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Monday, May 14,2012

Local artist to move into new Nelsonville home after delays

By Steven Turrill
Photo Credits: Dustin Franz
Photo Caption: Habitat volunteer Jeremy Hayes carries a piece of roofing during Habitat for Humanity’s build project in Nelsonville on April 22.

In what will be her living room but first needs insulation, drywall, a ceiling and a floor, Elizabeth is waiting on a lost power tool. The Athens County Habitat for Humanity is building the home for her. The last day of the 28th week of construction is about to begin later than usual, because today is Sunday, and because a drill has wandered off.

A local artist with work hanging in Starbrick Gallery in Nelsonville and in the Butterflies in Our Midst show at the Kennedy Museum, Elizabeth (who requested her last name not be used) is retired, in her sixties, and has a grown son. She volunteers for a kindergarten class at Plains Elementary five days a week. She doesn't have a lot of money. Her food card is important. "I was never career oriented," she says, as if she's had to say it often. "I don't know why."

In the last year, a combination of reduced government spending on social services, the recession, age and a long history of negligent landlords has put her in a situation she needs to get out of. That's where Habitat for Humanity comes in. "I never used to feel poor until recently," she says. Then she thinks about that, with a wry, quick smile. Maybe she's embarrassed to admit the feeling, considering that since she was approved for Habitat she has stood at the intersections great timing, luck, and as some would say, divine intervention. All her life she watched her money, lived on a budget, lived within her means.

The house wrapped in blue insulating styrofoam is sitting on the Nelsonville lot as if it grew there out of the ground. Construction is going slow. Weekend by weekend, with the labor of a small band of dedicated volunteers, it has been a long build for ACHFH. The average build takes four months, which on this project would have been February. The hope is now to close it by early summer, or possibly even by the end of next month. It depends on the weather. There has been a lot of rain, and there's a forecast for snow tomorrow, in late April.

"I'll tell you what," the young ACHFH executive director (and former A-NEWS employee), Kenneth Oehlers, says. He's talking about the roof, which was supposed to be paneled two weeks ago, which today the volunteers will try to finish, and he's searching for an image of ideal conditions. "If I could invent some sort of force field to surround my build site..." He doesn't finish the thought. The amount of time wasted by thunderstorms is "really a painful thing to see, but it is what it is." hfh_12_drilling.jpg

The handful of OU student volunteers wear sweatpants and mismatched hardhats and canvas tool aprons that make them look like a species of hardware marsupial. A truck backs up to the house and Steve Peters, a muscular Hocking College grad who studied construction and who is ACHFH's site manager, steps out. Peters has explained the roof, the panels, who will be on the roof with the panels, how the panels will make it from the ground to the roof, and where the screws will go. Now he's explaining that they must look for the needle - a three-eighths Dewalt drill - that he hopes is in the haystack of junk in the back of the truck.

Junk and scrap from last weekend move slowly from the truck down the assembly line of hands. There isn't anything to do on the roof without the missing drill. Peters is digging under one pile of broken wood as another pile of torn insulation rises in the street. After a couple minutes, still nothing. Construction is going slow.

Elizabeth has a timeline for completion she hopes for, but she says it really doesn't matter when the house is done. She could have easily not had this wonderful opportunity. It feels like magic. "Mountains were moved in a tiny amount of time," she says in disbelief.

The mountains she means are the stacks of paperwork. She came onto the project not even at the last minute - after the last minute. Habitat had partnered with a different homeowner by October 2011 when the foundation was poured and construction began. Then the homeowner dropped out. Other families approved to receive homes were too large for the two-bedroom-one-bath. That left Elizabeth, who called in December after overhearing there was a possible opening for a family of one.

Hers was one of many calls the office receives weekly. Many families who call don't qualify to partner with Habitat for a variety of reasons. Elizabeth qualified: she made enough money - but not too much; she lived in substandard housing; and she could document all of it. Habitat fast-tracked her through the formal application. She joined the build site in January, after only a month in the selection process, and began working off her down payment of 250 "sweat equity" hours, the time she must put in on-site or in otherwise volunteering for ACHFH before she can move.

Both parties insist the other was the one doing the favor, though Elizabeth is really the luckier one. "We knew we'd find a family because there's so much need," Oehlers says. But December had put him in a pickle. "When you start a house and a family withdraws, it's a situation."

Here's another situation: when Elizabeth moves in she will be putting 17 years of substandard housing permanently behind her. However, she's not at the door yet, which is why she didn't want her last name to be used for this article. She worries about being evicted from her trailer if the landlord discovers she's leaving. Oehlers says this fear is real, a common obstacle to partnering with families, and why ACHFH doesn't keep a waiting list. "Eventually it'll get back to the landlord," he says. "And the landlord will evict them, which we've seen a couple times."
Elizabeth would be evicted from a 40-year-old trailer that has no working sanitation, a furnace that blows cold air, wall-mounted propane stoves in the wrong rooms, sinkholes in the original orange shag, and a cancer of carpenter ants. Pitbulls lived alone in the trailer for weeks before she moved in. Piles the pitbulls made are side-by-side with piles of linoleum and drywall left from projects never completed.

The rent is $450 monthly. Electric was almost $300 per month last winter, and winter propane cost $1,800. She also pays trash collection. She flushes the toilet with a bucket of water.

Her situation is typical of a Habitat selectee. Oehlers believes decent housing isn't a political issue, it's a humanitarian one. But it's also a financial issue. The Habitat house will total $70,000 at close. More than a third of that amount was raised by Faith Build, an ACHFH community volunteer coalition. CHIP grants contributed another large portion. The rest of the budget was supplied by mortgages.

Elizabeth will pay back the cost of the house in no-interest monthly installments, which she estimates will be less than her current rent. Her mortgage payments will help fund the next build project and the family that moves into that home will help pay for the next build project, and so on. This is the Habitat for Humanity self-sustaining model. This is how it has grown into one of the largest nonprofits in the world, and built 4,200 homes in Ohio. ACHFH has built 28 homes in Athens County alone since being founded in 1990.

"We should be so much farther along than we are," Peters says after the slow start, surveying the roof's progress. He's got four people up above aligning panels, chalking, and screwing them down. Both drills are in play. The house is being built to Energy Star 2.0 standards and they have the siding, drywall, trim, insulations, deck, fixtures and painting left to do.

hfh_12_saw.jpgA Makita saw starts up jammed in a two-by-four, growls, and shuts down at Peters' insistence. He describes how the blade would have kicked back out of the tool and into the volunteer, who is turning white. He asks her to try again and she does, after a hesitation.

Not only does Peters oversee every nail and screw and put in a ton of physical labor himself, he simultaneously teaches the volunteers how to build a house and do it safely.

Elizabeth can't lift panels up the ladders, so she manages lines of extension cords, or holds the two-by-fours under the buzz of the Makita. She keeps an eyeon things. She wants to hear about every problem. Like when Peters discovers he can't get the tub/shower unit into the bathroom because it's boxed in by the second bedroom frames and he has no choice but to cut a right angle out. Elizabeth pronounces it Murphy's Law and calms Peters by being not being troubled about it in the least.

The house is a blessing to Elizabeth, built by wonderful human beings. "If there wasn't a positive feeling at the end of the day why would you bother," she says about what she does for others and what these students do for her: volunteer their time and energy. The volunteers enjoy themselves. They're getting a free education in construction. From the roof there's a clear view of the Nelsonville hills. You can't take the excitement out of the air. You can't take the smile off Peters' face, not with a hundred more setbacks. It's the nature of construction. Ten people 15 hours a week on their own time building an entire house. A lot goes wrong in all that time. Murphy's Law.

Elizabeth takes a break on a wall of cool sandstones adjacent to her property-to-be. She talks about how she never felt homesick in Athens County. That's why she moved here permanently almost two decades ago. Something about the Appalachian hills drew her and kept her from moving on. She's talking huge cycles of time. Geologic time. She says this is one of the oldest places to come out of the water.

The land formed slowly.


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