If she wanted to use the microwave, the lights and TV had to be off. The bathroom was so cramped that she couldn’t stand upright in the tub. The bedrooms were arranged so her three sons had to walk through her room to get to their rooms.
Elizabeth Thompson desperately wanted a better place for herself and her boys, but the three-bedroom apartment was what she could afford, and she felt lucky to have it.
Then she connected with Habitat for Humanity Quad-Cities, and her life changed. Her sons’ lives changed, too.
Not overnight, however. The process of applying and qualifying for the home took about two years. But Thompson finally had hope. And when she moved into her three-bedroom home on top of “the hill” in Moline during December 2002, she was beside herself.
Stories such as Thompson’s have been repeated numerous times over the years as Habitat, a Christian housing organization with chapters all over the world, has built and sold to qualified buyers 76 houses in the Quad-Cities, with an additional four under construction.
When the Quad-City chapter celebrates its 20th anniversary in April, those involved can point in many directions to its impact: families, volunteers, cities and neighborhoods.
People such as Thompson live in decent homes. Of those that have been completed, 71 still are occupied by a partner family (original or replacement), one that was foreclosed was sold to a low-income family involved in another program and four have been paid off.
Cities have new properties on their tax rolls. In 2012, property taxes on Habitat homes amounted to $91,835 among the cities of Davenport ($33,286), Rock Island ($25,280), Moline ($18,094) and East Moline ($15,175).
Neighborhoods have changed. In its early years, Habitat built wherever it could get vacant lots — mostly abandoned properties donated by cities — in a scattershot approach. In recent years, there has been an emphasis on clustering houses in an area where there can be more of an effect on a neighborhood, said Kristi Crafton, the chapter’s executive director.
The neighborhood approach began in Rock Island, where Habitat built eight homes in an under-used park.
The second to be completed was the home “built in a day” for Travis Hearn, a Rock Island High School football player who was paralyzed from the neck down after being injured during a game in 2006.
That was the project that put Habitat “on the map” for people in the Quad-Cities, Crafton said.
Until then, the organization quietly had been building homes and was up to a total of 46, but it still was not widely known.
“No one knew we were here,” Crafton said. “And we couldn’t get people to support us if they didn’t know we existed.”
News coverage of the 24-hour build changed that.
In addition, the project pulled in 4,000 volunteers — including planners and behind-the-scenes personnel — and it is from this pool that the organization built its current volunteer base.
“Eighty percent of them have come back in some way or another, either by donating or volunteering,” Crafton said.
Part of community
Another neighborhood now under construction is in the area of East 6th Street, Tremont Avenue and Charlotte Street in Davenport.
Three of nine homes either already built or under construction there will be sold to people who are legal immigrants or refugees to the U.S. The first international partner family connected with Habitat in 2009, and once word spread, “we got lots and lots of applicants,” Crafton said. “They are a regular part of who we serve now.”
In this sense, Habitat has become part of the Quad-City resettlement effort, helping people from other countries become connected to, and contributing members of, the community.
“We teach, we educate,” Crafton said. “It’s very purposeful. We introduce partner families (buyers) to a new world, new community.”
In moving from poverty to middle class, there are values, ethics, even rules of grammar that go along with the ascent. By being around the volunteers, that knowledge is passed on.
Cities see positive effect
Of the 80 homes built or under construction, 42 are in Davenport, 20 in Rock Island, 10 in Moline and eight in East Moline.
City leaders are pleased with the effect the organization has had.
“Many times, it spurs renovation to adjoining houses,” Moline Mayor Don Welvaert said of Habitat builds. “People say, ‘Maybe I should paint my porch, maybe I should get new siding, maybe I should get a new roof. I’ve seen that. It’s not just idle words.”
East Moline Mayor John Thodos agreed. “Anytime you can put a brand-new home in a more mature neighborhood ... the trend is that other people start to put money into fixing up.”
Rock Island Alderman Terry Brooks said the impact in the neighborhood of the former Hearn house has been “amazing.”
Promoting home ownership as opposed to renting is always a goal because it leads to neighborhood stability, said Bruce Berger, senior manager in the city of Davenport’s Community and Economic Development Department.
Another city goal is to “fill in the missing teeth” on blocks where homes have been removed, and this is Habitat’s “bread and butter,” said Roy DeWitt, the neighborhood services specialist for the city of Davenport.
Thousands of Quad-City volunteers
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Another effect of the organization is the unknown effect it has had on the literally thousands of Quad-Citians who have volunteered: the skills they’ve learned, the people they’ve met, the different world they’ve seen.
One would be hard-pressed to find an organization with a net that has caught more people than Habitat.
Its volunteer roster stands at 5,100 individuals, and that does not count church members who make meals for workers, college students or area employers who schedule workdays as team-building exercises.
Max Wolf, 20, now a college student in Maine, credits Habitat with opening his eyes to the financial struggle of many families in the Quad-Cities.
Criticism about ‘poor people’
Habitat has experienced criticism and bumps in its path.
n Poor people criticism: Occasionally, the organization gets criticized for bringing poor people to various cities. That is true in the sense that the average Habitat family makes between $22,500 and $30,000, depending upon the number of children.
“But we’re talking poor, hard-working people,” Crafton said.
It’s a common misconception that Habitat builds homes and then gives them away, but that is not the case. Families pay a mortgage. To qualify, they must be working at jobs that give them the ability to pay.
“This is an opportunity,” Crafton said. “You don’t get this for free. They (the people buying them) are not sitting on their butt waiting for a welfare check.”
n Unsympathetic construction: Habitat’s first homes were one-story, a design that did not complement older neighborhoods. That has changed. Nowadays, Habitat has three different interior floor plans and as many as 20 different exterior finishes. It builds both one- and two-story homes.
“We’ve learned how to handle that better,” Crafton said. “We don’t want people going around saying, ‘Oh, that’s a Habitat house.’ ”
n Getting too big: Habitat began in a “closet” at the Martin Luther King Center in Rock Island and operated for many years out of a converted house in Bettendorf. In 2012, it moved to new offices and a warehouse facility it purchased and renovated for $760,000 next to Habitat ReStore, the resale shop off Kimberly Road at Mississippi Avenue in Davenport.
At least one Davenport resident questioned the expense, writing in a letter to the Quad-City Times that the organization was forgetting its original vision.
Crafton vigorously defends the move, explaining how the agency’s Bettendorf location was so cramped that not everyone had a desk. The new location has space for partner-family classes and committee and board meetings, and it has a kitchen for making meals, when necessary, to feed the work crews.
The adjoining warehouse allows the organization to accept large, in-kind donations that are made available through the international organization, resulting in significant per-house savings, she said.
In the Quad-Cities, Habitat has six full-time employees and an annual budget of $1.3 million. The percentage of the budget that goes to administrative overhead (salaries, utilities) is 5.3 percent, meaning that for every dollar raised, more than 94 cents goes directly into house-building, Crafton said. The Quad-City average for administrative overhead is 12 percent to 13 percent, she said. The difference is the volunteers.