A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Hands Up, Not Handouts

How Habitat Emboldens New Homeowners

By Jodi La Marco

There’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Habitat for Humanity. Founded in 1976, the non-profit was brought into the spotlight when former President Jimmy Carter became involved with the group in the 1980s. Though based on Christian principals, Habitat’s mission is not to execute a religious agenda, but simply to build homes for those in need. “The organization has Christian roots, but everyone is welcome,” says Christine Brady LaValle, Executive Director of Habitat’s Ulster County affiliate. “Habitat has a non-proselytizing policy. You do not have to be any religion to volunteer here, to work here, or to become a Habitat partner. We’re an organization that provides help, that’s all.

How that help is delivered to folks in need is a commonly misunderstood component of the organization’s work. “We’re a hand up, not a handout,” says LaValle. Simply put, Habitat does not give away houses. Instead, homeowners contribute hundreds of hours in “sweat equity” before purchasing the very home they’ve helped to build.

Partners, as they are called, must meet three main criteria to be eligible for assistance. Future homeowners must be able to qualify for a bank loan, and have a steady income with which to make mortgage and utility payments. “One of the things that makes a Habitat mortgage different is that the mortgage payment is no more than thirty percent of your income. That’s taxes, insurance, principal, and interest,” says LaValle. Those unable to qualify for a loan are not turned away, but instead referred to a credit counselor such as RUPCO. “‘No’ today doesn’t mean ‘no’ forever. If you need to do some work on your credit, there’s lots of organizations that can help with that,” LaValle continued. “Maybe in a year or year and a half you’re ready and you come back to us.”

The second criteria applicants must meet is a demonstrable need for housing. For some, present living conditions are unsafe. “They may have leaky pipes, or leaky roofs. They may have black mold,” LaValle explains. For others, a severe cost burden (spending more than 30 percent of income on housing) or overcrowding are grounds for eligibility. “There’s a number of ways to qualify. All of that information is on our website, ulsterhabitat.org.”

Partners must also be willing to volunteer their time. “Depending on the size of the family, that’s a minimum of 200 to 300 hours depending on your family make up,” LaValle says.  

Habitat’s Ulster County branch was founded in 1996, and is currently working on houses fifteen and sixteen. Building two homes at the same time is a first for the Ulster affiliate, and keeping up with two concurrent projects is no easy task. “We need bodies,” LaValle says. Although the majority of volunteers come to the job site with no prior building experience, they’re welcome just the same. “We have a project manager who runs the worksite. Part of his job is that he builds, and the other part of his job is that he trains. Every day starts with a safety meeting to let people know what they’ll be working on that day and the potential dangers. The worksite is inclusive and welcoming. You don’t have to know anything. We have so many folks who have never done this kind of work before, so we provide gloves, goggles, and safety gear.”

Before beginning work, volunteers must complete a safety course and sign a waiver, but aren’t required to see a project through from start to finish. “We have one-time volunteers who come for a day, we have work crews who come here and there. An employer might say, ‘Hey, I’ll give you my staff for a half-day.’ There can never be too many volunteers, that’s how we look at it. Our office will happily get you on schedule,” says LaValle.

The experience of building a house benefits both volunteers and future Habitat homeowners alike. “One of the reasons we require partners to build is because most of the folks who come to us have never owned a home before. They’ve only rented. This is also part of how you learn to take care of your own home. It’s a great opportunity for people. You walk away with a ton of knowledge,” LaValle says.

Those who want to help but are reluctant to swing a hammer can also volunteer at the Habitat ReStore, the organization’s furniture and home improvement center on Route 28 in Kingston. The ReStore sells both new and gently-used materials at discounted prices, and is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10am to 5pm. “Donations come from all over the place. Sometimes they’re from individual people, sometimes they’re from stores. Sometimes we get lucky and we get large-scale things from vendors. We’re careful about what we bring in, and won’t take things that are stained, ripped, or pet-damaged,” LaValle explains. Ninety percent of the of the proceeds taken in by the ReStore stay right here in the county, while the remaining ten percent goes to international projects coordinated by Habitat for Humanity International.

Volunteers are a crucial component of what allows Habitat to build homes, but the organization is also heavily reliant on monetary donations. “It costs a lot of money to do what we do,” notes LaValle. “There’s a huge gap between what it costs to build a house and what a family may be able to afford to pay. We need to fill that gap for every house. Donations are always necessary and welcome.”