By Tim King
HERE IN MAINE, and around the world, it would be difficult to find an organization that is doing more—quite often with less than you might imagine—to resolve the severe shortage of safe, decent and affordable housing for people in need, than Habitat for Humanity.
Genesis and the birth of a radical idea: partnership housing
Habitat for Humanity International was founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller who, in the 1960s, had been introduced to the concept of “partnership housing” after visiting a small, Christian community near Americus, Georgia created by Clarence Jordan.
The Koinonia Farm project consisted of building 42 homes on half-acre sites for families in need. Starting in 1968, funded by donations received from around the country, Koinonia Farm confirmed that small, simple, quality homes could be built very affordably – and that those in need would be willing and able to lend a hand to get the job done. The “partnership housing” concept was born.
Since much of the labor was provided by volunteers and most of the materials were donated, homes could be built at very low costs. In turn, the homes would then be sold for a fraction of cost of a “typical” home in the same vicinity.
Further, homeowners had access to interest-free loans to finance the purchase. With such low overhead, in addition to ongoing fundraising efforts, the organization could then purchase land and build more homes using the money received each month from the homeowners.
After the successful completion of the Koinonia Farm project, the Fullers moved to Zaire, Africa and for three years, worked to provide affordable shelter for 2,000 people using the same model.
In 1976, after returning to the United States, the Fullers gathered with a group of supporters to discuss how the organization should move forward in the future. From that meeting, Habitat for Humanity International was born.
Habitat in Maine: building homes, saving energy & changing lives
Today, across Maine, there are now ten local Habitat for Humanity affiliates that are connected to and supportive of important community-based efforts aiming to address the issues associated with affordable home ownership.
The Habitat model—building quality homes with a substantial amount of volunteer labor—is no simple task. Coordination and communication is key to ensuring that not only will projects remain on schedule, but also that the homes are built to increasingly tighter building standards.
While all of the homes that Habitat affiliates have constructed around the country and around the world have always been in full compliance with the local building codes, over the past several years, affiliates in the United States have voluntarily, and independently of one another, begun to build homes that are better than what their current building codes require.
This is certainly the case here in Maine, where adding more insulation to the basement and attic, air sealing the outside building envelope or installing better performing windows and doors—efforts which are not necessarily required by existing building codes—can often mean the difference between a homeowner paying a few thousand dollars or a few hundred dollars a year to heat their home.
Godfrey Wood, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland explains, “The more energy efficient we can make our homes, the less our homeowners will need to spend on their utility bills each month. The goal of Habitat has always been to lower the cost of home ownership. Those costs include the monthly mortgage payment of course, but also include things like utility and maintenance costs as well.”
Building better homes. By choice.
Of course saying that you want to build energy efficient homes and actually doing it are two different things. In this type of construction, every detail matters. Ensuring that Habitat’s homes are indeed built according to plan requires an on-site manager who is equally skilled in the latest building techniques, team building, time management and interpersonal communications, among other things.
Needless to say, these construction pros give new meaning to the title “Jack-of-all-trades”.
“With every house we build, we are always trying to get better,” says Chad Mullin, the construction manager currently building eight Habitat homes in Scarborough. “The homes we build have to be simple, decent and affordable for the homeowner to maintain. That’s the starting point for every decision we make about what should and shouldn’t go into the design plan.”
Sometimes, the decisions are easier to make than other times. For example, the homes being built in Scarborough do not have access to natural gas—a home heating fuel that has been used in previous Habitat homes because of its low cost and high efficiency rating. The traditional choice for most of the homes in Maine has been to install an oil-burning furnace for heat and a boiler for hot water.
Aware of high costs associated with purchasing, installing, maintaining and supplying home heating oil to these systems, the Habitat construction team considered several options and also consulted with a local residential energy and building services consultant, Claire Betze.
Her company, BuildingWorks LLC, using detailed, energy-use modeling software determined that the most cost effective way to supply the homes with heat and hot water would be by installing ductless air-sourced heat pumps on each floor of the building. The heat pumps, powered by electricity, are incredibly efficient and will also provide the homeowner with cool, comfortable air during the summer.
“The decision to rely on heat pumps for supplying 100% of the heating and cooling of these homes also meant that the homes had to be extremely well insulated,” recalled Mullin. “Using Advanced Framing techniques, we were able to build wall systems that were thicker, better insulated and easier to air seal. As a result, the entire building envelope is much tighter than a typical code-built home would be.”
At the end of the day, a tighter home is simply more energy efficient and will ultimately provide the homeowners with substantially lower energy bills month after month. That allows Habitat’s homeowners to allocate that money toward other expenses, such as continuing education or purchasing a new vehicle—let alone building up their savings account.
Saving energy & saving money: weatherizing existing homes.
While some Habitat for Humanity affiliates in Maine are actively building new homes, others are focused on making it easier and less costly for homeowners to stay in their homes by providing free home weatherization services. Doing so can help reduce the energy burden that is often experienced in low-income households.
In 2009, Habitat for Humanity 7 Rivers Maine, located in Bath, began the “Keep ME Warm” program to lower the utility costs of people in their community by using volunteer labor to create and install interior storm window panels in older homes. To date, more than 600 families have participated in the program.
The problem of residents losing a lot of heat (and money) through their homes old, drafty windows and doors is something that most Maine communities are very familiar with.
Since that time, in addition to the now-statewide “Keep ME Warm” program, Habitat affiliates across Maine have launched weatherization efforts, such as the “Keep York County Warm!” program, a partnership between Habitat of York County, the United Way of York County and the York County Community Action Corporation.
“Maine has some of the oldest housing stock in the country and has a large, growing number of older adults living in them,” says Amy Nucci, executive director of Habitat for Humanity York County. “Here in York County, our coordinated weatherization efforts are helping our most vulnerable neighbors to save money by reducing the cost of staying warm during the winter.”
Each year, Habitat for Humanity of York County volunteers work to weatherize approximately 15 homes, depending on available resources, and build dozens of reusable, custom-fit storm windows that provide additional heat loss protection for residents. The storm windows, built by volunteers with mostly donated materials during the spring and fall, have proven to be an effective, low-cost, energy-saving alternative to replacing old, drafty windows with newer ones.
Residents in need of fuel and weatherization assistance apply through Maine’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).
Many of the people who apply for weatherization assistance from these organizations must often make difficult decisions about where, when and how to use their limited financial resources. In Maine, low income households regularly must balance the cost of basic necessities such as food, clothing and medical care with other day-to-day living expenses such as transportation and heat during winter.
These simple and effective weatherization projects—insulating and air sealing around doors and windows— improve the energy efficiency of the building, allowing every dollar spent on home heating to last a bit longer than it otherwise would. Thankfully, all those little bits can add up to make a significant difference in the amount of energy the homeowner will need to purchase during the year and how comfortable the home will be, too.
Funding the work
In order to accomplish all that needs to be done, given that each Habitat for Humanity affiliate is staffed (at most) by only a handful of full-time employees, each community project must rely heavily on the generosity of donors and efforts of volunteers.
Through the generous donation of time, talent and money, thousands of people and dozens of businesses support each Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Maine and their shared mission of bringing people together to create decent, affordable housing for those in need, while also building hope and stronger communities in the process.
Funding for all of Habitat’s local building and weatherization projects come primarily from two sources. First and foremost, financial contributions made by individuals, families, community groups and church groups have always provided a significant portion of the money required to establish and maintain a local Habitat for Humanity affiliate.
Another significant source of funding for Habitat housing projects in Maine comes from its retail operations. Habitat for Humanity ReStores are discount retail outlets that sell donated new and gently used building materials, appliances and furniture at remarkably low prices.
Habitat ReStores: Doing more by disposing of less.
There are six Habitat for Humanity ReStore locations in Maine: Portland, Topsham, Bangor, Ellsworth, Kennebunk and
Although each location is part of the Habitat for Humanity International affiliate network and connected to a specific Habitat for Humanity Maine affiliate, each store is independently operated. What this means is that not only are the vast majority of items donated for resale originally from the surrounding area, it also means that the proceeds from everything sold at each ReStore are channeled directly back into a building or weatherization project in the same community.
“All of our merchandise comes from local donations made by very generous individuals, businesses and contractors who want to help support Habitat for Humanity in York County,” says Kennebunk ReStore Manager Robert Haskell. “The revenue generated at our ReStore helps fund our efforts to build decent, affordable homes for hardworking, low-income families right here in York County.”
As part of the affiliate agreement, every Habitat ReStore in Maine also contributes a small percentage of its profits to support Habitat for Humanity International’s home building and emergency relief projects.
A little bit of everything, including the kitchen sink.
Since the items for sale at the ReStore are entirely supplied by donations, it can be difficult to predict exactly what will be on the shelves each day. But for many, that’s part of the fun of going into the store in the first place.
In general, every ReStore maintains a sizeable (yet constantly fluctuating) supply of doors, windows, kitchen countertops, cabinets and yes, kitchen sinks of all shapes and sizes, too.
Other commonly found items include bathroom sinks, tubs, toilets, vanities, microwaves, various types of lighting fixtures, hardware items, tools, finished and unfinished wood trim and myriad new and used nails, screws, hooks, brackets and other fasteners.
Maine ReStores not only deliver an outstanding value for their customers and help raise money for building homes, another important function of the business is to provide another option for disposing of unwanted building materials or outdated—but still functioning—appliances and other household items.
“Remodelers and other contractors like working with us because they can donate a lot of the stuff they are replacing to us instead of paying someone else to get rid of it,” says Portland ReStore assistant manager and procurement director, Andrew Smith.
According to Smith, “Some contractors will use it as part of their sales pitch and explain to the homeowner that they intend to donate some of what they take out to Habitat for Humanity instead of just throwing into a dumpster. They may even offer the homeowner a discount on the project since the contractors’ disposal costs will likely be lower, too.”
Smith estimates that throughout the course of a year, more than 936,000 lbs. (468 tons) of material is diverted from ending up in a landfill by being donated and sold through the ReStore instead.
However, not everything that comes out of a house is something that ReStore can use.
“We’re always trying to educate people about what we can accept and what we can’t,” says Smith. “The best thing for someone to do is to call and ask before they come in to make a donation. We also provide a list online and in the store.”
The other recurring issue that many ReStore locations also share is around price. It seems that some customers are under the impression that the prices of items for sale at a ReStore are negotiable. They’re not.
“We’re not a flea market. This is a fundraising effort. It takes too much time and energy to haggle or barter on every item in the store,” explains Smith. “The price on the sticker is the price that everyone pays. We want to keep a fair, level playing field for all of our customers.”
He continues, “I think we set our prices low enough that most people know that they’re already getting a great deal,” then adds, “I suppose we could try and get a few more dollars for some things, but that’s not the point. We want things to sell quickly. The quicker we can turn our inventory, the quicker we can build another house for somebody who needs it.”
Business is brisk. With good reason.
On any given day, a customer could walk into a ReStore and purchase everything he/she would need to completely remodel their kitchen or bathroom, at a fraction of the cost. What’s more, for customers who are able to be flexible with their selection – or have the ability and desire to modify their homes’ existing design specifications – the bargains can be too good to pass up.
“There are probably 100 or more customers that I’ll recognize as soon as they walk in,” says Smith of the Habitat for Humanity Greater Portland ReStore, located on Warren Avenue. “We have a number of customers who come in almost every day, and dozens more that are in here at least once a week.”
“Over the years, we’ve built up a solid reputation for keeping our store filled with good, quality merchandise at prices that can’t be beat. I think that’s why our customers not only keep coming back, they bring their friends with them, too,” says Smith.
Although prices can vary from location to location, a ReStore will generally sell items anywhere between 50% and 90% below their normal retail price.
Many hands make light work
Because of the effort and generosity of people of all faiths, nationalities, incomes and backgrounds, Habitat for Humanity has helped thousands of low-income families find new hope in the form of affordable housing.
Each local affiliate in Maine—Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Bangor, Habitat for Humanity of 7 Rivers Maine, Midcoast Habitat for Humanity, Hancock County Habitat for Humanity, Southern Kennebec County Habitat for Humanity, Waterville Area Habitat for Humanity, York County Habitat for Humanity and Waldo County Habitat for Humanity—relies heavily on the support of donors and volunteers.
The projects each affiliate undertakes would simply be impossible to complete and deliver affordably to those in need any other way. People choose to partner with Habitat for Humanity to build or improve a place that either they—or a neighbor—can call home.
To that end, it’s important to point out that although Habitat for Humanity was originally formed by a Christian couple, the organization maintains an open-door policy that welcomes people of all beliefs, races and backgrounds to be a part of its mission. Habitat for Humanity International describes itself as a “ecumenical Christian housing ministry”—a universal service group centered around housing.
Prospective Habitat homeowners are always selected based on their level of need, ability to pay and willingness to partner with volunteers to get the home built. Neither race or religion is a factor in determining who is selected.
Lastly, Habitat for Humanity International has also made it clear that it will not proselytize, allow its affiliates to proselytize or partner with organizations of people who do so. In other words, Habitat employees and volunteers are not permitted to use their position as an opportunity to suggest that individuals should consider one particular faith over another.
So, rest easy. If you’ve got a little free time, some old cabinets or a few dollars to spare, contact a Maine Habitat for Humanity affiliate. They’d love to put it all to good work.
Tim King is a sustainability-minded freelance writer from Scarborough.