Don Baker remembers the theme of the first meetings - simple, decent, affordable housing. He remembers the first houses. Baker's recollections remind him of how much Habitat for Humanity Greater Peoria has grown over the past 20 years and how much volunteers have learned.
Don Baker remembers the theme of the first meetings - simple, decent, affordable housing. He remembers the first houses.
This was long before television shows like Extreme Home Makeover borrowed the concept.
Of the seven people at those early meetings, three are still involved, Archie Simmons, Don Kagels and Baker. They started volunteering in 1989, rehabilitating older homes that had been donated. By 1992, someone gave them a lot.
"I believe it was down on Butler," Baker recalled, "and we built our first house."
You never forget your first house, he says.
Baker, 75, and friends didn't have fancy equipment, like an excavator. They dug a ditch to the water line by hand, they laid foundation blocks themselves.
"That's all done by a contractor now," Baker said. "We hire a company that comes in. We don't use blocks anymore either. We have a cement contractor come in and pour the basement floor."
Baker's recollections remind him of how much Habitat for Humanity Greater Peoria has grown over the past 20 years, how much volunteers have learned. When early volunteers realized new homeowners would have lawnmowers, they decided new houses would also need storage sheds. Three or four years ago, they started building homes with attached garages.
"I can drive around and point out almost every house I worked on," Baker said. "I used to remember all of the homeowners' names. Now we've done so many, you lose track after awhile. But that first new house is a learning experience . . . It was for Norma Hughes, down on Butler."
Down on Butler Street, Norma Hughes has been in her home 17 years. For the most part, the children have grown up and moved out. Her mother moved in about five years ago. She still works for a state agency, and she's also taking classes part-time at Midstate College.
Hughes got new sidewalks this summer. She replaced the original kitchen cabinets a few years ago, pulled up the carpeting in the living and dining rooms and installed wood laminate flooring. She also built a fence around the backyard, outdoor home to her miniature Doberman pinscher and her mother's Pomeranian.
"I'm still working on it," she said, "trying to get it better."
Hughes is one of the stable forces in a south Peoria neighborhood laced with high rental and vacancy rates. She almost ended up somewhere else.
"The girl that was supposed to get this house turned it down, but area didn't matter to me," she said. "I'm just happy to have a house."
Her children haven't forgotten the sweat equity hours they put in during the construction.
"I remember we had to do a lot of sanding and patching, there was dust everywhere," says her daughter, Anisha Hughes, 37, who recently bought a home. "My mom worked really hard, I'm glad we had a part in building it. The only thing is, we're all grown now, we have children and Mom's house gets a little tight when we all get together."
"Mom" disagrees. From the basement to the first floor to the picnic tables in the backyard, there's still plenty of room for family gatherings - especially the one Hughes looks forward to in three years when she pays off the mortgage.
In the meantime, her mortgage payments have helped Habitat for Humanity build about 70 more houses in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Marshall counties.
"We say it's recycling," said Greg Woith, director of the Peoria affiliate.
Most people are familiar with the spirit, if not the details, that govern Habitat for Humanity, the non-profit, faith-based housing ministry.
Prospective homeowners either have no credit or poor credit. To qualify for Habitat, they can't qualify for a bank loan.
In return for home ownership classes and sweat equity, or volunteering 350 hours on Habitat projects, including their home, they qualify for a 20-year, interest-free mortgage of no more than 30 percent of their monthly income.
Still, about 90 percent of applicants don't qualify, Woith says. For those who do, Habitat becomes the mortgage holder. "They pay us the principal, property taxes and home insurance directly," Woith said.
Today's typical, three-bedroom Habitat house costs about $78,000. The houses built last year appraised at about $100,000. The same houses, bought with an 8 percent loan, could cost homebuyers an additional $78,000 in interest payments on the life of the loan.
"In effect, they're avoiding a cost that could be more than the value of the home," Woith said.
Habitat homebuyers cannot sell the homes within the first six years. "That's to protect the volunteers," Woith said.
Though mortgage payments are recycled back into the program, they do not total enough to keep the program running and keep housing costs low. "We've got a lot of mortgages where people are paying $150 a month in principal. In some cases, their taxes are higher than their mortgage payments," Woith said.
But volunteers, both workers and sponsors, help Habitat stick to its affordable-housing mission. Woith says Habitat offers an equally enticing deal.
"We will not build unless we have the money in hand. Sponsors provide the money up front to build the house. In exchange, the sponsors get to provide the volunteers."
A full sponsor provides between $30,000 and $35,000 for upfront costs. First United Methodist Church, for example, has sponsored 20 homes and built up a strong core of volunteers. Churches, businesses and other organizations can also sign on as half-sponsors.
The economic slowdown has been no kinder to Habitat than to other non-profit organizations. Finding sponsorships has become almost as much of a challenge as finding qualified applicants for homes. Habitat has begun soliciting for day sponsorships, $2,500, to pay for one day of building.
"That's worked OK this year," Woith said, "but like everyone else, we've had to knock on a lot more doors and get a lot more creative to raise money."
One bright spot is that profits from ReStore, Habitat's housing supply resale shop, have begun to pay a significant portion of the organization's month-to-month expenses since it opened in 2005.
The Greater Peoria affiliate has grown from an all-volunteer agency to include 12 full- and part-time employees. They've overseen home construction throughout the Tri-County and Marshall County, including what's best described as a Habitat for Humanity subdivision not far from Sterling Avenue in Peoria. The organization has also helped thousands of volunteers, as well as new homeowners, learn the basics of hammering a nail.
"The positive thing about Habitat is it makes middle-class people aware of affordable housing," said Jane Genzel, a former director.
The local affiliate is not planning anything special for its 20th anniversary.
"We're just going to build houses," Woith said.
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