By Jamison Cocklin
Twice a week for nearly four years, a steady stream of volunteers from across the Mahoning Valley has come to Maranatha Drive on Youngstown’s East Side to build homes for families that they hope will make a difference in their lives.
The volunteers come from all walks of life, and they represent a diverse set of organizations. Many had scarcely picked up a hammer, but they arrived willingly to learn a thing or two and fulfill the mission of Habitat for Humanity of Mahoning County.
Mahoning’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate has built 37 houses throughout Youngstown’s suburbs since 1989. Much of its work depends on land donations from property owners who are looking to either lend a helping hand or relinquish themselves of the burdens that come with vacant lots.
“Property donations are critical to us,” said Monica Craven, executive director at Habitat for Humanity of Mahoning County. “Money is tight at most nonprofits right now.”
Since her organization services mortgages, oversees construction and pays a full-time staff, such donations help to reduce the costs of building two- to four-bedroom single-family homes.
Craven said Mahoning’s Habitat for Humanity seeks anywhere from three to five donations per year in order to plan ahead for each year’s construction projects.
In all, four houses have been completed at Maranatha Drive since 2008, and another will be finished this month, and a dedication ceremony will take place and the new family will move in.
“These homes provide stability for the kids,” Craven said. “They’re able to stay in the same schools for several years and they get to know their teachers — their grades go up.”
In allowing a greater chance for upward mobility and a more stable life, building a quality home becomes even more important for not only the volunteers but also for those who manage the construction process.
Craven estimated that it takes about four to six months to complete a home, with about 300 volunteers contributing 2,500 hours of work.
This can be a challenge for Habitat’s construction manager, Sean Fyock.
“I’m the only paid person on site,” he said. “There’s no dedicated foreman. I have about six guys that come every build day with various levels of skill.”
Licensed plumbers and electricians are hired to take care of the trickier aspects of construction, but the focus isn’t about making money, Fyock said; it’s about building families a better place to live. “We really have three goals when we’re building a house,” he added. “We want to get things done in a reasonable amount of time, we want to be safe; and we also want to give our volunteers a good experience on the job site — it’s about having fun.”
The end result is a 30-year mortgage with a 0 percent interest rate that is often cheaper than the cost of renting. The homes are typically valued around $65,000, and mortgage payments usually average $350, including property tax and insurance, Craven said.
To qualify, a family of four must make between 30 percent and 50 percent of the local median annual income, which ranges from $16,000 to $32,000.
“My families can’t qualify for conventional mortgages. It’s not even an option for them,” Craven said.
The application process, which starts with a six-page form, takes about a year. Habitat for Humanity of Mahoning County has a monthly informational session for families who think they’re qualified.
Surprisingly, Craven said the application volume is low. Her organization receives about 5 applications per month, and only one person qualifies.
“I don’t know if it’s because people are afraid to own a home, or it’s because they just don’t know we’re out here,” Craven said. “Most of our applicants are referred by past or current homeowners — it’s all about word-of-mouth. They say, ‘Look — I’m living in a Habitat house. You should really give this a try.’”
Craven noted that some of her “best families” have been referred through the grapevine.
She also said that because Mahoning’s Habitat for Humanity acts as the lender, it has more flexibility in modifying mortgages. She said delinquency rates are relatively low, and some families simply choose to deed the house back to her organization if they run into trouble.
In addition to land donations, a host of area companies and nonprofits make monetary donations that enable the organization to pay for construction and other costs. Groups such as Caring for our Community and United Way donate time, while churches, banks, area manufacturers and others make financing available.
“To see the work we’ve accomplished at the end of the day is very rewarding,” said Tina Rauscher- Cooper, director of human resources at V&M Star, which has made donations and participated in volunteering efforts. “And knowing we’re helping a family in a very real, tangible way is rewarding.”
Habitat for Humanity of Mahoning County is accepting land donations. The organization has constructed houses in Struthers, Lowellville, Boardman and Youngstown.
Habitat is preparing to break ground on another house in September at the corner of Glenwood Avenue and Midlothian Boulevard.