Danville Express

Cover Story - June 1, 2007

To build a home

Habitat for Humanity steps forward to help with housing

by Natalie O'Neill

Five kids living in one cramped bedroom. Leaky roofs, mildewed walls, septic tanks in the kitchen, and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner again.

It might sound like a third world country, but in Contra Costa County, one of most expensive places to live nationally, this is what some children come home to.

Here, where the minimum qualifying income to buy a house is $124,777 annually and fair market rent is about $1,300 for a two-bedroom apartment, some families are scraping by in impoverished conditions.

Fortunately, Habitat for Humanity volunteers are helping these families gain a secure, livable place of their own by raising money for affordable housing projects.

"There's a section of the population that you forget about when you get comfortable," says Dorothy McDonald, an Alamo resident who volunteers for Habitat for Humanity.

Intricate, technologically advanced playhouses are on display May 26-June 16 at Alamo Plaza for the organization's upcoming fundraising event. The exhibit will end in an auction to sell the little houses with a reception in the same location. The goal is to raise at least $50,000 for the construction of affordable homes.

Most of these luxury playhouses - a child's fantasy hideout or clubhouse - are electric or solar powered, 10 feet by 10 feet and were built, designed and donated by local architects and companies.

The gap between rich and poor

Ever since an East Bay economic boom hit in the 1990s, incomes have increased 31-67 percent - numbers that suggest all Contra Costa residents benefited on some level from the prosperous shift. But according to county reports and Habitat for Humanity East Bay, the boom only widened the gaping canyon between the desperately poor and the excessively wealthy in the county.

For low income families, housing became harder to find and ends became harder to meet. With the help of Habitat for Humanity, however, some low-income families are now able to buy a house with incomes as low as $33,500 for a family of four.

In Alamo and Danville - where some homeowners have walk-in closets the size of what these families consider their living rooms - volunteers are using their education, their business savvy and strong work ethic to raise money for the cause.

"I really feel, when you give a child their own bedroom, you are touching lives," says event chairwoman Kaylan Riley, an Alamo resident who got involved about six years ago.

The idea to sell playhouses came when a member of the Habitat for Humanity East Bay board of directors, who worked for Pulte Homes, thought constructing small houses would be an appropriate and fun way to raise money for affordable housing.

The playhouses were designed, built and donated by PG&E, Lennar Homebuilders, Centex, the Habitat All Women's Crew and KB Homes. The PG&E home is solar powered, with a modern appearance. A smaller house, put together by the Habitat for Humanity All Women's Crew, is 4 by 6 feet and is a classic Victorian style.

"The faces on the children when they see the playhouses - it's so exciting," says Riley, who helped organize a similar event last year in Blackhawk.

Last year the group raised about $95,000 auctioning off the little houses and the money went to building affordable housing in Antioch. This year, event coordinators hope residents, companies and even schools will bid on the playhouses.

Alamo volunteers

About six years ago, Riley went to her first Habitat for Humanity meeting expecting to sew drapes. Now she does event coordinating for fundraisers all over the county and says she treasures the camaraderie she feels with the other volunteers.

This is the kind of group who is grateful for every minute of help you can give them, she points out.

"We always say: If you can boil water you can work for Habitat. Maybe you can't swing hammers but you can bring sandwiches," she says.

McDonald, who joined the group after her kids graduated high school about a year ago, is an office volunteer but also brings food to events and fundraisers. At McDonald's house, it's not uncommon to find groups of her friends putting together plates of food for the events, laughing and having fun in the process.

"I call up my friends and they come over to my house for appetizer assembly parties," she says.

McDonald got involved after her husband heard the Director of Development for Habitat East Bay speak at a work function. Now she says she's hooked on helping.

"It was love at first sight," she says of organization. "They are such an inspirational group - the energy they bring, I find myself getting more and more involved."

Who gets helped by affordable housing

Isabel Paez, who works directly with the families who benefit from Habitat projects, has seen the impoverished living situations these families survived in - and the way the fundraisers have changed their lives.

"We had a family of six living in a studio apartment with no plumbing or electric," she says. "Others slept with tarps on their beds because their roofs had leaks."

The improvement she has seen in peoples lives and attitudes - particularly the kids - after they have gotten assistance from Habitat for Humanity is remarkable, she says.

"They have more space to do their homework and their grades improve. They are more energetic; they have a back yard to play," says Paez, who has maintained relationships with many of the families.

Some have little education, some are single parents, others have disabled children and they are of all races and backgrounds. Alamo volunteers say they are compassionate because they know bad financial circumstances can hit when people least expect it.

"We've all had friends in compromising financial situations," Riley says.

"I really believe in the pay it forward philosophy," McDonald says. "And what we do is reflected right here in the East Bay."

A kick-off event was held last Saturday, with a barbecue and a coloring contest. The auction itself will begin at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, June 16, and will be preceded by a cocktail reception with music at Xenia Bistro from 4:30-6 p.m. To purchase tickets for the cocktail event or to find out information about volunteering, visit www.habitatEB.org or call (510) 251-6304.

In Alamo and Danville, siblings don't sleep five to a room. Peanut butter sandwiches for dinner are the exception, not the rule. A leaky roof is fixed quickly. And few, if any, families are living in poverty. For Alamo's Habit for Humanity volunteers, this all the more reason to help out those who are.

"It's a ripple effect, you're touching lives," Riley says.


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