Idaho's housing slump was hardly a secret. According to U.S. Census data, new construction housing permits tumbled nearly 500 percent between 2004 and 2011, leaving many of Idaho's toolboxes to quietly gather dust.
But not at the Boise chapter of Habitat for Humanity. In contrast to the rest of the state, Habitat has been busy, completing a staggering six homes in a single year--a new record for the Boise affiliate. And on a late spring day, a group of 14 volunteers huddled over the morning's first mugs of coffee, preparing to wield the tools that would make it happen.
According to Executive Director Tom Lay, six homes in one year is a remarkable achievement. "During the first 10 years of our operation, the Boise affiliate of Habitat for Humanity was completing, on average, one house per year, for a total of 10, maybe 12 houses in 10 years. So completing six this fiscal year is something we're pretty proud of."
The home was dedicated to a family of six who moved from Tanzania to Boise in 2010--a relocation of more than 9,000 miles. According to Habitat for Humanity, Fabian Sikabwe and Noella Hamisi were originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but fled to a Tanzanian refugee camp in 1999 to escape armed conflict in their native country. The couple subsequently met and married in the camp, where they would remain for the next 11 years.
Located in central Boise's quiet Frazier Place Subdivision--a 15-home development with space for a community garden--the four-bedroom, two-bath home was completed in May, and has been a perfect fit for their young family.
But make no mistake--this home is no freebie.
"One of the greatest misunderstandings about Habitat for Humanity is that the home, upon completion, is just handed over to the family," said Lay.
Instead, homeowners like the Sikabwe/Hamisi family must first meet, and then complete, a daunting array of eligibility requirements. It is a process requiring considerable patience since the average wait time is anywhere from 18 months to three years.
According to Lay, before anything else, "there must be a need for housing. In Ada County, that need is often defined as families that are living in too small of a home for their family size and/or paying too much for it. They're overburdened by their housing obligations."
Next, a "family must have lived or worked in Ada County for six months, they must have been continuously employed for the last 12 months, and they must have a good credit record," said Lay. "Finally, they need to be willing to partner with us--defined primarily in terms of the sweat equity commitment they will make to the home--most often 500 hours."
In case that number didn't quite register, 500 hours is equivalent to three and a half months of full-time, 40 hour work weeks. And at least 40 percent of those 500 hours must be completed before a family is even placed on the waiting list for a home.
"Since their houses aren't even in progress yet, they can get those first hours by working on a neighbor's home, working at the ReStore, or working in the Habitat office," said Lay. Once construction begins, "we ask that they put in as many hours as they can on their own home."
ReStore is located in Southwest Boise and opened its doors in 2008. Billing itself as a "used and surplus building materials store," the outlet is a treasure trove of affordable finds for the do-it-yourself types.
Revenue from ReStore covers 100 percent of Habitat's operating costs, including staff salaries and office overhead, allowing "every bit of monetary donations to go directly into building," said Lay.
But the heart that truly keeps Habitat beating is its volunteers.
And on that particular spring morning, 11 volunteers from Keynetics--a company that provides paid time off at least twice a year so that employees may volunteer--stand ready to lend a hand. Megan Mann, marketing manager at Keynetics, has been spearheading the Habitat volunteer effort for the past several years.
"It's not difficult to recruit for Habitat projects--in fact, I usually have to turn volunteers away," said Mann. "It's just a fun, interactive day where you get to do a lot of hands-on work."
Hands-on is exactly right, since the group will spend the next seven hours xeriscaping--an environmentally friendly, low maintenance landscape option that gives homeowners a break on expensive upkeep.
Paul Thompson, Habitat's construction manager, calls everyone together. "Does everybody know how to put plants in the ground?" he asks. Some nod, others look slightly less certain, but everyone seems eager to dig in. Before distributing shovels and rakes, Thompson offers one last piece of advice: "If you don't do this kind of work very often, you might want to do a few toe-touches"--an excellent suggestion, considering the mountain of crushed stone that awaits them.
Working amidst the Keynetics employees are three men called "crew leads," skilled individuals who form the core of Habitat's volunteer workforce. The group overall is comprised of 15 men and one woman, ranging in age from 60 to 86, and hailing from disparate backgrounds: teaching, engineering, construction and medicine. Many are retired and the majority have spent years working with Habitat programs, both in Boise and beyond.
Thompson's description of this group is "awesome" and watching the crew leads dive into their labor, it quickly becomes evident his word is well chosen. Ribbing one another good-naturedly, they confidently swing implements through the air as they make short work of preparing the site. To a person, the leads are reluctant to take any credit for Habitat's record-breaking year.
"As an individual, I don't feel like I deserve any special credit," said crew lead Larry Binder. "There's over 700 volunteers and more than 20,000 hours that have been put in over the past few years, so it's clearly not about any one person."
Binder, who owned and operated his own construction business for more than two decades, has spent five years working three days a week building houses for complete strangers. Why?
"It's allowed me to pass on knowledge I've learned over the years," he said. "And besides, sitting around was never my style. So it's fun to be a part of this--but not to take credit."
Sam Chambers, a retired university professor and fellow crew lead, clearly enjoys the camaraderie. "Not many guys I know are as good as these guys," he said, and like Binder he would rather be volunteering than "sitting around home watching TV." Another crew lead said volunteering kept him out of trouble with his wife--a tongue-in-cheek deflection that perfectly captures the group's unassuming spirit.
The truth is, Habitat for Humanity may not have achieved what it has without them.
"Our crew leads are an amazing group," said Habitat Volunteer Coordinator Sara Waltman. "They're very dedicated and have given hundreds upon hundreds of hours."
Even more, Habitat has leveraged crew lead experience and expertise into increased output from the army of intermittent volunteers.
"We're able to take these novice volunteers, break them down into smaller groups, and have them work with a crew lead so that they get individualized training in order to learn a new skill set," said Waltman. "It allows us to utilize volunteers in a very efficient manner."
All those hours of donated labor allow Habitat to sell families their homes essentially at cost.
"The final mortgage covers materials and services--such as electrical, and plumbing, since those require specific licensing--as well as the cost of the land," said Lay. "It's a terrific opportunity for families to join the economic mainstream through homeownership."
"A home offers security--kids know they'll be coming back to the same house, going to the same school--and the adults in the households become stakeholders in their neighborhoods and communities," said Lay. "It's a strong impact."
Kathy Vawter could not agree more. In 1996, she and her two daughters were among the first families to benefit from the still relatively new Boise affiliate.
"My daughters and I had lived in a duplex for a number of years," said Vawter. "I had seen a brochure about Habitat at our church--I read it a little bit, but didn't think too much about it. Then our rent kept going up and up, and I thought, 'Hey, I'd like to take a look at that brochure again.'
"So, I applied to the program and we were told about the application process and the volunteer hours we'd need to put in," said Vawter. "If I remember right, it was 500 hours--which seemed overwhelming, since my immediate family members all lived in the Midwest and wouldn't be able to help."
But Vawter persevered, chipping away at her hours until she and her girls were eligible for the next available home--a three bedroom townhouse in Boise's Bench neighborhood. Once ground was broken, Vawter was amazed at what happened next.
"Volunteers would come every Saturday at 8:30 in the morning to help build my house," she said. "Ninety percent of the people who built my home I had never met before. And that has always stuck with me--that people would do that kind of thing. It was really something."
Many of the volunteers would go on to become Vawter's close friends, people she still keeps in touch with today. It's just one more aspect of the experience she never expected.
"I remember the former executive director of Habitat, Dr. Robert Frazier, saying to me at the dedication, 'This will change your life--moving into this house.' I remember thinking at the time, 'Um, OK, whatever.' I didn't really get it," said Vawter. "But he was right, it has changed my life--and my daughters and I are better for it."
To call Vawter a Habitat success story might be an understatement. Last fall, she paid off her 20-year mortgage, three years early.
"It's just a wonderful program," said Vawter, who continues to give back to Habitat by working on homes for others. "It came into my life at a good time and it's made me look at things differently. When you see people helping you, you can't help but want to help somebody else."
As for achieving the American dream of owning her own home, free and clear, Vawter had this to say: "It's almost indescribable--it's just an incredible feeling."