Habitat’s first family still grateful

As local homebuilding program turns 20, its original recipients offer nothing but praise

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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There’s no telling what life might have been like for the Johnson family, if not for their Habitat for Humanity home.

“This house means everything to us,” said Cindy Johnson, 49. “If it wasn’t for Habitat, there would be no place affordable enough.”

Three children were raised here. Numerous relatives and friends in trouble stayed here when they had nowhere else to go.

“I don’t think I’d be alive” without the sky-blue, three-bedroom place at the end of Northeast 98th Avenue, said Michael Johnson, 50. He’s endured multiple layoffs for years, and fought drug addiction on and off, too.

He’s been clean for four years now, he said, but he’s unemployed and his body is worn down from hard labor. He’s also going blind in both eyes due to glaucoma.

High school sweethearts, Michael and Cindy married and started building a family in a poorly ventilated, leaking mobile home in a Battle Ground trailer park when they heard about a new kind of charity homebuilder in the area.

They became Clark County’s first Evergreen Habitat for Humanity homeowners.

“It’s been a blessing,” Michael said. “I never thought I could own my own home like this.”

Decades later, Evergreen Habitat for Humanity just held a 20th anniversary “Toolbox Bash” in Ridgefield to celebrate its modest but solid track record of building 21 new homes and housing 88 individuals, including 56 children, in Clark County. It broke ground Sunday on the seventh and final home at Patten Park, a Habitat development near Five Corners.

This year it’s expecting to complete three new homes, according to Executive Director Josh Townsley, and make offers on several more Vancouver properties; it also watched with pride as two of its original homes were resold by owners moving onward and upward into better situations.

“That’s a sign of success for us,” said Townsley. Habitat always has the right of first refusal in these cases, he said.

Habitat is branching out with a couple of new programs: Woman Build, a series of training workshops sponsored by Lowe’s stores for women who want to learn basic construction techniques; and A Brush With Kindness, which aims to help people keep their homes by dispatching volunteer work parties to pitch in with basic repairs and maintenance.

“We’re trying to show that we don’t just build homes. We are transforming communities,” Townsley said.

Simple premise

The basic Habitat for Humanity deal is simple: A family that’s stuck in “substandard” housing but deemed a decent risk — enduring applications, background and credit checks, committee interviews and more — is offered a very affordable, zero-percent mortgage in exchange for 300 hours per adult of what’s called “sweat equity” toward the project. In other words, work.

“We were helping out on this lot,” said Michael. “We cleared and cut a bunch of brush and we helped build the house. We were almost done before we heard it was going to be ours.”

The date he got the news is etched into his memory: March 13, 1993. His kids were tiny and his dreams big. Those dreams have run up against a lifetime of realities, of course, but the house has facilitated many dreams and delights — like the family’s laughter at remembering sister Elishia, now 19, sparking a rough-and-tumble toddler relationship with a bunch of dogs over a back fence.

“Thank God we’ve raised our children here and we’re very proud of all three,” Michael said. He unspooled a long list of all the folks he’s grateful to have met via Habitat, from friendly neighbors to flexible staffers who accommodated the Johnsons when they couldn’t make their minimal mortgage — which has risen from an initial $270 per month to $381 now.

“We’ve never foreclosed on anyone,” said Townsley. “Our goal is to keep people in safe and stable homes.”

All sorts of jobs have come and gone over the years for Michael and Cindy as well as Joshua, their 23-year-old son — Parr Lumber, Service Partners, Meier & Frank, Mervyn’s, shipping and receiving, janitorial and seasonal work, graveyard shifts. Cindy has been known to hold as many as three jobs at once, and she’s working at Macy’s now; but son Joshua said even the most menial opportunities he’s pursued are flooded with overqualified applicants these days.

“It’s pretty gnarly out there,” he said.

Given the widespread money squeeze, Cindy is stumped why there aren’t more programs like Habitat for Humanity providing affordable housing for people in need.

“They need to have housing like this for more people,” she said. “It gives people more of a chance. We know people just out of the military who have no place to go. How can that be, after they served out country?”

Group foundations

The seed for Habitat for Humanity was planted in the late 1960s by Christian missionary Millard Fuller, who worked with different models for using donations to build affordable housing in the United States and Africa.

Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976. The group worked in relative obscurity until former President Jimmy Carter provided a publicity boost by strapping on a tool belt and picking up a hammer in front of TV cameras. That was in 1984, and it was a turning point for Habitat.

Habitat took hold in Clark County after a visiting Southern Baptist minster shared the news with local churches. Bill Bryant, a member of the outreach committee at Vancouver’s First Presbyterian Church, responded by pulling together a group of his counterparts from several local churches.

“We loved the idea and we had no idea how to proceed,” Bryant said. “It went nowhere for a while.” Bryant decided to donate $20 — and that major investment qualified him to be drafted as treasurer of the new group.

Eventually, a core group of about 10 church folks was formed, he said, and they managed to drum up sufficient underwriting and paperwork to become a legitimate Habitat chapter.

“In order to become a Habitat chapter, you have to show some money, become a registered nonprofit, show you’re serious,” he said.

The group wanted to call itself Clark County Habitat for Humanity, he said, but headquarters preferred something more picturesque — so the Evergreen State gained an Evergreen Habitat for Humanity chapter. Bryant still bristles at that. “It’s not the name we wanted, but we’re stuck with it and we’re running with it,” he said.

Over the years, Bryant has stepped away from Habitat and back in again. He was the Evergreen Habitat board chairman in 2010.

“Habitat fills a unique gap,” he said. “These are people who’ve started to lift up from the bottom again. They have jobs. They have families. They are trying hard to make a go of things. But where do they live? Housing is so costly. How do you get them up to the next level — the level where they’re your neighbors? Where their kids can go to school?

“Homeownership appears to be the key,” Bryant said. “It fastens people down for the long haul. It gives them the best foundation.”

‘We beg, we borrow’

Does Bryant feel Habitat’s track record in Clark County — 21 houses in 20 years — is a little, well, disappointing? Sort of, he admitted. A revolving fund with mortgage payments moving in and back out seems like a winner, he said, but market realities can be unforgiving.

“What we didn’t account for is the high cost of land,” he said. “We’ve gotten land every way we can. We beg, we borrow.”

Ancillary costs and fees have grown enormously over those 20 years, he added — sidewalks, sewer hookups — and Habitat always wants its homes to blend with their neighborhoods.

“I remember the board fighting over garages,” he said. “Some would say, why do we need to spend more money building a garage onto this house? It’s not necessary.” But it’s considered standard equipment on a new home these days. (The Johnson home was built without a garage; students in an Evergreen High School carpentry course added it later).

“It used to cost $35,000 to $40,000 to build a home,” Bryant said. “Now it costs close to $75,000.”

Nevertheless, Bryant and Townsley both believe Evergreen Habitat for Humanity has grown and built enough momentum to has reached a tipping point. Twenty-one mortgages paying back into the pot is pretty decent income to draw on. And, ironically enough, the real estate market is a boon for an agency hunting for cheap land.

Also helping out with the bottom line are new Habitat for Humanity stores, which have sprung up all over the country to resell donated building materials — they’re thrift stores for contractors and do-it-yourselfers — including one at 5000 East Fourth Plain Blvd.

Evergreen Habitat for Humanity’s paid office staff is minimal, with AmeriCorps Vista volunteers doing most of the office work and countless other volunteers taking on lots more of the grunt work, Townsley said.

Meanwhile, Bryant said, the board has evolved from well-meaning amateurs to a group of dedicated professionals who know how to get things done. Government grantors, private foundations and corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans like the Habitat for Humanity name, both said.

“People know what Habitat is and what it stands for,” Bryant said.