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HomeNewsArchivesHabitat for Humanity Starts First Project on Island

Habitat for Humanity Starts First Project on Island

April 5, 2005 – Bright and early Saturday morning, a group of about 20 people met in a neighborhood above All Saints Cathedral. As they stood and surveyed the lot before them, 15 years of overgrowth, neglect and garbage stared back. All at once they got to work — with rakes, machetes, and with their bare hands — tearing through the weeds and removing garbage to uncover what was hidden underneath.
They discovered a foundation and four main walls which, once they undergo some major reinforcement, will serve as the beginning of the first Habitat for Humanity home in the Virgin Islands.
But this story doesn't really begin with a weekend lot clean-up, and if Matt Allen has his way, it certainly won't end there, either. Allen is the president of the board of Habitat for Humanity of the U.S. Virgin Islands, an affiliate that in these early stages is still gaining the footing enjoyed by Habitat for Humanity in other parts of the world.
Allen moved to St. Thomas in December 2002 as a partner in the investment firm Clearwater Consulting Concepts. He had worked with Habitat in Georgia, and shortly after his arrival, he started wondering what it would take to form an affiliate here.
"I spoke with the Jacksonville, Fla., office. They told me building a house is nothing compared to building an affiliate," said Allen, who wasn’t deterred by what he found out. "I tend to have starry eyes."
According to the website www.habitat.org, Habitat builds and rehabilitates simple houses with the help of the homeowner families. Habitat houses are sold to families at no profit and financed with no-interest loans. The homeowners' monthly mortgage payments are used to build more Habitat houses. The organization relies on volunteer labor and donated materials. Homeowners are required to invest 400 hours of labor, called "sweat equity," into building their homes.
Allen knew if he had a strong board of directors behind him, he would have a good start, so he got in touch with Dee Brown at Community Foundation Virgin Islands. "She was invaluable. She helped direct me, she gave me a large list of people, and that's how I think we got started so quickly."
Twelve board members were selected and started meeting quietly a year ago. Now they are ready to go public. "For the past year we've been building up steam," said Allen. "We're basically trying to start a construction company, a mortgage company, a development company and a not-for-profit."
There are also several committees: construction, family support, family selection, site selection, church relations, development and administration. So far they've raised $50,000 and have had lots of services donated.
The response to Habitat has been overwhelmingly positive so far. "A lot of people said there's a large tradition here of people helping out their neighbors, but nothing so organized," says Allen.
Allen, the board and other volunteers found out just how strong that tradition is when they got started on the first Habitat property Saturday, two small lots big enough for one house on Adelle Gade.
"Most of the neighbors were incredible. They were helping us out, providing electricity; the guy across the street said he would cart garbage off the following day. They said they would keep an eye on the lot," says Allen. "We talked at length with the neighbors. They started jumping in and helping out on the site."
The volunteers pulled out pieces of cars, appliances, plastic jugs and every imaginable kind of garbage. A driver with a dump truck from Serenity Builders made trip after trip to the dump. By the afternoon, they had cleaned up enough to start thinking about the design and getting permits.
One major challenge is cost. An average Habitat house in the U.S. is $50,000. Here it will be $110,000, Allen said. Not to mention insurance, which he estimated could be as much as half of the mortgage payment.
"We want to make sure the buildings are safe and affordable. The majority of the house will be masonry. We also want to use volunteer labor, and that's tough with masonry. We're evaluating foam form concrete which is very volunteer friendly," he said.
Application guidelines are in place, but Habitat hasn't started taking them yet. Family selection will be based on three criteria: 1. The family must be willing to partner with Habitat for Humanity, 2. They must meet the minimum and maximum income requirements and be able to meet the mortgage payment, and 3. There must be a need.
"That doesn't mean they don't currently own a home," Allen said. "It means there is an issue with the current living environment." Board and committee members will personally visit where applicants are living.
The most important thing with Habitat is to remember that this is just the beginning, Allen said.
"We're trying to not have a short-term view. It's a long process. A good example is the Jacksonville affiliate. They started off with one house. The next year they built three. Now they build 300 houses a year," he said. "You've got to build it up."
To find out more, or to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity of the Virgin Islands, call Matt Allen at 774-1961.

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