Veterans Build Program
Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity offers veterans “a hand up, not a handout.”
Photos by Sarah Jordan McCaffery
For 32 years, Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity (MVHH) has been helping the region’s economically disadvantaged families become homeowners. And in 2015, the nonprofit, a local affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, launched a Veterans Build program after its executive director, Randy Larson, attended a Habitat for Humanity conference in Worcester promoting Veterans Build. It is nearing the end of its first project under the program at 124-126 Phillips Street in Lawrence, which broke ground in November 2015.
“This is the first Veterans Build project, but it won’t be our last,” says Larson. Since 1985, MVHH has built 92 homes, with six currently under construction—two of which are part of the Veterans Build projects. And this summer the nonprofit will have built its 99th and 100th dwellings when it breaks ground on a project in Salisbury that includes three duplexes, for a total of six homes. If MVHH can acquire additional land adjacent to the Salisbury property, two more duplexes could be added, for a total of 10 homes. Out of those homes, at least one will be a Veterans Build, Larson says.
“Moving north into our footprint of Salisbury, volunteer outreach and support is going to grow,” says Jennifer Hilton, MVHH director of marketing and volunteerism, adding that between all the volunteers at MVHH, including those who volunteer at Lawrence’s nonprofit ReStore—full of gently used furniture, kitchenware, and appliances—roughly 30,000 hours of volunteer work is accomplished per year. The 17,000-square-foot home emporium, has been in existence for five years and makes enough in sales to build a house a year, Larson says.
MVHH technically serves 22 communities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but so far it has only been building in three of those communities—Lawrence, Haverhill, and Methuen. The nonprofit is currently looking in other areas, and its site acquisition committee has sites under consideration in Andover and Newburyport.
“It’s not easy to acquire land, because of competition,” says Larson. “Habitat has to work a little harder to acquire land we can afford.”
Hilton adds that there are, however, a variety of ways in which MVHH acquires land, including through donations from both individuals and businesses that have extra unused land.
“We always just want to keep enough [land] in the pipeline to keep up with projects,” Larson says.
In the case of the Phillips Street project, MVHH found out about the land from the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center (VNOC) in Haverhill in what Larson calls “a delightful coincidence,” because it was right around the same time that he attended the veterans build conference in Worcester, which had excited Larson because of how much traction the program was getting nationally. On the national level, Veterans Build has been around for several years and is a very popular concept, Larson says.
Made possible through a partnership that includes MVHH, VNOC, The Department of Veterans’ Services, the Women Veterans’ Network of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and local veteran service officers, and with the support of a 2015 grant of $100,000 awarded by the Cummings Foundation, the Phillips Street project successfully came to fruition. Additional financial support was provided by the Abbot and Dorothy H. Stevens Foundation, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Berkshire Bank Foundation, the Catherine McCarthy Trust, Charlesbank Homes, the Highland Street Foundation, the Home Depot Foundation, the Rogers Family Foundation, the Smith Purdon Fund, and the TD Charitable Foundation.
Next came the process of selecting families to live in the two new homes—a process that is the same for both projects that are under Veterans Build and those that are not. To get the word out, MVHH family services manager Roxanna Mota makes flyers, takes out ads in newspapers, makes radio announcements, and spreads the word around neighborhood churches. Then an informational meeting about the project is held. Most of the people, Mota says, who come to the meeting take an application. It takes about a month to apply, including background checks.
For Isidoro Velazquez, one of the veteran homeowners at the Phillips Street project, a VNOC employee told him about the program, after which MVHH and VNOC went to his current residence, where he rents, to check out the conditions and see if he would qualify. Families are interviewed in their home, where MVHH will look for anything structurally wrong, including a malfunctioning heating system, leaks, etc.
To be eligible, a family must be first-time home buyers and meet three requirements: financial need (they must earn between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area median income), situational need, and a willingness to partner, Hilton says. Families must provide between 350 and 360 hours of “sweat equity” over the course of construction, which usually takes about 18 months. This replaces any down payment. Families then pay the closing costs on the home and are set up with a 25-year mortgage at 0 percent interest.
Velazquez, who will be living at Phillips Street along with his wife of 12 years, Ordalisa Mercedez Gomez, and their 18-year-old son, will volunteer 360 hours. 68-year-old Velazquez, who is a Puerto Rico native and a U.S. Army veteran, served in Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic for two years. He says that once he is in the new home, he may retire from work but will continue to volunteer with MVHH.
The Phillips Street homes will include off-street parking, laundry hookups, and a yard, perfect for Velazquez’s son, who has autism. She adds that these homes would typically go for between $400,000 and $425,000 in Lawrence, but they are being delivered to families at roughly $125,000 to $150,000.
Occupying the second Phillips Street home will be Joseph Maldonado, who served for over 20 years in the U.S. Army Reserve in Puerto Rico, will live in the second Phillips Street home along with his wife, Diana Santos, and their two sons.
“This is what my wife and I always dreamed about,” says Maldonado, adding that they tried to buy a home in Puerto Rico, but with the economic situation being what it is, that didn’t work out. So the two moved here, almost four years ago now.
“In Puerto Rico, there isn’t as much help for veterans as there is here,” says Maldonado. “You don’t see the kindness there that people have shown in Massachusetts toward veterans.”
Santos came first, and then Joseph followed, both obtaining jobs through the assistance of Valleyworks Career Center in Lawrence. That’s when Maldonado’s VA representative told him about Veterans Build.
“My VA rep kept telling me, ‘You’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it,’ but I didn’t think we would because we had only been here a few years,” says Maldonado. “[But] every positive thing keeps happening; everything is falling together,” adds Maldonado, who was approved for the project, along with Velazquez, in March/April 2016 and will also volunteer 360 hours at Phillips Street.
Veterans have been a part of this build from the start, in every way possible, Larson says. But volunteers come in all forms, from teenagers (you must be 16 years old to volunteer) with no experience to skilled professionals.
“The people who show up to build often have more skills than they realized,” Larson says. “Most of our volunteers, once they roll up their sleeves, are surprised as to what they can do.”
Building occurs on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, generally between 8:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. “We like to build for the whole day. That way volunteers have the full-day experience,” says Hilton.
Sometimes contractors will either donate services or provide them at a reduced rate, Hilton says. For this project, MVHH has a great partnership with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which wired both Phillips Street properties as a donation.
“The Veterans Build [project] had a great response rate, because people wanted to help those who had served their country,” Larson says.
MVHH’s strategic goal, Larson says, is to build five homes per year, with one of those being a Veterans Build home. “As we move along, I’d like to have one each year,” says Larson, who adds that MVHH wants to continue to partner with VNOC. “It just makes sense to keep it going.”
“Families, communities, businesses all come together. It has been a very touching experience,” Hilton adds. “It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.”
On Saturday, May 20, MVHH will hold its Annual Building and Dreams Gala, honoring the two families and the completion of the Phillips Street Veterans Build project, in which occupancy is slated for June after it passes any necessary inspections and obtains an occupancy permit. Then the papers can be signed, Larson says, and the keys handed over, something the families are very much looking forward to.
“I just can’t wait to be in our house,” says Maldonado. “I hope this will open doors for other veterans.”
“This is a blessing for my brothers, all my [fellow] veterans,” Velazquez adds. “I’m happy about that.”
Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity