In Mass., Habitat for Humanity affiliate takes on its first 'veterans build'

Veterans builds have become a popular facet of Habitat for Humanity nationwide, supporting veterans by providing housing and employment opportunities for those who have served.

Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal/AP/File
Mark Guttensohn, a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, measures a part on the roof of a project in Memphis, Tenn., in 2012.

Between a triple-decker and a single-family home on Phillips Street in Lawrence, Mass., a new duplex is rising, each piece of plywood nailed into place by a Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity volunteer.

But this isn't a typical Merrimack Valley Habitat build site. It's the affiliate's first "veterans build" – a home built specifically for veterans and their families.

In a project that's been more than a year in the making, construction is now underway at the 124-126 Phillips St. duplex, with volunteers on site three days a week.

Veterans builds are a popular facet of Habitat for Humanity nationwide, supporting veterans by providing housing and employment opportunities for those who have served. The concept got off the ground locally over the past year, bolstered by interest from both Merrimack Valley Habitat and several local veterans organizations and personnel who came together to bring the build to fruition.

"There was demand, there was support. Personally, I love and respect veterans," said Randy Larson, executive director for Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity, noting that his father was in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"My personal interest and affinity in supporting veterans and veterans groups was undoubtedly a factor," he continued. "But our board wanted to do it, funders, other groups, and with the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center helping us acquire the land, that's what really got traction and made it go."

Doing a veterans build has "been on our radar for several years," Larson said.

"This is our first attempt and it won't be our last; it's really popular with volunteers and donors and corporate builds, churches and veterans groups, obviously," he continued.

The Merrimack Valley effort comes on the heels of a completed veterans build in Worcester, Mass., where the MetroWest/Greater Worcester Habitat affiliate renovated an existing building into a home for a Marine Corps veteran, his wife and three sons. That project began in late 2014 and was completed in March, and was officially sold to the family in early April, said Grace Warwick, development coordinator for the MetroWest/Greater Worcester affiliate.

Worcester's veterans build came about as part of "a need to serve our veteran community," Warwick said, a sentiment echoed in the Merrimack Valley.

In general, Habitat for Humanity focuses on veterans housing needs to ease affordability issues. For instance, according to Habitat, nearly 1 million veterans who own homes are "severely cost burdened," despite access to help such as VA loans, while more than 1.5 million veterans' households pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing. Additionally, approximately 1.4 million veterans live in poverty.

To that end, Jaime Melendez, director of Lawrence's veterans services, called Merrimack Valley Habitat's efforts with the veterans build "uplifting." Melendez has been involved in the family selection process for the veterans who will ultimately live in the Phillips Street duplex, and praised the local Habitat affiliate for working so closely with veterans organizations throughout the Merrimack Valley.

"They've done quite a few other homes," Melendez said. "But to do this and to create a homeownership opportunity for a veteran's family right here out of Lawrence I think is amazing."

According to Larson, "it takes three things" to make a Habitat build work: "Land, money and volunteers."

It was a bit serendipitous how Merrimack Valley Habitat acquired the Phillips Street property for its veterans build, in a process that can be traced back to 2008.

In June of that year, the city of Lawrence voted to sell the Phillips Street property to the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center, Inc. (VNOC), in Haverhill, Mass., but the actual transaction didn't occur until 2015.

"Lawrence had sold this to the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center with the understanding they would build housing for veterans," said George Koehler, a member of Merrimack Valley Habitat's board of directors.

Then, Koehler and Larson went to a land auction in Haverhill last year where they were "quickly outbid." On the way out the door, they encountered John Ratka, executive director of VNOC, who said he might have a lot they'd be interested in.

With approval from the city of Lawrence, VNOC sold the land to Merrimack Valley Habitat last October for $6,000.

Throughout the land acquisition process also came the donations. Among them was $100,000 from the Cummings Foundation, a Woburn, Mass.-based organization founded in 1986 by Bill and Joyce Cummings that, through its annual $100K for 100 program, gives grants to organizations in several Massachusetts counties. That funding was announced in May 2015.

Other donors have ranged from the Highland Street Foundation in Newton, Mass., to the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

"I have to admit – I shouldn't be surprised, I guess – but I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised at just how attractive the concept was to funders," Larson said. "So the money was coming in and it was up to us; let's get this thing rolling, let's get started."

While a preliminary groundbreaking had been held for the project during Comcast Cares Day in April 2015, J.W. Watson Jr. Excavating, Inc., officially broke ground on the build on Oct. 14.

From there, the foundation was poured and construction began, with volunteer crews starting to frame the house in March. When completed, the Phillips Street duplex will feature three-bed, one-and-a-half bath units on either side.

Larson and those involved with the project hope to have it completed by Veterans Day on Nov. 11, when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker is expected to come to the site for a ceremony, though Building Director Emerson Dahmen said the build could take eight to nine months. Volunteers work on the various Merrimack Valley Habitat build sites on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

While construction is underway, the family selection process for the veterans and families that will own the duplex is winding down. Initially, seven applications were received for the home, and those families have since been narrowed down to three, with selections expected to be finalized later this month.

"Normally we would get 50 to 60 applications for a Habitat house," Larson said, adding that with the veterans restriction, "we knew there would be fewer."

Once the families are selected, they'll begin their "sweat equity" hours on the house, about 250 to 300 hours of work.

But for now, work is being carried out by volunteers including Tom Knight of Hopkinton, Mass., a member of the "Thursday crew" that typically volunteers at Merrimack Valley Habitat sites.

"It's appropriate that deserving veterans families get an opportunity to be part of a Habitat family of others who have had an opportunity to get a hand up," he said. "That's a very good thing."

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