Theresa Gerlach sits in the sunny reception area of the new offices of Habitat for Humanity’s Lincoln/Lancaster County chapter. Habitat moved into the single-story gray building with white shutters in June 2017.
The offices look like a house, and sitting behind the reception desk, Gerlach feels at home, though she’s only been the office manager for a few months. This is not the first space built by Habitat that Gerlach has settled into. In 2002, she and her husband, Gary, and their six children moved into a Habitat home.
“We had rented a home for 15 years,” Gerlach said. “When we first started renting, we had two kids and a baby. Later we had six kids. The landlord passed away, and we needed to find a new place. We’d always wanted a home of our own.”
Gary had heard about Habitat, and the family applied and was selected. Their home was built in partnership with the Lincoln Home Builders Association. Habitat relies on volunteer labor, along with financial support and material donations from groups like the Home Builders Association, churches, Thrivent Financial, schools, and numerous other businesses and organizations to make homeownership attainable for families like the Gerlachs.
“I see people get their dreams,” Gerlach said of her new role with Habitat. “I remember that feeling that sometimes it seems just out of reach.”
Local newspaper article led to forming Habitat
In February, Habitat will celebrate its 30th year in the community with a Raise the Roof Celebration at the Creekside Event Barn in Roca. In 1988, the then Lincoln Journal published an article about the lack of affordable housing in the community. That story spurred a group of citizens to meet in a church basement and form the Lincoln/Lancaster County chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Later that year, the chapter broke ground on its first home at 2109 Clinton St. Over the next 30 years, the organization has built or repaired 154 homes for 720 area residents.
Last month, Habitat raised the walls of its 155th build in Lincoln/Lancaster County.
“We have aggressive plans for 2018,” said Executive Director Josh Hanshaw, including six new builds as well as four home-repair projects and moving a new family into a refreshed home that was deeded back to the organization.
Habitat homeowners are chosen based on their need for housing, income level and willingness to partner with the organization. Their family income must be below 50 percent of the median income for Lancaster County.
“A lot of people think it’s a free house,” Development Director Christina Zink said. “It’s not a free house. Our recipients work really hard for their homes. The process is both humbling and empowering, and a lot of people don’t know how difficult it is.”
Like most homeowners, Habitat participants must be approved for a mortgage. They must also open their current residences for home visits, meet regularly with a family partner and invest sweat equity in their build or remodel. The number of hours required varies for single or two-parent families and whether the project is a remodel or a new build.
What makes homeownership attainable for the families selected are the affordable mortgages. They pay no interest, and the cost of land is deferred as long as the family lives in their home. Mortgages are broken down into smaller notes, and payments are based on income. Most of the early participants, like the Gerlachs, had 15-year mortgages. Now local Habitat families have 30-year notes. Mortgage payments are recycled into the building fund, which is used to construct and repair homes for more families.
The current version of Habitat was shaped in part by Stephanie Novacek. Novacek, the current executive director at the American Red Cross, was Habitat’s director of development from 2013-15. Before she left, she encouraged both Zink and Hanshaw to apply with Habitat, but she gave them a warning:
“When you get the Habitat bug, it’s hard to get rid of.”
Novacek was right, Zink said.
“I had heard about Habitat, but until I was here I really didn’t understand what happens when you meet these families and work with them to achieve the dream of homeownership,” she said. “I see a lot of joy – a lot of emotion – at the home dedications.”
Habitat is unique, even among nonprofits. Both Hanshaw and Zink have worked with several nonprofit organizations before coming to Habitat. Zink came to Habitat from the Food Bank of Iowa. Hanshaw had worked for children’s museums and hospitals in the Kearney area before becoming Habitat’s executive director in October 2015.
“I was surprised how complex it is,” Hanshaw said. “On any given day, we are a human service agency, a mortgage lender, a construction company and a retail store. That’s what keeps it challenging and interesting.”
Highlights of first 30 years
Looking back at the first three decades, Zink and Hanshaw point to events like the founding of Habitat’s University of Nebraska-Lincoln chapter in 1992, the 1995 visit from Habitat for Humanity International Founders Millard and Linda Fuller, and the first women’s build in 1997. In 2014, the ReStore opened. This home improvement store and donation center at 4630 Y St. sells building materials, appliances, new and gently used furniture, and home accessories at a fraction of retail prices. All proceeds help fund Habitat projects.
Moving into the next 30 years, Hanshaw said one of the biggest challenges will be finding lots. The demand for residential lots is skyrocketing, leaving the organization with few choices and high prices for what is available. Like all homeowners, Habitat families want to build in neighborhoods where their children can play in the yard, and where they can build community with neighbors and be close to schools.
“Those things are important,” Zink said. “These are forever homes.”
Theresa Gerlach is a testament to that. Last August, she paid off the mortgage on the Habitat-built home she still lives in with two sons and a granddaughter. Gary passed away in June, just a few months shy of reaching the milestone with his family.
“It was bittersweet,” Gerlach said. She described how her sons, working alongside their dad in their home, learned home maintenance and remodeling by tiling, painting, replacing toilets, expanding a patio and remodeling a dining room. Two of her sons are now electricians.
“The home has been a really special place,” she said. “It’s where, as a family, we worked together. We did it as a family.”
As they were building their home, Theresa and Gary Gerlach wrote a message on one of the beams:
“Built with love by Habitat.”