Storm clouds again
Thursday afternoon and the weather forecast called for rain over the weekend.
At some point, there might be torrential downpours, followed by plagues of locusts and other Biblical-style doom.
With my month with Habitat for Humanity winding down, I’d planned to go out to the job site to meet one or more of Habitat’s ownership partners. These were people who’d signed on for the home building program and were spending time helping to build a house, but the weather in June in Charleston is beautiful until it isn’t and the folks at Habitat for Humanity don’t pick fights with Mother Nature.
Hanging gutters or digging ditches in a thunderstorm is always a bad idea.
Friday afternoon, Trevor Anderson, the Volunteer and Communications manager at Habitat for Humanity of Kanawha and Putnam, called and left a message that before I went out to the work site, I should check the hotline to make sure the job was still on.
But Friday night things looked good for the next day. Live on the Levee went off without a hitch. Here Come the Mummies, a fun, but very weird soul and funk band from Nashville, entertained a huge crowd without a single drop of rain falling.
Saturday morning, the skies looked gray and ominous, but I got in a couple of miles running at Coonskin Park, preparation for the Spartan Race in August, and still nothing more than a drop or two.
I called the hotline. Tiny Hanshaw, the site manager, was on the machine. He confirmed the job was a go and reminded everyone not to wear open-toed shoes or sandals to the job site.
But when I got out there, nobody was around. The street around the Habitat job site was empty. The tool shed was locked and all the doors to the program houses were closed.
I didn’t see a soul.
A few days later, I stopped in and Tiny told me, “Nobody showed up.”
Tiny was there at 8 a.m. and so was one of the program participants, but the volunteer group scheduled to work hadn’t materialized.
Tiny sighed and said, “That happens sometimes.”
When you rely on volunteer label, you get what you get, I guess.
So, he and the program participant did some work that morning and then called it a day before lunch.
Taking a look at the paperwork
While I was through hammering nails, I spent some time looking a the 12-page program application, which was an application for a mortgage.
Over the phone, Trevor explained that there’s a common misconception about Habitat for Humanity houses.
“People think we’re just giving away houses,” he said. “We’re not.”
It’s a sweetheart deal, but you’re buying the house.
Between the zero percent interest and the low cost of building the place, the monthly payment was relatively cheap.
Trevor told me not to quote him on how much, because he didn’t have all the figures in front of him, but I was envious.
It was less than what I paid for a sweaty, two-bedroom basement apartment that became a moldy, toxic waste dump when the sump pump in the backyard quietly failed.
It was much less than the house I rented that had an ancient furnace that thumped and thudded like a Volkswagen bug being dropped down an elevator shaft every time the heat kicked on.
“The monthly payment is much less than what most of the people are paying for rent,” Trevor acknowledged.
And, of course, you own it. It’s a brand-new house.
In order to get a house from Habitat, you have to submit to the same kind of nitpicking scrutiny that goes into getting a mortgage.
If you have great credit and a steady job, getting a mortgage is probably a walk in the park.
Memories of a mortgage
My mortgage was agonizing. At one point, the lender told me I needed to write a letter explaining why I’d defaulted on paying $16 for a CD from the Columbia House Tape and CD Club.
Columbia House’s deal was you could get so many CDs, records or tapes for a penny plus shipping, if you agreed to buy so many CDs, records or tapes over a couple of years.
Not knowing any better, I signed up for the service, more than once, and always came to regret it.
Apparently, in the early 2000s, the club mailed me a copy of a Weezer record.
Weezer is an alternative rock band that survived past the grunge and college rock years of the 1990s. They’ve done well. Their last notable hit was a cover of Toto’s “Africa,” which made it to number one on the alt rock chart just last year.
But I’ve never purposely bought a Weezer record in my life and in order to move the lending process forward, I had to explain to a loan officer why I hadn’t paid for the record I didn’t even have.
To smooth things over, I had to write a check to the then-bankrupt music company in hopes they would wipe the mark off my record.
This kind of thing went on for months.
Trevor said the applicant’s credit didn’t have to be perfect but couldn’t be terrible. Once you made it through a couple of rounds of approvals, you had to agree to work 250 hours helping to build houses with Habitat.
“A married couple would work 500 hours,” Trevor said. “We call this sweat equity.”
You also have to attend Master Homeowner Classes, one night a week, for nine weeks.
“They learn about the basic electrical and basic plumbing,” he said. “You learn what to do if you have a leaky toilet and how much it can cost you if you don’t fix a leak.”
There’s also a separate set of classes about saving and managing finances called “Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University.”
The whole process from approval to getting the house takes about 18 months, Trevor said. Occasionally, someone will power through it in a little over a year. Every once in a while, it can take longer than 18 months.
Life happens, he said. People get sick or something goes wrong.
“Usually, everything is fine as long as everyone makes their 16-hour per month minimum requirement to help build,” Trevor said.
That’s really only two Saturdays a month.
Why all the hassle?
There was a practical reason behind all the requirements.
Trevor said it wasn’t just about getting people in need places to live. It was about putting people in homes who could maintain and keep them.
If you can’t keep up with the maintenance or the mortgage, eventually the bank or the elements are going to take your house.
Trevor said Habitat often gets requests for applications, but they don’t see a lot of those same applications returned, filled out.
“I’m sad to say, but a lot of people don’t want to do the work,” he said. “We get desperate for applicants. We’re desperate now.”
It frustrates and disappoints them, but Trevor said they keep looking for people willing to accept help that isn’t a handout.
As is often the case, what I set out to learn isn’t always what I end up learning. Through this month, I became a little more comfortable with a few power tools and maybe a little more confident in my ability to make a few, modest repairs on my home.
I don’t think I’ll be rewiring anything.
But I’d also like to attend a couple of Habitat’s homeowner education classes. Things break. It would be nice to fix some of them.
I didn’t really know much about how Habitat worked when I began. I’d looked at the home building program as something akin to a modern-day barn raising, but it was a lot more complicated than that.
My main takeaway from the time spent with Habitat was it made me think about my future.
I think about retirement sometimes. It’s a distant thing, to be sure, but I wonder what I’m supposed to do when I get there?
Unlike some of my friends, I don’t have any hobbies or passions I’ve neglected in favor of a dull, but lucrative, career. I’ve been lucky. I wanted to be a writer and managed to find work writing.
Someone might have mentioned the money, though.
Being at rest seems alien to me, but the volunteers I met Tuesdays at the Habitat job site gave me hope that I don’t have to squander my later years playing Nintendo and watching the all Netflix shows I missed.
Nearly all of the volunteers had worked in one kind of office or another. Coming out Tuesdays to tote wheelbarrows and hammer nails was a way to sample a path they hadn’t chosen. It was also a way to give back, while spending time with old and new friends.
They were also all learning new things.
Tiny told me he liked when one of the volunteers told him they’d used something they’d learned on the jobsite in their own home.
“Maybe it saved them a little money,” he said.
Every volunteer I spoke with told me how much they valued being there, how much it meant to them to do the work, which was work toward the good.
I could hardly think of a better plan for my later years. At the very least, it had been a pretty good way to spend your average Tuesday.