SK family gets a home for the holidays

These are the days Lori Oberlander loves her job.

“It’s mine, it’s mine,” 6-year-old Jonathon Williams squeals as he runs through his family’s new home, courtesy of Habitat for Humanity.

Oberlander, the executive director for Kitsap County’s branch of the non-profit organization, which provides low-cost houses for needy families, said watching the boy burst with joy made the months of hard work creating a home for Jonathon’s family more than worth the effort.

“We’ve been waiting a long time,” said his mom, Sally McGrath, explaining that her family — which includes her husband William and two other children — have been without a home for four years, all cramming into her mother-in-law’s tiny house.

There only her 13-year-old daughter had her own room, she said, while the two youngest shared a computer room.

“My husband and I — our room was the living room,” she said, sighing happily when she explained that her family had put in all their furniture and was getting ready to buy a Christmas tree for the new home. “It’s beautiful.”

The McGraths’ journey to their small-but-livable South Kitsap abode began way back in June of 2002, when they applied to Habitat to be considered for the program.

To be accepted, Oberlander said, a family must prove they not only have a great need for a home, but also the ability to pay for one.

“They have to be currently living in sub-standard housing, which means the home has structural problems, is overcrowded for their family size, or is otherwise unsafe or unsuitable,” Oberlander said.

Next, she makes sure the family can make the mortgage payments, which, although substantially reduced, can still present a challenge.

Normally, the McGrath’s three-bedroom home — a modest 1,050 square-feet — would appraise at around $100,000, Oberlander said.

“We will sell it to them for about $50,000 — which is quite a savings, especially at no interest,” she said.

Divide that by amount by 20 years, factor in taxes and insurance, and you get a mortgage payment hovering around $300 a month, she said.

“We make sure that amount does not exceed 30 percent of their income, which is considered not affordable,” she said.

To offer families these savings, Habitat looks for great property deals, Oberlander said, preferably large plots that can be broken into smaller lots and hold more than one home.

“We don’t want to spend too much money on the property, because families wouldn’t be able to afford the taxes,” Oberlander said. “We get block grants, and try not to spend more than $20,000 for a piece of property.”

Once a piece of property is secured and ready for construction, Habitat then searches for families nearby who have signed up for a home.

“We don’t want them to have to move any great distances,” she said. “We try to keep them in the same school district, or close to where they work.”

Another factor that keeps prices low is the army of volunteers, tradesmen and former families Habitat gathers for each project.

Local plumbers and electricians donate their services, volunteers pound nails, and each family is required to roll up their sleeves and help put up the walls of their new house, Oberlander said.

“We call it ‘sweat equity,’ ” she said. “Each family has to be willing to partner with Habitat and work on their own house, as well as other people’s houses. We tell them, ‘We’re not building a house for you, you’re building a house with us.’ ”

Oberlander said the best scenario is to have each family working alongside the constructors as their home is being built.

“We prefer they work at the job site, because there they can learn so many skills, such as actual construction and mechanical skills,” she said, which they can put into maintenance of their home and into assisting on other families’ homes.

Along with helping do the work, families can help choose the floor plan and certain extras of their home, such as the paint colors, carpeting, linoleum and style of countertops, although the range of options can be limited.

“There’s not a lot of different things you can do with 1,200 square feet, but sometimes people want the master bedroom further away from the other bedrooms, or sometimes they want to be closer to their kids’ room,” Oberlander said.

Making sure the families are closely involved in each project not only helps build homes, she said, but build key relationships as well.

“It really helps when volunteers get to know the families,” she said. “If they are excited, then the volunteers are excited. But if the families don’t seem like the care, then the volunteers will feel, ‘Why should we care?’ ”

Oberlander said often a home is started for a particular family, but the enthusiasm members showed in the beginning quickly fades.

“It happens a lot that during the home visit they’re real excited and say ‘Oh, I’ll do anything.’ But then they find out they don’t have the energy, time, or can’t get child care,” she said. “We’ll try and work around their extenuating circumstances, but if during the first three months we don’t see them, or don’t get their calls, they might be dropped from the program.”

Luckily, that didn’t happen with the McGraths, who along with a new place to live, have a great feeling of accomplishment knowing they helped build it.

“We did a little bit of everything — dug ditches, pounded nails, painted,” McGrath said. “It’s been great watching it grow from the ground up.”

“It’s a great opportunity for these families,” Oberlander said. “It’s a hand up to help them get ahead, maybe get out of debt, or go back to school. There’s so many things you can do when you have a stable home.”

This year alone, Habitat offered seven families a stable home. Along with the McGraths’ house in South Kitsap, Oberlander said three homes were finished in East Bremerton and three on Bainbridge Island.

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