because it was a two-story. We were fortunate that after Janice Palm left, the new pastor Linda MacIntyre became very active working nearly every Saturday, and Sundays after church."

"There were some of us who weren't very good with hammers but still wanted to be a part of Habitat for Humanity, so we just started making lunches for whoever worked," said Glass. "We wanted people who volunteered not to have to worry about bringing their own food."

One of the benefits of volunteering for Habitat for Humanity is the outcome of one's efforts results in a tangible product, a home for a family; knowing in a very concrete way that one has made a difference in the lives of others. Another is the skill sets gained and learning just what goes into building a house. A third is the relationships developed with others volunteering their time and skills.

"Habitat for Humanity provides me with an opportunity to give back to the community and to help people who have been a little less fortunate," said Jim Marlatt of Keene Valley, a 12-year volunteer and past president. "I got involved when they decided to build the Gifford house in Keene. It looked like something I'd like to do plus I learn something new each day I'm here."

"I've been involved maybe 20 years," said Shel McKinley, the current president and job foreman for the Beede Lane house. "I had a work party for my own house and that was just so much fun that I started looking for things like that. For me, the main impetus is just getting people together to help build a house and working together to create a common goal. We just don't build a lot of houses in this region just for working class people, so Habitat helps you feel like you are doing something useful."

The house in Keene, as is true of other Habitat houses, is well insulated. Where possible, Habitat likes to take advantage of passive solar design. Their thinking is that it may cost a bit more to build an energy-efficient house, but the extra cost will be quickly offset by lowered energy bills. Generally, on any given weekend there are about 16 volunteers helping build the house. Some come every weekend and some to help with specific tasks.

"This is my first real construction project," said Barbara Merle-Smith, who helped paint a previous house. "I love it. It's great to learn how a house is built. I'm learning a little of everything. It's such fun. I enjoy the teamwork. This is so much better than sitting around. And in a climate like this, it's so important to build it well."

"We are the insulation queens today," said Kathryn Kernan. "The week before, we put up the vapor barrier and furring strips. I so enjoyed when we put up the walls. It's so incredible to be part of this community and helping to build this structure."

The land for the Keene home is owned by Adirondack Community Housing Trust, and the family will own the home. The Housing Trust has an equity position in the house to ensure it remains affordable going forward as opposed to it being sold to someone looking for a second home. The Beede Lane house will be the sixth house built in concert with the Housing Trust.

"I saw some friends working on this project," said Peter Slocum. "Other friends, and indeed my mother, have been Habitat volunteers. It was and is a good thing to do. Plus it's great to have this take place in our community. Keene needs moderate- and low-income housing, so this was an excellent project to join in all sorts of ways. I feel lucky to be a part of it."



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