At Front Range Living, we write about historic homes, modern retro marvels, quaint cottages and cozy cabins. Our houses are modest or grand, but each comes with a compelling story. A house, after all, is the architecture we wrap around us and call home. It was just a matter of time before approaching the Habitat for Humanity organization. Providing decent housing for over 175,000 families since 1976, Habitat for Humanity nestles homes all around us. Often we don’t notice them. They don’t stand out. That’s the point.
Habitat for Humanity architects and builders strive to fit their homes into the local community. Often, that means navigating vastly different rules and regulations from coast to coast as they create homes that last.
On a cloudless Colorado day, a group of pastors have gathered to build a children’s playground in the middle of Emerald Hill in Broomfield. The 14 duplex homes form a loose circle and the playground will be the heart and soul of the community. Every family can look out their front door to watch the children play.
In back, says Jeanne Deschner, chair of the Flatirons Habitat board, are million dollar views. “You might have to overlook those warehouses below,” she says, waving them away with a sweep of her arm, for Emerald Hill sits on a bluff. “But look at those mountains beyond,” she says with emphasis.
“This is what I like best about these homes,” a pastor echoes. “Everyone will have a view.” He recently moved from Florida to Colorado and says he went through Hurricane Andrew. The Habitat for Humanity homes he helped build withstood the storm. “All those volunteers over-nailing,” he says with a grin, must have been the reason.
Quality, not quantity, is the value most prized in Habitat homes. Sturdy framing, careful grouting, substantial stairs, and polished kitchen cabinets—everything is built to last. The cabinets are made in a minimum-security prison in Canon City, Jeanne says. And they’re a boon for both. The convicts are learning a skill and put their best into their work. Habitat gets quality goods at a bargain price.
Rich New, an architect based in Boulder, served on the Flatirons board for eight years. Before that he worked on a similar board in southern California, and on a Habitat community in Florida. He says the design of the Emerald Hill collection of duplexes was based upon co-housing ideas, where the sense of building community is as important as the sturdy architecture. “Connectivity is a buzzword now,” he says, “the central area as a kid’s play area was so they wouldn’t have to cross a street.”
Designing for Habitat compels the architect to use all the tricks of the trade, Rick says. There’s no splurging on luxury materials, yet the building must come up to code. Consideration is given to the reality that volunteers must build the house. That means that odd details, elaborate rooflines or fancy masonry, may be ruled out. Still the challenge is there, enough to entice architects to try their hand at a Habitat design. “Designing affordable housing is much more challenging,” Rick says, than many luxury homes, “and tests your skills. Especially Emerald Hill, with all that green space.” Habitat homes, he says, are generally well maintained, often more so than the surrounding neighborhoods. “It’s not a hand-out,” he says, “and we’d like the families to pass down the homes to their children.”
On this day, the frames for the playground equipment are spread on the ground. Beams of highly polished wood with tiny swing seats dangle from chains. Alas, there are no instructions. The pastors puzzle over the timbers and finally one says, “It’s a God thing. We have to approach it with faith.” Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization and one that relies on sweat from both the future homeowners and congregations in each region. But, interfaith groups often gather to contribute to practical needs that transcend every faith. No prospective homeowner faces discrimination. And these pastors, regardless of the divisions among their denominations, are satisfying deeply held convictions. Struggling families deserve modest, healthy shelters, they say.
Emerald Hill is a cluster of cottages with careful thought put into the site of each. That balance is hard won. Bill Winscott, the executive director of the Flatirons Habitat, says that they have little control over many homes. There is a national Habitat blueprint of a living and dining room, kitchen, three bedrooms and one bath. Even houses with up to five bedrooms have only one bath. The home includes a washer and dryer, but not a dishwasher or garbage disposal, basement or garage.
Even so, the details of each home or development differ. Emerald Hill, for example, is the first Habitat development in Colorado to have a homeowner’s association. That’s because it’s required in Broomfield. “At 14 homes, this is not the largest we’ve ever done here but the first time we’ve had a homeowners association of our own,” he says. “It was a process with the city where they identified potential land areas. We are still on the early stages, with just two homeowners moved in. None of these homes are really identical. There are differences in the number of bedrooms and slight configurations. We have to be flexible,” he says.
For example, bedrooms are built below ground to cut down on train noise. But Jeanne notes that the basement bedrooms are cooler in the summer, too. And while today’s workers are off-duty pastors, electrical and plumbing work requires professionals. Habitat trains their volunteer labor for framing and finishing while a construction supervisor oversees any tricky details.
Although you might think that Habitat is connected to local, regional or federal government agencies, that’s not the case. Habitat must buy the land. They can accept some government grants for land or infrastructure like roads. But they will not accept government money for the structure and regularly raise money. Families qualify for a no- interest mortgage. Those who move into these homes also will receive financial training as well as classes in simple home repairs. Becoming a homeowner is new for most and Habitat wants each family to understand the complexities of how a mortgage works and how to fix a dripping faucet.
Habitat adheres to guidelines for family income, which is about 20 to 40 percent of the average family income in the area. Boulder Valley has one of the highest income levels in the country, which makes a typical family income of $25, 000 about right where the county average is $80,000. Interesting enough, it’s often not easy to find families that fit so neatly into their guidelines.
Some families simply are too poor to quality for Habitat. Those are families they send to social services. “Of the people that qualify, we don’t turn a lot away. Sometimes we have a hard time meeting our quotas. We get some people who apply who don’t meet the criteria, usually income. They may go to other places; we may refer them to sources of help so that they eventually qualify for a Habitat house,” he says.
The requirement for homeowners to put ‘sweat equity’ into their homes means that they devote hours, days and weeks to building their homes, or helping with another’s home. This requirement often has screened out potential buyers in wheelchairs. Bill is quick to point out that they are working around this obstacle by finding new ways that handicapped owners can help without having to heave bricks.
“We have taken people out of deplorable conditions,” Bill says, often a housing situation in which families are separated, half the family living with friends, the other half living with relatives. And while single mothers head the bulk of the nationwide Habitat families, the Emerald Hill project includes immigrants from Laos, refugees from the Vietnam War, who have been living in Colorado for 20 years. Two Hmong families are poised to move into new homes and the pastor from a Hmong Baptist church is hammering nearby.
Habitat has brought affordable housing a long way from the nightmarish government projects that housed thousands in dehumanizing developments. Emerald Hill could qualify for the chic of cottage living that springs from lifestyle magazines. Architecture, too, has embraced style that allows for neighborliness rather than estrangement that big box apartment complexes imply.
And, sometimes, when it comes to volunteer labor, prayers are answered. “I’ve found the instructions,” one worker yells to the perplexed pastors, who already are fitting the playground frames together as best they can. Habitat is one example that decent housing can be delivered on time and on budget, when well-intentioned people summon their skills, no matter how rudimentary they may be. By the end of the day, Emerald Hill will be one step closer to completion, and million dollar views will become affordable to 14 families.