The Austin Chronicle

Habitat for Humanity Builds More Than Houses Foundation of Faith

By Jay Hardwig, November 7, 1997, Features

It's 1:40 in the afternoon, Sunday, October 19, and all around town people are thigh-deep in the diversions of the moment -- a hike on the Greenbelt, say, or the second quarter of the Cowboys-Jaguars futility scramble, or for the late risers among us (you know who you are), a plate of migas and a warm flour tortilla. 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue, Austin, Texas, however, bears witness to a rather more industrious scene. There are probably a hundred people on the once-vacant lot, and hammers and saws are singing tenpenny time. Marty Jones is nailing siding on a house whose frame has just gone up. Lisa Whitworth is cutting porchbeam shims precise to the sixteenth of an inch. Ginette Jordan is working like a horse, pulling up crawling vines and hauling load after load of yard waste to the brush pile. Chris Kumbera, 14, prowls with a tackhammer, making sure the Tyrek housewrap is tautly tacked and ready for its long nap beneath the house's outer walls. Manuel Alvarez dips his trowel into a 'barrowful of Portland cement and returns to the slow process of laying the house's underpinning. He works with particular care. After all, it's his house they're working on.

Me? I'm losing a battle with a staplegun. I have come to Pennsylvania Avenue to take part in Austin Habitat for Humanity's House Raising Week -- an annual effort to raise awareness, a house, and not a small batch of volunteer pride in just over a week's time. We're hardly halfway through the first day of work and the progress is remarkable -- the frame is up, the interior walls in place, and roofbeams are being laid with a savage efficiency. Brush is being cleared, underpinning underpun, and a sheaf of Hardyboard siding is waiting to wear out a squadron of lower backs.

I have spent much of the day watching good-naturedly from the sidelines, circumambulating the house to take in all of its evolving angles with my open-mouthed and speculative glances. I have volunteered for Habitat before, and judged myself to be adept if not accomplished, but on this day I am slow to grab a hammer and insert myself into the proceedings. There are too many people here who know what they are doing, and like all amateurs, I fear public exposure of my shortcomings. I am not eager for a reckoning before the power tool savants that swarm all around me, and instead I either stand by idly or involve myself in those dozens of brainless but necessary tasks that accompany house construction. I fetch nails, hoist Hardyboard, and now and again check out the action at the refreshments tent.

By the end of the day my confidence has grown and I have thrown in my lot with the underpinning crew, but I have paid for it dearly with the tender skin of my journalist's hands. I am a victim of the staplegun and a pair of tin shears -- normally tools that I can handle with aplomb, but somehow, on this first day of House Raising Week '97, they have conspired to leave me blistered and bloodied.

This house is being built for the Alvarez family -- Manuel, Maria, Efrain, Jose, Diana, Braulio, Melissa, and Eduardo. They are on site today, helping to build the house that will become their home. Already they have put in over 400 hours of unpaid work on other Habitat sites -- the standard "sweat equity" that is required of all would-be Habitat homeowners. They are anxious to move from their current house, an overpriced rental with leaky pipes. It has been over a year since they were accepted as Habitat clients; it will be less than a week until their house is finished. I ask them how they feel to watch the house get built by a bunch of people they hardly know. "Very inspired," Manuel tells me -- inspired to help others who are in need.

I begin the second day with a task that requires more brawn than brains -- I am sent to pitch mulch with Jim Walker, Habitat volunteer and de facto coordinator of recycling. He's just come from the landfill, having traded scrap brush for mulch. 1901 Pennsylvania is rolling in mulch, however, and before you can say, "Can't even use a staplegun" I'm riding shotgun in the mulch truck, headed for a site on J.J. Seabrook Drive. At any given time, Habitat has between five and seven houses in various stages of construction; they hope to dedicate 11 new homes this year. On the way, Jim and I get to talking -- "jaw-jackin'," as he calls it -- and I learn that he is a refugee from the construction industry. Fed up with the amount of waste that his work was generating, he laid down his hammer and enrolled in UT's graduate Community & Regional Planning Program, where he studies industrial recycling and solid waste. ("Time, tides, and the trash wait for no man," he tells me with an arresting look. I nod knowingly.)

We arrive at the site on J.J. Seabrook and begin to pitch our load. Before long we are joined by VanLawrence Franks, a seven-year old boy who lives next door in yet another Habitat home. He is fresh-faced and eager to help, and the three of us make quick work of the job. Jim and VanLawrence know each other -- they worked on Van's house together, after all -- and it is clear that they enjoy each other's company. As we drive off, Van sprints back to his new home and Jim exchanges a friendly holler with LaShelle Lyons, Van's mother and continuing Habitat volunteer. The feeling of community and mutual respect is strong. It is a rare and satisfying feeling. "That made my day," Jim tells me as we drive back to the Pennsylvania build.

Back on site, I wander around a bit and eventually hook up with the crew that is siding the front of the house. All of a sudden I am handling hammers, levels, plumb lines -- serious stuff. I have been taken under wing by an affable gent named Jim Montanaro, a computer programmer and all-around handyman who is leading the siding crew on this site. I delight in hearing my voice call out those delicate fractions that the serious carpenters have been barking all day. "Eleven and seven-eights," I say. "Three sixteenths." "Twenty-one and a quarter." Only Jim and I know what they mean, and at this moment, that meaning is essential.

Habitat for Humanity runs on the strength of its volunteers. While it does retain a small and highly skilled staff, the organization is plainly permeated by a volunteer spirit -- a spirit of softspoken commitment, communal goodwill, and rank amateurism. The time given by some of the regulars is nothing short of remarkable. There are people on site who haven't missed a Saturday all year, who bring their own tools, who have taken off work to build during House Raising Week. There are people of all shapes and stripes, including a couple of university contingents and a troop of Girl Scouts. There is also a good showing from Austin's faith communities: Habitat has dubbed this house raising as a "Faith in Action" build, and several area church groups are out in force. Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, and Jews are working alongside one another, along with plenty of "others" and the occasional "none of the above." Habitat for Humanity is an inclusive organization that does not discriminate on religious grounds, but it is also a group that has never strayed far from a spiritual understanding of its mission. It was founded in 1976 by Millard and Linda Fuller of Americus, Georgia, who sought to apply Christian principles as they understood them. What better way to shelter the poor, they reasoned, than build them a house?

I do have another job -- besides mulchpitcher and would-be journalist, I am also a schoolteacher. And so it is that on the weekdays I show up at the worksite only after school lets out -- usually around 4:30pm -- to find that most of the serious work has been done. On Tuesday I arrive just in time to help with clean-up, after the regular crew has run themselves ragged hanging insulation and drywall. Surrounded by selfless, tireless workers, I am afraid I am getting an on-site reputation as the guy who shows up late and stands around eating cookies.

On other Habitat builds I've volunteered on, the site leaders have been only too happy to teach me to hang drywall, measure for a countertop, or pour a concrete driveway. The pressure to build a house in a week is considerable, however, and there is less time for the sharing of knowledge that is so central to the Habitat for Humanity experience. I'll learn fewer new skills this week than I had hoped, and spend less time tackling challenging tasks. But when the carpet is being laid at six, the hacks can't be puttin' in tile sideways at five. There is a wisdom at work here, and a goodly dose of pragmatism as well, and both are telling the site leaders to keep the first-timers away from the circular saw. I can't say I blame 'em. I pick up a bit and call it an early night.

In the rush of good will and self-congratulation that come with building someone a Habitat house, it is easy to forget that they are paying for it. Quite so. The house on Pennsylvania is being built with volunteer labor, to be sure, but the Alvarez family is picking up the bill for both the land and all the materials used. They'll be in hock for 20 years, to the tune of over $40,000. (Habitat for Humanity finances 20-year, interest-free mortgages for each client; the default rate is less than one percent.) The Alvarezes are not being given a house: They are being given the chance to buy a house. The distinction is a crucial one to Habitat board members -- and to the Alvarezes. In order to qualify as a Habitat homeowner, applicants must meet three conditions: They must have a housing need, they must have an ability to pay for the house, and they must be a willing partner in the Habitat program. If they meet these conditions and are selected by the Family Selection Committee as clients, they start their partnership by doing volunteer work on Habitat sites -- the 400 hours of "sweat equity" required of all homeowners. If you don't do the work, you don't get the house.

My work on Wednesday is unexciting -- a touch of painting and a little more clean-up -- but Thursday is a banner day, and this for one reason: my first brush with power tools. Granted, my task is simple, and the power tool in question is comparatively feeble, but neither of these factors can compromise the pure joy I get out of being sole operator of one of those whirring, purring machines. My tool is a power sander; my job is to sand the porch railings; I am Superman. I sand happily, assiduously, and by conservative estimates only three times as long as necessary. Eventually even Quincy Jones would pronounce the railing appropriately smooth. Reluctantly, I give up the tool. But no man or woman can make me give up my memories.

I am still a little light-headed from the glory (or is it the turpentine?) when I move on to my next task: housepainter. Every board surrenders to my brush; the stepladder rises up to meet me. I have not taken an idle step in three hours. I begin to imagine myself indispensable. There's the dinner bell, and no man more deserving than I. I eat well.

I return from dinner to find a 10-year old girl perched happily on my ladder. She is finishing up my job, and quite adequately, I might add. How precocious! But I cannot deny her grace with the paintbrush. Which goes to show, I suppose, the place of pride on a Habitat build.

It is late Saturday morning when I return to the site: I played hooky on Friday and went to Happy Hour instead. I am hung over to begin with, and hearing that the crew worked until 10pm last night laying carpet only compounds my guilt. I crouch sheepishly on the sidewalk, staring down at freshly laid sod -- sod laid while I dreamt happily of butterflies and marmalade and last night's margaritas. Sigh. It is not long before a site leader finds me and sets me to work pruning trees. Penance, I suppose. But it is simple, almost elegant work, and I am suitably occupied until lunchtime.

The lunch call finds me talking with A.B. Davis, underpinning chieftan and "stipend volunteer" with Habitat for Humanity. I am unclear on the details, but believe that stipend volunteer translates roughly as indentured servant. A.B. confides in me that what we are building is not a house, but a spaceship. What's more, it's set for lift-off on Sunday. A four-bedroom drywall and stucco spaceship? Why not? His friend Rebecca shakes her head. She doesn't like the aerodynamics. It will never fly. A.B. grins. Perhaps he knows something we don't.

A.B. has been working like a horse all week, often on the most unappealing jobs -- the dirty and unsung particulars of getting a house built right. He's sore, he's tired, and he's not paid beans, but he's grinnin' like a 'possum eating sweet potatoes. What gives? Why does he do it? "Love," he says. "Faith. Community. Connection."

I sit down to a lunch of cheese enchiladas, rice, and beans provided courtesy of Chuy's. I've been eating well all week -- food has been donated by Schlotszky's, Trudy's, and Sugar's Uptown Cabaret, among others -- but today I've worked up a powerful and particular thirst, and I can't help but wish that the Budweiser folks had seen fit to back up a truck for the cause. (On second thought, I suppose that my penchant for a mid-task brew goes a long way towards explaining the way the fence in my backyard looks. The folks at Habitat face a big enough challenge building a house with an all-volunteer construction crew -- they don't need them drunk besides.)

After a second helping of enchiladas, I fall in with the baseboard crew. It's my first job inside the house, and I feel like I'm in heady company indeed. My task is to putty the tiny nail holes that pepper the baseboards, and I have no illusions about the job's significance -- it is absolutely essential. For a short while it's just me, my thoughts, and my tub of Dap Vinyl Spackling, but presently I am joined by another volunteer. Just like that, I am leading my own two-person baseboard spackling crew. It's a thrilling moment. My charge is named Paula Middleton; she is a friendly, talkative woman and a future Habitat homeowner to boot. Her house, currently under construction in another neighborhood, is being built according to the same plan as the Pennsylvania house, and for the first time Paula is able see what her future home will look like. She stops work every once in a while to gaze out a window. "It's amazing," she says.

The house dedication on Sunday is a truly emotional event. The Alvarez family is gathered on their new front porch, and it is safe to say that Manuel Alvarez is not the only one who is fighting back tears. Speeches are made and the house is blessed; a ceremonial hammer is passed from Maria Alvarez to Habitat's next homeowner, Elizabeth Zamora. Volunteers are thanked and a few gifts exchanged before the house is opened up for a tour. I go inside and poke around a bit. It is a fine-looking house indeed.

Outside, I ask Pat Horne, site leader and tireless Habitat volunteer, if he plans to be on a new site next Saturday. Not this time, he responds. He's got two houses of his own to build and a backlog of projects on his property to undertake. He hasn't had a Saturday off all year. The cobbler doesn't have time for his own shoes.

Back in the house, 10-year old Braulio is showing me his bedroom, and then his parents' room. He is testing out the windows, playing with the bathroom sink. "Go ahead," someone tells him. "It's yours."

No matter how insignificant my contribution, I know that every time I pass 1901 Pennsylvania I will look with satisfaction upon the house. There on the front, second panel from the bottom, is the siding I helped to tack, and made sure it was level. And that outside trim, so lovingly painted -- my work, in part. And the Alvarez family may never know it, but never has such care been poured into a baseboard spackling job as Paula and I managed on that last Saturday. But more importantly, there is the house that hundreds of volunteers, most working harder than I, built in just over a week. And there is the house where the Alvarez family will start a new life, their hopes fulfilled by the promise of faith in action, a 20-year loan, and one damn stubborn staplegun.

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