Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 31, 2013

Building dreams, building homes

Habitat for Humanity celebrates 25 years of outreach

By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer

— The family was made of up two migrant farmworkers and three young children. They lived in a one-bedroom house with no water and a broken stove. Two of the children shared a single bed on the enclosed porch. In 1996, they moved into their new three-bedroom house on East Dixon Street.

She was a single mother with three children. For years, they moved from trailer park to trailer park trying to save enough money to put a down payment on a house, but no bank would give her a loan.

At midnight Jan. 1, 2000, 70 volunteers showed up to begin construction of their Habitat for Humanity home. It was a special way for the organization to bring in the new millennium. The house was ready for them to move in a few months later.

A couple with four kids was forced to move into a dilapidated house after the husband suffered a heart attack and lost his job.

The building was nearly unlivable. The foundation was cracked. With no cabinets, they stored food on top of the washing machine. A gaping crack at the bottom of the kitchen wall allowed creatures including frogs, mice and cats to climb through.

The family moved into a five bedroom Habitat home with polished wood floors, ample kitchen space and two full bathrooms on South Apperson Way last year.

This year marks 25 years since Habitat for Humanity came to Kokomo. Since then, hundreds of volunteers have poured more than 150,000 hours into building 50 homes that have changed the lives of as many families.

A success story lives within each one of those homes, said Greg Hoppes, a volunteer who’s worked on every Habitat build in the city since the local chapter’s founding in 1988.

Hoppes, 66, was there when a group of volunteers first decided to form a committee to look into bringing an affiliate chapter of Habitat for Humanity to Kokomo.

He said once they started investigating what the organization was all about, he felt compelled to help.

“It made a lot of sense to me once I started looking into it,” Hoppes said. “I agreed with their principles. The houses aren’t a give away. Owners have to work on it, and they have to pay for it. When you put those factors together, and you bring in the Christian aspect, it made a lot of sense to me.”

The payment process works like this: Habitat holds the mortgage on the homes and recipient families pay the organization back without interest. Families must fall within income limits to ensure they can make the monthly payments. A family of four would need to have a monthly gross income between $1,550 and $2,590.

Families must also put in 250 hours of “sweat equity” helping build their home.

Hoppes said it made sense to bring the organization to Kokomo, where he observed families living in poverty during the city’s tough economic climate in the late 1980s.

“Poverty housing doesn’t mean you’re living in a shack,” he said. “It could mean you’re strapped with high rent or utility bills you can’t afford, and that keeps you in poverty. We had that right here in Kokomo. There are people barely getting by paycheck to paycheck. If something happens — a car breaks down, somebody gets sick — then a bill doesn’t get paid. Habitat wants to help these people, and that breaks the cycle of poverty.”

But the group’s quarter century in the city has impacted more than just the families moving into new homes. Hoppes said it’s also improved the housing market throughout Kokomo.

“When we build a house in a neighborhood, the whole area improves within a year or two,” he said. “Once we build, the other homes have to catch up to us because you have to keep up with the Joneses.”

Robin Symonds, board president of the Kokomo chapter, said the organization has put more than $250,000 back on the tax roll by building new houses. He said Habitat has been the largest home builder on the city’s northwest side — an area city officials have eyed for possible improvements.

“We’re building on lots that are usually not economically feasible for most people,” he said.

Habitat has, on average, built two homes every year for the last 25 years, but Executive Director Mark Sloss said it wants to start building four or five houses every year.

That means more concentrated fundraising efforts in the future, he said, and raising public awareness about the group.

“We’re doing good work, but there’s still people who don’t know that Habitat is in Kokomo,” he said.

The organization also has discussed opening a retail store similar to Goodwill. ReStores in other communities sell donated items like stoves, siding and other building supplies to help raise money for future projects.

Hoppes said all the fundraising has a very specific goal: To give families in need a place to call home and break the cycle of poverty.

“It gives kids a very safe and stable home life,” he said. “The result of that is they do better in school, go to college, and move up in the world. We never see them in the cycle of poverty. It’s about the kids.”

Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached at 765-854-6739, or by email at carson.gerber@kokomotribune.com.

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