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Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario--Community Building On So Many Levels
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By Haydn Jensen

Habitat for Humanity is about affordable homes. And much more. They are also about home ownership training, responsible financing, construction skills, volunteerism, and non-profit self-sufficiency. The London Habitat for Humanity in the past year reorganized and re-branded themselves as Habitat for Humanity Heartland Ontario. Their areas served now include London, Middlesex, Oxford, Elgin and Perth Counties. I met with Jeff Duncan, Habitat Heartland Ontario's CEO to discuss what they're doing and where they're heading. We had a lot to discuss.

You could look at Habitat as two operations in one--the home building side and the retail store side. Within each, there are several roles that Habitat plays. The home building side helps families who need a better housing situation to match their family needs and income levels but can't afford a typical marketplace mortgage. Habitat Heartland Ontario expects to help 8 families into new homes this year, and even more in future years. After a careful candidate selection process, workshop training, and "sweat equity" labour of 500 hours per family, Habitat walks alongside families to build a home together, provide an interest free mortgage, and then guide them as homeowners with family finance mentoring, home maintenance skills and so on.

All money repaid by families goes into a fund that is later used to purchase land and build homes for other families. In this way, Jeff says that from one house they built in 1993 Habitat has now probably built three houses from that money. So, the home building side of Habitat means they are family mentors, builders and even a small developer in cases where land parcels are purchased and subdivided into building lots. They are also bankers in that they hold several million dollars in mortgages and guide families through repayment process by tailoring repayments to 25% of annual family income.

The other side of the Habitat for Humanity operation is their Habitat ReStores. With four ReStores in the Habitat Heartland Ontario area (and a fifth expected to open this year in St Thomas), all Habitat's administrative costs are covered through revenue generated from ReStore sales of donated new and used building supplies, furniture etc. Jeff says it was this business model that drew him to work for Habitat.

He loves that he can promise financial donors that 100% of money raised goes directly into the build program. ReStores are very much a social enterprise with many volunteers helping run the stores. And, a ReStore's presence in a community is a visible reminder of Habitat for Humanity's commitment to that community. It's also a important salvage and recycling operation where scrap materials can be separated, electronics recycled, and furniture repaired or "upcycled" into something new.

For both the ReStore side and the build program side, community and volunteers are essential to Habitat's success. Jeff estimates that each year around 600 volunteers participate in this regions four ReStores. He also estimates around 1,100 people volunteer in their build programs annually. Habitat as an organization has found that Build Teams--Women Build Teams in particular--are very popular. In our area Jeff says they have 40 Women Build teams of 10-15 women. They raise $2,500 per team towards the cost of building a Habitat home, and then volunteer together on a day of the build. Response has been excellent because it allows people to actively participate physically as well as financially. Jeff said he would love to do something similar as a Faith Build where people from a church partner together with Habitat in helping to provide a home for a family in their church area.

A newer success area with volunteers comes through a new partnership that has developed called the ReNewit Project. The youth training project is delivering ReNewit in London and is called Argyle Communities Careers and Connects(ACCC). Habitat manages and delivers ACCC and the 2 partners who co created and collaborate on an ongoing basis are the City of London and Fanshawe College. The London Community Foundation granted 2 year funding to launch the project because it targets the community health and vitality criteria they identified. Our goal is to keep ACCC going and make the project self sufficient by 2016 when the funding ends.

ReNewit is a program designed to help seniors be able to stay in their homes as long as possible, Habitat provides low or no cost help with smaller renovations like caulking, insulation upgrades, painting, widening of doorways for wheelchair accessibility, etc. Good community service, yes? It gets better. The Renew It Program focuses on engaging disenfranchised young people by teaching them soft trade skills, workplace and safety training. The program generally works with teams of five or six young men or women for three to four months at a time. They then go with mentors and other volunteers to do these Renew It upgrades. After the first training cycle the young people come back for a second round, this time as mentors to the next crew. Part of the process also involves an introduction to trades schooling at Fanshawe, along with exposure to different vocational career options around building design and construction.

Considering these were previously unengaged youth typically with little motivation or access to post secondary education, Jeff is very pleased with the results so far. With the first two groups Jeff says three quarters of them have signed up for Fanshawe pre-trades training, a couple have joined a trade union as general labourers and three are now working steady jobs. So, the homeowners get the benefit of help to stay in their homes longer and youth get guidance and direction towards productive lives.

There are many ways you can get involved with Habitat. Volunteer at a ReStore, get involved as an individual or on a build team from your church or workplace, or simply become a donor. One easy way would be to attend an upcoming Jeans 'n Classics concert--the next one is January 24th. This is a very enjoyable symphonic rock series and a popular fundraiser for Habitat Heartland Ontario. On the Habitat Heartland website, click the Events tab to buy tickets. Habitat staff and volunteers would also love to come to your church or any other interested group to share about the work and community partnership opportunities.

To find out more: