August 9, 2020
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If all goes as planned, this recently purchased lot will be the site of a new Habitat for Humanity home in time for the 2020 holidays. Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News

If all goes as planned, this recently purchased lot will be the site of a new Habitat for Humanity home in time for the 2020 holidays. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

Habitat for Humanity Has Land and a Plan to Build in Westbrook

Published Dec. 03, 2019

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After years of searching, Middlesex Habitat for Humanity (MH4H) has purchased land in Westbrook and will embark on plans to build a house.

The parcel of 0.67 acres at 382 Hammock Road North once had a house on it. Visible from the road is a small concrete slab that was likely the foundation of a garage, said MH4H Executive Director Sarah Bird. The parcel is near the intersection of Windy Hill Road.

This will be the first build on the Shoreline for MH4H and was set in motion by a $200,000 grant from the Sturges Redfield Foundation in 2016 to be put toward the building of two houses. That foundation serves Clinton and Westbrook, and as Clinton is outside the service area of MH4H, both houses must be built in Westbrook.

The Sturges Redfield Foundation grant did not pay for the land—that funding came from the Peach Pit Foundation of Durham. More fundraising will be required in order to build the house, said David Evangelisti, president of the MH4H Board of Directors.

Further donations for the Westbrook build will go toward excavating the land, or for wood for the frame, concrete, roof shingles, and other materials. In-kind donations are welcome as well as monetary ones.

‘Simple, Decent, Affordable’

The ranch-style three-bedroom house will be around 1,200 square feet. The organization has a standard plan that it will work from, with adjustments, if necessary—“Simple, decent, affordable housing,” said Evangelisti.

“It’s a hand up, not a hand out,” he said, noting that the new homeowners “have to be employed. And they have to be making between 25 to 60 percent of the median income. They have to be willing to partner with us for” a no-interest or low-interest loan.

The beneficiaries also have to be willing to give between 200 and 400 hours of sweat equity.

“Everyone over the age of 18 puts in 200 hours of sweat equity,” said Bird. “If there’s two adults, that’s 400 hours.”

Included in “those hours there’s also financial education classes,” addressing topics like home budgeting, she continued. “[P]art of the classes that our homeowners will have to take is how to be a good homeowner and the things that you need to do as a homeowner.”

New in Town

The Westbrook home will be the organization’s 15th build or renovation. Previous homes have been constructed in Middletown, Middlefield, East Hampton, and Portland. This will be MH4H’s first build on the shoreline, and the need here is great, said Bird. According to the United Way, the percentage of people designated as living in poverty or as ALICE—asset-limited, income-constrained employed—is 34 percent of Westbrook residents. The percentage in neighboring towns such as Old Saybrook and Clinton is close to that.

At meetings of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, the issue of affordable housing is raised again and again, Bishop said.

“For us to be able to do this as a town is just truly momentous,” he said.

MH4H hopes the start of this project will inspire others to step forward and offer a parcel of land on which to build a second Westbrook home. A donation of land is welcome, but the organization is prepared to pay for it.

“Our hope is that now that we finally have the property and we have the funds to begin a build...[s]omeone else might say, ‘This is a great idea,’” said Bird.

“[W]hat’s on the market now is either too expensive or the price of the property might be less but the development costs are way beyond what we would even consider,” she explained.

A May 2018 town meeting to discuss a proposal for MH4H to build a home on the site of the former Fiske Lane tennis courts was not received well and the organization chose to look for a different site.

Bird was undaunted, believing that once people understand what the organization does, they will see the benefit to the town as well as to the new homeowners.

“I think that any time the words ‘affordable housing’ come up people start to...think of tenement housing in New York City,” she said. “That is not what build. We build affordable homes that look similar to what’s in the neighborhood that we’re building in.”

Habitat’s process of selecting homeowners is likely more stringent than that of a bank, according to Bird.

“Our homeowners have to have recommendations from their current landlords, from their bosses,” she said. “So it’s not just a come in, fill out an application form mortgage, and whoever has the best credit score gets the house. We’re really looking for somebody that can pay back the mortgage, that wants to partner with us, but that’s ready to take that leap into home ownership.”

Ideally, Bird suggested, the homeowners will be people who already have a strong Westbrook connection.

“I personally think Habitat works best have the opportunity to help someone who already has a vested interest in that community, whether they currently live there or they work there, to continue to stay where they want to stay,” she said. “That is when it’s a true home run.

“Habitat is needed everywhere, whether it’s Middletown or whether it’s Westbrook or Essex,” she continued. “Affordable home ownership is something that everybody is in need of.”

It can be an eye-opening experience, Bird said, that someone who was already living or working in the community was struggling.

“[M]aybe they were living in an overcrowded apartment,” she suggested. “Or maybe they were paying rent that was way too expensive for them to afford but that was the only option they had because the options are so limited.”

“That’s our whole objective,” Evangelisti said, “to help eliminate substandard housing in Middlesex County, one family, one house at a time.”

Building a house on an empty lot means that “someone’s going to be paying taxes in Westbrook,” she said, “probably someone with a child that’s now going to be going to school in Westbrook.”

Older people who are trying to sell their homes are meeting with difficulty, as younger families are finding it’s too expensive for them to live in smaller towns.

“So if we are working to bring people back into towns and [become] taxpayers, children going to schools, how is that a negative?” Bird said.

The Months Ahead

In conjunction with the town, MH4H will hold a kick-off meeting and celebration at Town Hall on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. It will be styled as an open house at which residents can talk one-on-one with the organization’s staff, board members, and possibly even homeowners of Habitat houses in the county. People will also have a chance to learn more about volunteer opportunities.

There will be a separate application meeting, most likely in February, for those interested in purchasing the home.

Homeowner Services, the MH4H committee that selects homeowners for the builds, whittles applications down to those who meet the basic requirements, then bases its decision on who has the greatest need, Bird said.

A recent application process came down to a difference of one vote between one family and another, Evangelisti said, a situation that he called “heartbreaking.”

“We not only select the family, but we also continually support them through their time in the house,” he said. What motivates him most is the organization’s ongoing relationship to its homeowners, he added.

Evangelisti, who lives in Essex, predicts that the local community will come out to support the build in their community.

“This is going to be a phenomenal outpouring of support, and of time, town, and treasure and in-kind donations,” he said. “It’s exciting for me, it’s a dream come true, living in the lower valley and knowing the need. I’ve been involved with MH4H since 2006 [and] we’ve never been able to build down here. So it’s an amazing personal goal for me to do something in the lower valley.”

Bishop has been a great support throughout the process, said Bird.

“I truly believe that when your leader is supportive of something it does trickle down,” she said. “From the first moment we’ve walked in here and said, ‘This is what we’d like to do,’ Bishop has wanted to know what he could do to help.

At a meeting the morning of the closing, on Nov. 25, Westbrook Building Official David Maiden walked Bird and Evangelisti through the process of getting permits from the town’s Zoning and Health departments as well as requesting waivers on building, health, and zoning fees. The requests will be presented to the Board of Selectman for approval.

“In most cases, that saves between $3,500 and $4,000,” Maiden said.

MH4H will also seek to waive taxes for the period of time from the organization’s purchase of the land to the transfer of the property to the new owner(s). The savings of around $2,000 will be redirected toward building costs.

Understanding the Need

For Bird, doing this work comes from her need to give back as well as her personal experience with housing insecurity.

“My mother is a recovering drug addict and when I lived with her...there were horrible living conditions that no child should ever live in,” she explained. “So I know what that feels like. I know what it felt like to move in with my father and be able to...have a childhood and spend six years being able to kind of make up for some lost time.

“My husband and I went back to school when we were older,” she continued.

They first lived in expensive housing, but were able to move into campus housing with their daughter.

Once her husband finished his degree, Bird “left the workforce [and] was able to finish my degree. And we were able to do those things because we had access to affordable housing.

“So I look at where I am today, where my children are, and I know it’s because we had access to affordable housing,” she said.

Now that the land has been purchased, there’ll be community outreach, a search for homeowners, and fundraising.

“The goal is to as soon as the ground is thawed and we can start pouring concrete, we’ll be in Westbrook building,” said Bird. “That’s potentially the end of March, early April. It’s Connecticut, you never know. It could be May.

“My hope is that this time next year we’re getting ready to close and have a family home for the holidays,” she said. “If we start as soon as we can it is possible.”

The Westbrook build kick-off meeting and celebration will be held in the multi-purpose room in Town Hall on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, from 5 to 7 p.m.

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