Alumni use their skills to help build homes for people in need.
Owning a home is a classic American dream, one that the United States specializes in expanding. The notion of individual homeownership conjures up images of liberty and free enterprise, not to mention mom and apple pie, and provides a sense of security and stability to the average American family.
The reality of the moment, however, is that there are many families in the United States who can't afford to own a home, and perhaps never will, without assistance. That's where Habitat for Humanity comes in.
Founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller in Americus, Georgia, Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian organization that came to national attention in the early '80s when former president Jimmy Carter got involved in it. The image of the former leader of the free world pounding nails into two-by-fours with the goal of creating affordable housing for people in need was powerful publicity. Since then, Habitat for Humanity has gone international and is represented locally by affiliates independent, nonprofit groups that carry out Habitat's mission on a regional level.
Enter Yasamina Roque BA'91. "Yas," as she is sometimes called, started working for Habitat for Humanity in 1996. At the time, she says, "I didn't know the difference between a faucet and a socket." Over the last six years, she has had ample opportunity to bone up on the terminology and technique of home construction. As executive director of Habitat first in Salt Lake County (for four-plus years) and now in Summit & Wasatch counties (for almost two) Roque has also had occasion to polish her people skills.
Nowhere does she need to utilize her powers of persuasion more than in Summit County, the wealthiest county in Utah, where the average home is worth $450,000 and the median income is $74,500. While the fundraising prospects may be abundant there, the availability of land for Habitat home-building projects isn't.
"In the beginning," says Roque, "we were discouraged because of the lack of available land." She plowed ahead anyway, eventually securing some properties primarily through cooperative arrangements and partnerships with other nonprofits. As a result, she says, "We have increased building capacity in the area by 600 percent in the last year and a half."
The families who receive Habitat homes are selected on the basis of need, but also on their ability to allot $2,000 as down payment, to assume a mortgage (albeit at zero percent interest), and to devote 350 hours helping build the house. "It's called sweat equity," explains Roque. "It can be particularly difficult for a single parent who is trying to raise a family to devote that amount of time to house building." Even so, the system seems to work, and to work well. "Habitat serves people who would never otherwise be able to own a home," says Roque.
Funds to pay for the land and construct the house are raised through corporate sponsors, government grants, and individual contributions. Volunteers are particularly important to the success of Habitat's home-building, giving freely of their time and expertise, and sometimes materials.
"The volunteers are terrific," says Roque. "You never know who's going to show up. It's kind of like putting on a play the construction supervisor is the director and the scene is populated with friends, relatives, doctors, lawyers, priests, housewives, Mormon bishops, atheists. All come with enthusiasm and a desire to help."
Tacy Hartmann JD'95 is one of those. An attorney at VanCott, Bagley, Cornwell & McCarthy, Hartmann sits on the board of the Summit & Wasatch counties chapter of Habitat. Her initial contact was through a subcommittee of the American Bar Association, which encourages lawyers to volunteer. "The operation in Park City was fledgling, and I wanted to get involved," says Hartmann, who deals pro bono with much of the chapter's legal work questions that arise on governmental and transactional levels. Her firm is also a major supporter of Habitat projects.
"I'd like to see Habitat branch out to offer more services to the families we provide housing for," she adds, "like asking people to donate computers so that families can become computer literate" important to helping them move into the mainstream of today's society.
Another U of U alum, Bob Greer BS'77, is board president of the Summit & Wasatch counties chapter. He coordinates efforts with Roque to establish short- and long-term goals, and gives freely of his time and expertise. "It's almost a second fulltime job," says Greer, who manages a construction company in Park City. "But it's very gratifying. There's nothing more pleasing than putting a family in a home who otherwise wouldn't have one. We deal with people who have no alternative," he says. "They're not candidates for conventional mortgage lending and often live in substandard housing." He cites one instance in which they discovered twelve people living in a two-bed-room apartment in Park City.
"Although Park City is a rich resort town, it also accommodates a sizeable community of people working in the service industry who can't afford the price of homes here," observes Greer. Roque and her board members, all volunteers, have made notable progress but acknowledge that there is still much to do in terms of finding land and raising money. Fortunately, "Yasamina is an excellent fund raiser," comments Greer. "She is well known in the community, has appeared on radio and television, and is articulate and passionate about the work we're doing."
This summer Roque and her home-building partners got to admire the fruits of their labors by inaugurating a house just completed for a Hispanic family in the northern Utah town of Coalville.
Roman and Teresa Ramirez have four children, one of whom was born with spina bifida and has special needs. The architect of the home took those needs into consideration by including a wheelchair ramp into the house and extra-wide doors inside that would allow a wheelchair to pass through easily.
Welcoming and acknowledging everyone in attendance for their hard work and dedication in making the home a reality, Roque fought back tears. "I always tell myself I won't cry," she says, "but these are emotional moments." There were a few other moist eyes among the group gathered a bilingual Catholic priest, who offered a blessing on the house in English and Spanish, the county's legislative representative, the architect, the construction foreman, friends and neighbors, the Ramirez family, and the volunteers involved in the home-building process.
Called on to say a few words, Teresa Ramirez looked stunned. It wasn't that she needed a translator; she was without words. Wiping tears from her eyes, she looked around the living room of her new house and said, simply, "Gracias."
Another American dream fulfilled.
Linda Marion BFA'67 MFA'71 is managing editor of Continuum.