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Building on success

15 years, 14 homes and Habitat for Humanity is still hard at work

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

 

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  Habitat for Humanity's newest homeowners, Raelynne and Tim Murphy, help their son Devin with a reading assignment before sending him off to school last week. They moved into their home, decorated in Christmas lights at top, a little more than a year ago. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Habitat for Humanity's newest homeowners, Raelynne and Tim Murphy, help their son Devin with a reading assignment before sending him off to school last week. They moved into their home, decorated in Christmas lights at top, a little more than a year ago.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Tim and Raelynne Murphy are used to making do with what they have.

Up until a year ago, what they had was a 10-by-12-foot pumphouse in Clam Gulch owned by Tim's mother, because they couldn't afford rent somewhere else and couldn't get financing to buy a mobile home, which was the only thing in their price range. After getting married six years ago the couple bounced around from relatives' homes to apartments before landing in the Clam Gulch pumphouse for two years.

Conditions that many people would consider unlivable sound like mere inconveniences the way they talk about them, as though they were tired of the layout of their kitchen or wished they had two full bathrooms instead of one and a half.

Heat came from an oil-filled radiant heater.

"It was livable. It kept the place warm, except for the real cold days," Tim said.

 

There was a tarp on the roof.

"It wouldn't leak too often, I guess," Tim said.

Since the place was a pumphouse, they were able to hook up a hot water heater and a sink. But bathroom facilities were outdoors.

"But with three kids in diapers, what's the difference?" Raelynne said.

 

Habitat's latest home which is nearing completion in Kenai. It will be the agency's 14th.

Besides, an outhouse in Alaska is practically a rite of passage.

"If you grow up in Alaska it's almost inevitable that at least some point in your life you'll have an outhouse," Tim said.

Two adults and three kids were crammed into a space smaller than a standard-sized bedroom, yet the Murphys maintained the glass-half-full outlook of people who don't have any options, so they might as well be positive about what they've got.

But with three growing children, one of whom has a disability that leaves her unable to walk, the state Office of Children's Services didn't share the Murphys' optimism.

Tim and Raelynne needed a new place to live, but they aren't lazy, incapable or unwilling to work to improve their situation. They didn't need a handout. They needed a hand up.

With Habitat for Humanity, that's what they got.

The program has been operating on the central Kenai Peninsula for 15 years, and is finishing up its 14th house.

Organizers are adamant that the program isn't charity. It's neighbors helping neighbors help themselves.

"It's not a gimmie, which is what a lot of people think," said Bill Radtke, president of the board of directors for the local branch of Habitat. "... These are people that just need a hand, a place to start."

The 14 Habitat houses in the central Kenai Peninsula are more per capita than anywhere in the world, Radtke said. The need for them is due in part to a lack of low-cost housing available in the area.

Matt Davis, a Realtor with Freedom Realty in Kenai, said there are some houses available in Kenai and Soldotna neighborhoods in the $140,000 to $150,000 range, but they go fast. Below that, options tend more toward the cabin-in-the-woods variety. And even those are more than many people can afford.

"I think Habitat for Humanity should be everywhere, I really do," he said. "Everybody's goal is to own a home, and a lot of people could be credit unworthy or cash poor."

Without the ability to secure financing, even someone with a steady job would find it nearly impossible to buy a home.

"Basically they have minimum-wage jobs, minimal insurance, stuff like that," Radtke said. "It's so hard for people to get a house, and we're talking people who have a decent job making forty thousand a year. But there are people who aren't so fortunate. ... When you look around, those of us that have a house, we're fortunate and we don't see the need."

But it's there. Habitat gets 14-15 applications for housing a year in the central peninsula, but Radtke said it could get 60-70 if more people knew about the program.

"Driving past a trailer park I'd think, 'I'm glad I'm not those people,'" he said. "There are so many needs in the community that most of us don't realize until you open your eyes and say 'Hey, we need to do something to make it better for someone less fortunate.'"

Through Habitat, approved applicants get safe housing that meets their needs, both for space and finances. House plans can change to fit the number of residents, and they can be customized to meet the needs of those with disabilities. Even without special needs, Habitat house plans have evolved over the years.

"We have learned a lot since we started," Radtke said. "We pay a lot more attention to landscaping. We pay a lot more attention to the looks of the house."

Houses aren't palatial, by any means. Cabinets, flooring and the like are usually donated, and if they're not, price is a determining factor. Any special features, like in-floor heating, are added because they end up being more cost-effective. But quality-enhancing tweaks are made year after year, like adding unfinished basements and arctic entryways, and paying attention to details like shutters and flower boxes.

Radtke said Habitat plans to make its next development in Kenai a showpiece for the program, with flowers and lawns and covenants to protect them, so anyone passing through will be impressed by the quality of the neighborhood.

"You have a little more pride in it because you can look out and have flowers out there and a rose garden. It's sort of neat, and it takes a lot of work," he said. "... If you've never had a lawn, it's hard to take care of a lawn, and those types of things we have to nurture and help develop in the families that we choose."

Recipients must put 500 hours of work, called sweat equity, into their house before they get the keys, and they pay every cent involved in building and outfitting the house through no-interest loans with repayment rates set at a level based on their monthly income. Habitat can take back a house for failure to make payments, and if the house is sold, Habitat gets a percentage of the sale price, dependant on how much of the loan the resident has paid off and how long they've lived in the home.

Habitat homeowners pay property taxes, utilities, maintenance and all the other costs associated with having a home, and the program develops $1.5 million in taxable property in the borough, Radtke said.

Loan payments go back into the program to fund the construction of other homes, so people who received a hand from Habitat essentially pass on the favor to someone else.

This winter marks an important milestone for the local organization, because the first recipients of Habitat homes here 15 years ago just finished paying off their loans. Radtke brought the two families gift baskets to celebrate.

"They were in tears. It's remarkable," he said. "The joy that comes with owning your own home for a person that would never, ever have a home is quite remarkable. They've done a great job sticking with it."

Habitat has a volunteer board of directors and selection committee that chooses one recipient family a year. That's the hardest job in the whole organization, Radtke said, because there are so many deserving families in need of safe, affordable housing.

Radtke's wife, Sharon, is on the selection committee. She said they follow guidelines from Habitat for Humanity International in determining who's eligible, including looking at police records, credit ratings, income and need. Need can be financial and situational.

"Typically people who apply are someone who's home has burned down, with four kids living in somebody else's basement, or someone living in a trailer with a wood stove. Obviously that's not safe," Sharon said.

They see leaky roofs, collapsed roofs, too many crammed under one roof, inadequate sanitation, unsafe construction and sometimes all of the above.

"It's extremely difficult," Sharon said. "It's hard to call a person and tell them they didn't get it because obviously everyone applying is in need."

But when it comes time to call a family that is selected, all the heartache over making the decision is worth it, Sharon said.

When the Murphys got their call in March a year ago, they'd been trying to buy a trailer, but that effort burst along with the trailer's pipes. With child services pressuring them to provide better living conditions, the news of a Habitat house was more than welcome.

"We were just severely motivated to get into it," Raelynne said.

So motivated they were involved with every aspect of building and outfitting the house, from designing the plans, hanging the Sheetrock, pulling wires and picking out flooring. Even with Tim's job at Spenard Builder's Supply, the Murphys still logged more than 2,000 hours working on the house, far surpassing the 500 they were required to do.

"Just to have a place of your own where you can do what you want at whatever pace you want without someone breathing down your back was a motivation for me," Tim said.

By November 2006 construction was complete, the house passed inspection and it was ready for the Murphys. Most of the furnishings were donated from businesses and church members, and moving their own stuff was simple, since all they could fit in the pumphouse was a small table and a few chairs.

Even so, there was a transition period of another nature.

"We spent four years learning to be content with what we had," Raelynne said.

Suddenly what they had was potential. Options. Opportunity. Nearly 2,400 square feet, as opposed to 120. A bathroom with a roll-in shower big enough to accommodate daughter Violet's wheelchair. Soft blue walls in the kitchen, laminate flooring in the living room and frosted light fixtures they picked out themselves. Separate bedrooms for Tim and Raelynne, Violet, now age 9, and sons Devin, 5 and Shannon, 3.

"It's nice to say 'go to your room' and not still have them be in range," Raelynne said.

Downstairs is an unfinished basement that doubles the size of the house. Tim, 30, and Raelynne, 28, work on it as they get time and money, using construction skills they already had and the experience they gained through Habitat. Eventually they want to turn the space into a TV room, library, workshop, bathroom and exercise room for Violet.

"I've been getting used to having to do maintenance on the house," Tim said. "That was a little bit of a heads-up. One of those things you have to get used to."

The new space and all its conveniences was an adjustment for the kids, too.

Potty training needed to be accomplished, now that there was a potty to do it with.

"It didn't make sense having a 4-year-old go out to the outhouse when it was 10 below," Tim said.

Light switches and the thermostat were a new and constant source of fascination for the boys. With in-floor heat and stone tile which transfers heat well in the bathroom, that presented problems.

"You'd walk in the bathroom before and burn your feet," Raelynne said.

The boys also had to get used to solitary sleeping arrangements. For the first month or so Devin and Shannon would end up in a pile of blankets together outside their parents' door.

"It took some time to get them into their bedrooms, and a little bit longer to get them in the beds," Raelynne said.

Raelynne and Tim's fourth child was due last week and they've got plenty of room for the new addition. They've even got space to take in friends and family in need of a temporary place to stay.

"I feel very fortunate," Tim said. "It's nice to be able to not say 'Sorry, I'd like to be able to help you out, but I can't.'"

The Murphys got the help they needed, and when they make their loan payment each month, they're helping future Habitat recipients.

Loan payments alone aren't enough to keep the program going. Habitat needs land to build on, and not just any lot will do. Parcels have to be able to hook into city water and sewer, because wells and septic systems are too expensive to install.

Donations are vital and appreciated in any and all shapes and sizes, from money to land, building materials, appliances and flooring, lunch supplies for building crews literally and figuratively the kitchen sink. Donations of services are especially prized. The list of local businesses and construction professionals who give money, materials, products, their time and expertise for free or at cost is longer than space permits to print.

"The donations have been astounding," Radtke said. "Which means we have a lot of generous people in the community that can be proud of themselves for helping other people. And that's why I'm proud to work for the organization, because it's a wonderful thing."

The need for generosity grows along with building cots. Ten years ago a Habitat house might cost $40,000 to $50,000 to build. Now it's more like $70,000 to $80,000, Radtke said. The need for volunteer labor also never ends.

All hands are welcome, even if they've never held a hammer before. It's a great way to learn about construction, dust off some out-of-practice home improvement skills or just stick to something easy, like painting or trash patrol.

Occasionally organizations send groups to help out, like Elmendorf Air Force Base or Global Village, a church group from the Lower 48. Otherwise it's just locals giving their time to give neighbors, like the Murphys, a boost.

"They work so hard. They have their own home now, and that's what Habitat is all about," Radtke said. "It's a big deal, a real big deal."

To volunteer, donate or find out more about Habitat for Humanity, call Radtke at 262-7534.

Jenny Neyman is a freelance writer who lives in Soldotna. She can be reached at jneyman@gmail.com.



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