Houses for Heroes

Mike Gainey gave up the idea of buying a house when he moved his family to central Oregon in 2006 to be closer to his wife’s family. Real-estate prices were so far out of reach that the Desert Storm veteran and his wife resigned themselves to life in a cramped, pricey rental. That’s no longer the case. Today, the Gaineys are one of three veteran families living in new homes because of a partnership between American Legion Stevens-Chute Post 4 in Bend, Ore., and the Bend Area Habitat for Humanity. The alliance intends to make more Oregon veterans homeowners in the near future, and is an inspiration for the new national partnership between The American Legion and Habitat for Humanity, to provide homes for veterans who find homeownership beyond their financial reach, as well as for those stuck in substandard living quarters. “I saw the power of unity and collaboration in the community come alive when we announced the initiative in Bend,” says Jeff Lightburn, commander of Post 4 from 2006 to 2008. “I saw the excitement build when we started helping the young families of veterans who had just come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Virtually everybody in that town got enthusiastic about it.”“This alliance is an opportunity for servicemen and women to volunteer with Habitat and join us to make simple, decent, affordable housing a reality, in partnership with families around the nation and the world,” says Liz Blake, Habitat’s senior vice president of advocacy, government affairs and general counsel.Spontaneous Beginning. The central-Oregon partnership was sparked by a conversation Lightburn, Post 4 Vice Commander Richard Smith and then-Bend Habitat Executive Director David Love had over a cup of coffee in 2007. They started exploring ways of helping area veterans take advantage of Habitat housing programs, Lightburn says.It was the perfect opportunity to meld the complementary talents of two well-established organizations. And Smith, a retired contractor who had worked as a construction manager for the Bend Habitat chapter, seemed the ideal person to make the partnership work in the field. “We checked our egos at the door and stayed focused on the endgame,” Lightburn says. “We were all for one and one for all.” Even with a great team, “it’s not a quick result,” he adds. “You’ve got to put the effort into it.”  The region has an ample number of former servicemembers who can benefit from the Legion-Habitat relationship. “My guess is that at least 20 percent of the veterans are in a situation where they are homeless or in need of more substantial housing,” Love says.Veterans who qualify for homes in Bend are typical of the families that Habitat for Humanity helps. One was jammed into a home too small for the number of children. Another family was losing its rental subsidy and looking for an alternative. The third family was struggling with a rent well beyond its financial means. Such stories are repeated across the country, among everyone from white-collar professionals to returning soldiers. “Depending on where you live in this country, you can be a teacher or a policeman and still not be able to access affordable shelter,” says Desiree Adaway, senior director of volunteer mobilization for Habitat for Humanity International.Still, it can be difficult to get veterans to try to buy Habitat houses. “One of the problems we have is the pride of the American veteran,” Love says. “A lot of them won’t apply for help. They would rather try to get by.”Smith confirms that. “A lot of veterans think that it’s charity. It’s hard to break that. But, as Habitat says, ‘It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.’”Applicants go through a rigorous screening process and are required to take classes on financial management and other aspects of homeownership. They are also required to invest 600 hours of “sweat equity” by helping with other Habitat projects. That investment of time becomes the down payment on their future home. In return, successful applicants receive no-interest loans to purchase well-built, modest houses. Habitat uses the proceeds to construct other homes.A Call to Hammers. As they worked to get veteran applicants in the pipeline, Post 4 and Habitat asked volunteers to donate their labor to help veteran families earn their sweat equity. That included inviting members of the Oregon Army National Guard from the Bend area to join the effort. People from across the community, including firefighters and police officers, also turned out to help. Veterans spanning more than 60 years of military service stepped forward. “We even had one World War II veteran who was out there swinging a hammer,” Gainey says. “It was wonderful to see.” Building the houses “was like an old-fashioned barn-raising,” Lightburn adds. “We’d put out a call to veterans, and everyone would show up. We got it framed and ready to go in very short order.”Gainey added personal touches: extra insulation in the walls and upgraded doors. The home is energy-efficient, with a bank of solar panels that trim $35 to $40 off the family’s monthly electrical bill. “Not only do we see savings in our mortgage, because we aren’t paying any interest, but we also see savings in our energy bill,” he says. “In an area where homes are very expensive, this takes something that is essentially unobtainable and makes it obtainable.”Meanwhile, Legion members organized silent auctions, weekly poker games and other events that raised more than $40,000 to help defray construction costs and lower the veteran families’ house payments. The first “vet build,” as the Legion and Habitat call it, was dedicated July 4, 2008. The most recent home was completed in August 2009. Smith, now commander of Post 4, plans to get the next vet build started in the months ahead.Bend’s program is seen as a model for other Legion-Habitat relationships nationwide. They say if you focus on volunteers, fundraising will follow. “When volunteers come out on the job site and work side by side with a family, they get to know them and say, ‘Hey, we should support that family,’” Love says. “Not only will they continue to donate time, but they’ll bring financial resources as well.”Having the Legion’s assistance is key, Gainey adds. “It was without a doubt beneficial to us. Jeff was able to get not only additional volunteer labor through the Legion, but additional equity hours toward our total.” Low-Cost Condos. Legion posts and Habitat chapters are joining forces to help veterans in other communities. For example, Habitat for Humanity of Westchester County, N.Y., and American Legion Post 8 in New Rochelle are working to buy a building in downtown New Rochelle and renovate it into affordable condos for veterans. If it goes according to schedule, the project will start this summer, and veterans will move in by mid-2011. Westchester County is a natural place for this sort of partnership. West Point cadets routinely volunteer on Habitat projects. And for the past three years, Habitat has helped Jim Lasser, first vice commander of Post 8, gather winter coats to distribute to patients at FDR Hudson Valley VA Medical Center in Montrose, N.Y. In addition, Westchester Habitat donated new wood flooring for the post a few years ago and painted most of the inside of the building.“The American Legion for me, growing up, was a great place for helping the community,” says Jim Killoran, executive director of the local Habitat chapter. “We have a responsibility, when the guys come back, to make sure they have a house to live in.”Smith hopes the sentiment spreads. “There are so many veterans out there who can qualify,” the Bend post commander says. “Let’s put these heroes in a home.”  Ken Olsen is a frequent writer for The American Legion Magazine.