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Disability Action Center NW

‘A hand up, not a hand out’

photo by Geoff Crimmins

By Alysen Boston, Daily News staff writer, Jun 30, 2018

As housing costs continue to rise, families on the Palouse are feeling the crunch as they try to secure their own slice of the American Dream.

Jennifer Wallace, executive director of Palouse Habitat for Humanity, said her group’s mission is to eliminate poverty housing – a phenomenon where people with low incomes are forced to live in unsafe or unsanitary conditions because there are no affordable options.

“We believe we are best serving our neighbors in need by helping to provide secure, affordable shelter for them,” Wallace said. “It’s becoming more and more challenging to afford a home of your own or even finding a decent place to rent.”

Whitman County consistently ranks the poorest in Washington state, with 30 percent of the population below poverty level, according to U.S. Census data. Pullman’s rental prices for four-bedroom units have increased as much as six percent since 2010, according to a June 7 Daily News article. Latah County’s poverty level is at 22.4 percent, but Moscow’s rent prices have only increased slightly since 2010, staying consistent with inflation.

Palouse Habitat works mostly with families who make between 30 and 60 percent of the area’s median income. Wallace said that percentage covers households that are slightly below and slightly above the poverty line.

“For folks in this income range, there are a lot of destabilizing factors, and housing is a critical one,” Wallace said. “Once you stabilize the housing – once you have adequate space, an affordable rent – then you start to see other unstable elements in their lives improve.”

The Palouse-area affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International was founded in 1992, and Wallace became the organization’s director in 2007. Since she arrived, Habitat has built a home a year for residents in need on the Palouse.

“I really hope we can grow to building two a year, but that’s a big leap because it costs us $125,000 to build a house,” Wallace said.

The group also offers a home repair program, where they work with low-income homeowners to repair steps and decks, seal doors and windows and add temporary or permanent accessibility ramps, thereby improving the quality of life for the home’s residents. Habitat has partnered with Disability Action Center Northwestand Moscow Lions to make the repairs.

Dave Ostrom, Habitat’s safety officer and construction project manager, said seeing poverty housing on the Palouse, most commonly in the form of aging mobile home parks, drives his work with Habitat.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could figure out a way to solve that problem, to give people decent housing that uses less energy and let them live with dignity?” Ostrom said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

When selecting a family to build a home for, Wallace said Habitat evaluates applicants on three factors: need, ability to pay and ability to partner. Once a home is built for a family, the family is required to meet a monthly mortgage payment to Habitat, typically over a 20 to 30 year period.

“One of the things that is really central to Habitat’s core is that we are a hand up, not a hand out,” Wallace said.

Ability to partner means the family is able to volunteer 300 to 400 hours to help build their home alongside the group’s other volunteers.

In addition to home building and repair, Habitat runs a surplus store, where they sell new and used building materials donated to the organization at half their retail price or less.

“One of our main purposes is to give people an opportunity to do their own repairs in a reasonable budget,” Wendy Lawrence, assistant store manager, said.

The surplus store offers paint, furniture, electrical and plumbing equipment, tile and flooring, among other things, and it is staffed mainly by volunteers.

“Without them, it would be impossible,” Lawrence said.

Volunteers are also critical to build site success, Ostrom said. In an average year, 300 volunteers put in over 3,000 hours to build a Habitat house, he said, saving thousands in building costs.

“We want our volunteers to come out to the build site and have such a good time that they want to come back,” Ostrom said. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

Since Habitat is a Christian organization, one of its goals is to provide Christians – and people of any creed, or none at all – an opportunity to express their faith by serving others, Wallace said.

“The volunteers are serving the homeowners, but Habitat is serving the volunteers by allowing them a meaningful way to give,” Wallace said. “Humans are made and meant to take care of each other, to serve each other. This is one way to do it.”

To donate to or volunteer with Habitat, visit their website at palousehabitat.org, their offices at 304 N. Main St. in Moscow, or call (208) 883-8502.