Not everyone who moves into a Habitat for Humanity house finds a dream home.

Unnatural Habitat 

Not everyone who moves into a Habitat for Humanity house finds a dream home.

A few months ago, Kelly Willoughby picked up a ringing phone at the Kaw Valley Habitat For Humanity. As executive director, Willoughby was used to fielding calls from homeowners. But this one was unusual: the caller was in tears.

The woman -- a single mother and nurse's aide with four sons -- bought a home in Olathe six years ago that Habitat built for less than $50,000. She told Willoughby she was selling her house on the open market -- a first in Kaw Valley Habitat's history -- and an appraiser had just valued it at $122,000.

"She told me, 'I love my house, and this has nothing to do with Habitat, it's just that I want a bigger place for my children,'" Willoughby recalls. "I told her I was delighted for her."

Making a $50,000-plus profit on the sale of a Habitat home is anything but typical. But most Habitat homeowners see some kind of improvement in their financial situations.

Recently, Willoughby also learned -- this time through a phone call from a gossipy neighbor -- that a homeowner in Bonner Springs had installed an above-ground pool in her backyard. "Aren't Habitat houses supposed to be for poor people?" the caller had asked. But Willoughby was happy for that homeowner, too, a retail saleswoman who had gotten a higher-paying job and was making enough to start sending Habitat monthly donations.

For many, the changes aren't so grand.

Take Damon Liberman and his mother. They live in a small, blue house on the corner of 14th Street and Richmond in Kansas City, Kansas. One June day, the front door of the house opens, and Liberman, a smiling guy in a wheelchair, emerges.

He rolls past curving flower beds full of yellow and red blooms, populated by gnomes and a large ceramic frog. A cacophony of enthusiastic barking from inside the house comes from a pack of strays the Libermans have adopted; with Willoughby's help, they've had the dogs spayed and neutered. Sitting in the sunshine, Liberman talks about the new pond he's putting in out back.

"It looks a little muddy right now -- I've got to drain it," he says. Liberman loves to plant things and putter in the yard, and he's proud of his gardening and yard work. "I've pretty much done it all myself," he says. Liberman adds that the chain discount store Big Lots is an excellent place to buy lawn ornaments.

Liberman says Habitat for Humanity has changed his life. Seven years ago, he and his mom were living in a dingy, two-story apartment building near a cemetery at 8th Street and Lafayette in Kansas City, Kansas. "It was a really bad neighborhood," he says. "Our next-door neighbor actually got murdered."

When the Libermans applied for a Habitat home, the organization moved as quickly as possible, selling them a home Habitat had bought back from a previous home buyer who had moved. By chance, the one-story house was already handicapped-accessible; all the Libermans had to do was lower the sinks so Damon could reach them. Damon's mother installed a ceiling fan herself -- something she had learned how to do in a Habitat class.

Damon Liberman looks around and nods his head. "It's a good, solid house," he says. "And a good plot of land."

In her minivan, Willoughby drives down 14th Street and looks at some of Habitat's older houses. A block from the Liberman house, a beautifully maintained flower bed graces the front yard of a home Habitat built in the late 1980s. "She -- she did that. We didn't do that," Willoughby says.

Nearby, Habitat is building a new home for a young man who grew up in a Habitat house. Willoughby's not sure if that's a success story or not.

On the corner of 14th Street and Troup sits Kaw Valley Habitat's first house, built in 1987. "It looks pretty good. It's not perfect. She needs some roof work," Willoughby notes.

Then she points toward a neighboring home, also from that era. It looks awful -- broken window blinds, dirty siding, stains on the foundation, a garage door covered by large dents.

"She bought that house before we even had homeowner education," Willoughby says, hinting that the woman who lives there could benefit from some maintenance tips.

Most Habitat home buyers, eager to leave behind bad living situations, gladly trade the relative freedom of renting for the responsibilities of home ownership.

But Patricia Madison wasn't like most Habitat home buyers.

When Madison decided to leave her abusive husband after a decade of marriage, she didn't know where to go. Up until then, she and her ten-year-old daughter had been living in a decent rental house, and Madison's husband had paid the bills. But one gray winter day, not long after her husband had beaten her badly enough to send her to the emergency room for stitches, Madison took her daughter and fled. They went to the tiny house in Kansas City, Kansas, where her mother and stepfather lived.

Madison knew she and her little girl couldn't stay long -- quarters were cramped. So Madison went on welfare and food stamps, and applied for Section 8 housing subsidized by the federal government. A few weeks later, she and her daughter moved into Juniper Gardens, a large public-housing project in a rough part of town, on North 2nd Street in Kansas City, Kansas.

When they moved in, they had no furniture other than two used beds and a borrowed television set. Eventually, they acquired a couch, some chairs, a table and a set of dishes -- all bought secondhand or donated by neighbors. But Madison never felt comfortable there. No matter how thoroughly she cleaned, cockroaches swarmed her kitchen. She and her daughter heard gunshots day and night. She often witnessed drug deals in front of her apartment. Twice, robbers broke in, stealing her television and VCR.

But Madison didn't see a way out of public housing. She battled severe depression, and it made holding down a job difficult. She spent a lot of time tending a garden in her front yard, and neighbors knew her for her colorful flowers. She never remarried, but she had another daughter and a son, straining her already tight finances. She figured she would live at Juniper Gardens forever.

"I learned to deal," she says. "I never, ever imagined I'd have a place of my own."

After she'd lived at Juniper Gardens for almost fifteen years, Madison thought about the Habitat for Humanity program, which she'd heard about years earlier. In 1999, she called Kaw Valley Habitat for Humanity and submitted an application soon after. The affiliate receives about 150 applications each year. From that pool, it can choose only about seventeen families to receive homes. Standards are stringent.

"The need is tremendous," Willoughby says. About 85 percent of the applications Kaw Valley Habitat accepts come from single mothers, she says. The 51-year-old Madison, whose youngest children were then fourteen and nine, fit the profile of someone Habitat would select: She was in a dangerous living situation and had enough income from government sources (along with some extra money she characterizes as a small windfall) to make a payment of more than $300 a month.

Also, she seemed to have a good attitude and was willing to put in her share of work. Madison couldn't believe it when she got a letter from Kaw Valley Habitat in February 2000 notifying her that it would start building her house early that summer.

"I can't even describe how excited I was," Madison says. "I would just get so full of emotion, I would just start crying. I was so happy."

Madison and her younger daughter started putting in their volunteer hours -- taking photos at the construction site at 1935 North 4th Street every step of the way. On her son's birthday, the three drove to the partially completed house, and Madison told him the news. "We were all just hugging and jumping up and down," she says. In November, the family moved into their beautiful, brand-new home.

But their happiness was short-lived. Now, nearly three years later, Kaw Valley Habitat is trying to evict Madison and her family. And Madison isn't going quietly.

When Willoughby thinks about the problems Madison has caused for Kaw Valley Habitat, she shakes her head and blinks back tears. Sitting in the organization's Osage Street offices, on the second floor of an old fire station -- complete with a pole -- Willoughby sighs and puts her head in her hands. After a moment, she looks up.

"We really don't deserve this kind of trouble," she says. "This program is run by good-hearted people. Thousands of volunteers and home buyers work their hearts out, and we make a difference in people's lives."

Some examples from Kaw Valley Habitat's files are extreme. One extended family of ten -- a mother with her children and grandchildren -- was crammed into a two-bedroom apartment; they now have two Habitat homes. Another family was renting a decrepit house that had so many leaks in its roof that they were forced to camp out in the one dry room.

Though Kaw Valley Habitat builds in three counties -- Wyandotte, Leavenworth and Johnson -- the group has built more homes in the inner-city London Heights neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, than anywhere else, 53 in all. When they started, it was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city, but Habitat claims partial credit for helping to clean up the area. Habitat has torn down caved-in, vermin-ridden structures and drug houses and helped to get rid of prostitutes, Willoughby says.

The organization is able to do what it does partly because it works with the Unified Government of Wyandotte County to identify tax-delinquent sites, which the government can buy at auction and sell to Habitat for just $300 apiece. Businesses and individuals often donate supplies, and 4,000 volunteers each year provide anywhere from hours to weeks of their time. Some of them are professional roofers, electricians and plumbers whose services Habitat would otherwise have to purchase. The donated time and supplies keep Habitat's average cost to build a home at only about $60,000.

The organization sells houses to families interest-free, keeping monthly mortgage payments as low as $325. Home buyers usually don't make much more than $25,000 a year; some earn as little as $14,000 a year.

Although Habitat relies on unskilled labor and donated materials, Habitat staff members say the quality of the houses is good. Habitat site supervisors make sure of it, they say.

"Probably 80 percent of them have never held a hammer before, and that makes a difference," Kaw Valley Habitat Youth Coordinator Mason Hanson says of the volunteers. A few years ago, Hanson says, he worked on a "build" with a youth group from Wisconsin, and the teenagers were having trouble attaching the siding. "They spent all weekend taking it off and putting it back on again. By the time they left, it was installed properly," Hanson says.

Of the more than 1,700 Habitat for Humanity affiliates in the United States, Kaw Valley has distinguished itself since Willoughby took over by winning awards from Habitat International.

Six years ago, when Willoughby left her position as a United Methodist pastor and took over leadership of Kaw Valley Habitat, the affiliate was building only four or five houses a year. She was the only full-time employee. Before she got the job, Willoughby had worked through her church as a Habitat volunteer and had thought that if she were in charge, she'd do things differently, a little more professionally.

At the time, one volunteer had told Willoughby, "If we don't have the money to finish a house, we pray."

"Well, I believe very strongly in the power of prayer, but I also believe in the power of budgets," Willoughby says. When Habitat International hired Willoughby, her bosses told her that Habitat International wanted to see the affiliate grow. Each affiliate has to raise its own money, and Habitat International requests a 10 percent "tithe" from each affiliate to be used for building houses in developing nations. (Kaw Valley's money goes to the Dominican Republic.) Willoughby went to work writing grants and recruiting donors.

Now, Kaw Valley Habitat has ten full-time employees, including an associate director, a construction manager, three site supervisors, a volunteer manager, and a family support coordinator. It also has four full-time volunteers from the AmeriCorps program and a full-time volunteer. Mark Lassman-Eul, who oversees the eastern Kansas and southern Missouri Habitat affiliates for Habitat International, says he expects Kaw Valley Habitat to reach the twenty-house-a-year mark in the near future. (Kaw Valley Habitat has built more than 100 homes in the area. In the past few years, it has surpassed the Kansas City, Missouri, Habitat affiliate in number of homes built annually.) Now, Kaw Valley Habitat is starting to build some concrete houses, which reduce utility bills and can withstand strong winds.

As Kaw Valley Habitat has gotten bigger, though, staff members have had to learn how to handle a burgeoning pool of homeowners, most of whom have never had a house of their own. At any given time, at least a few homeowners will be on the phone with Habitat to complain or ask questions or to request a temporary change in mortgage payment due dates because of unexpected illness or death or loss of a job. "One of the challenges that comes with this kind of growth is keeping with the thrust of looking forward while still helping the large number of families you've worked with in the past," Lassman-Eul says.

But the growth spurt has also meant that Habitat has had trouble putting the finishing touches on its homes in a timely manner. One recent day, Willoughby chatted with a staff member about a woman who had nails sticking up through her carpet. The contractor who installed it had cut the carpet too small, then tried to stretch it, resulting in the hazardous problem.

"That needs to be fixed immediately," Willoughby said that day. "It's been going on far too long."

Willoughby tells the Pitch that she's asked her associate director to come up with a plan for speeding up the house finishes. That doesn't ease the conflict between Habitat and its most dissatisfied homeowner, though.

Not long after Madison moved into her house, she hosted a "house blessing" -- a sort of housewarming party in which Habitat staff and the homeowner's friends and family come together to celebrate a new dwelling.

Madison says that was when a guest pointed out that her banister was so loose that it wiggled back and forth. She says she didn't think much of it until she started noticing other things wrong with the house. A few months later, a friend pointed out that it was missing a gutter.

Inside, Madison has stacked three jumbo, green rubber tubs in her narrow hallway -- that's where she stores towels and other items because she doesn't have a linen closet or a coat closet. Her cabinet doors in the kitchen and bathroom don't close properly. The enamel is chipping off her bathroom sink. Her banister is pulling away from the wall. One windy day, some shingles blew off her roof.

Madison took pictures and hired a contractor to look at, and sign off on, the things she said were wrong. The contractor noted that the screws in the door frame were too short and that the foundation's retaining wall was "weak and leaking from backfill."

Typically, Habitat home buyers move in as soon as their houses are complete, then rent for a six-month trial period -- to prove they can pay on time and to decide whether they approve of the house -- before signing the mortgage. But Madison refused to buy her house until Habitat fixed everything she said was wrong with it. According to Habitat's schedule, she should have purchased her home in 2001, but she is still renting from Habitat.

A year after Madison moved in, on November 29, 2001, and at Madison's request, Unified Government of Wyandotte County Inspector Timothy Moore arrived to look at the house. Moore noted twelve items that needed to be fixed before the house would pass inspection, including a front door frame, sink cabinet doors, low water pressure in the kitchen sink, a broken toilet handle, loose light switches and outlets, a loose handrail in the front entryway, and a broken downspout outside the house.

According to county records, the inspector revoked Habitat's rental license on Madison's house shortly after that inspection. An inspector gives a house a certain number of points for each violation, and the dangerous violations get "life/health/safety" points. A house cannot pass if it has any "life/health/safety" violation points; Madison's had 95.

Three times, Madison signed contracts with Kaw Valley Habitat agreeing to purchase her home "as is." And three times she backed out of the purchase, complaining that Habitat staff had pressured her to sign with threats of immediate eviction.

Last summer, Kaw Valley Habitat began eviction proceedings against her. On August 26, 2002, Madison and Kaw Valley Habitat for Humanity went to court for a five-hour trial before District Court of Wyandotte County Judge Ernie Johnson. The judge ruled in favor of Kaw Valley Habitat.

"Frankly, she has no defense to the ... eviction claims," Johnson said of Madison. He found that, unlike a situation in which a home buyer hires a private contractor, Habitat had no obligation to create the home according to Madison's specifications. But the contract between Madison and Kaw Valley Habitat did state that if the home did not meet with her approval, she was not required to purchase it.

In court, Habitat agreed to excuse Madison from paying more than $1,000 in back rent that it had refused to accept after eviction proceedings began. But Madison applied for and received a stay of eviction, then took her case to the Kansas Court of Appeals. Her case is pending; no hearing date has been set.

Tamika Pledger, a former administrative assistant for Kaw Valley Habitat who had also bought a house from the organization, has seen Habitat from both sides. Pledger says some problems that new Habitat homeowners face are linked to their tight finances. For a poor person accustomed to renting and having landlords fix everything, the cash outlay required for routine maintenance can be daunting.

Pledger, who says she is grateful to Habitat for what it's done for her, now operates her own business, a day care at her home on the corner of North 16th Street and Garfield. That's something she never could have done when she lived in Section 8 housing at St. Margaret's Park just off South 8th Street on Perry Square, where she listened to her neighbor scream every night while the woman's boyfriend beat her up. From her window, Pledger watched cars with Johnson County plates drive up to purchase drugs from men who loitered near the playground -- which Pledger would inspect for syringes before she let her small daughter and son play there. (At the time, Pledger worked as a cashier at Price Chopper, then as a salesperson at Men's Wearhouse.)

In November 2000, she moved into her Habitat home. Now, her fenced, corner-lot yard contains brightly colored plastic playground equipment, and she happily spends her days bottle-feeding babies and mediating toy disputes between toddlers. "I love my house. I love my neighbors," Pledger says.

But there are some things she feels shouldn't have gone wrong in such a new house. Last year, her faucet started leaking, and she says the repairman told her it was a cheap, $20 fixture. A crack appeared in the wall above her counter in the kitchen. She noticed nails protruding from her ceiling. And water is seeping in through a crack in her basement. Pledger says she's now spending more than $1,000 to fix her basement and finish her garage. Pledger says costly repairs like that can discourage a new, low-income homeowner without many resources, especially one who has just come from a bad housing situation.

"If we're paying money, we deserve a nice house, and we deserve it to be complete, and we expect things not to break down in the first year we move in," Pledger says. "If the faucet leaks, for example, and you don't have the money to fix it right away, then the floor gets wet and you have a whole other problem. You can get really discouraged, thinking, I hope I'm not back in the same situation I just came out of."

Willoughby calls Pledger a "delightful young woman" but says Pledger got too chummy with other homeowners and divulged Habitat's reasons for putting one building or project over another -- information that could easily cause jealousy among people eagerly waiting for Habitat workers to complete their homes. Eventually, Habitat fired Pledger.

"When I became a homeowner, I started thinking like a homeowner," Pledger says. When home buyers would call complaining about problems, even as minor as leaky faucets, she would advise them to list the problems in writing and insist that Habitat make the repairs. (Willoughby says she was supposed to remain neutral, passing along complaints to managers.)

Willoughby sat down with Pledger several times to discuss Pledger's approach, but Pledger was unapologetic. "I was talking to the homeowners as if they were my friends, and I was telling them the truth, and I think Habitat hated me for it," Pledger says.

After Pledger was fired, Kaw Valley Habitat stopped hiring its homeowners to work in its office.

Ever since she drew up a list of problems for Habitat to fix, Madison has been creating trouble for the group. First, she canvassed her neighborhood, knocking on the doors of other Habitat houses and asking residents if there was anything they didn't like about their houses. Willoughby started getting calls from homeowners, asking her what was going on.

Then, Madison went on a local TV news program to complain about her Habitat house. Many other homeowners thought Madison should be praising -- not condemning -- Habitat.

Dianthia Stiles remembers the day Madison knocked on the door of her house at 14th Street and Garfield, asking Stiles if she thought there was anything wrong with her house. "There are a couple of things," Stiles tells the Pitch. "But I wasn't about to tell her that. I told her, 'If it weren't for Habitat, you wouldn't have a house.'"

Stiles moved into her Habitat house six years ago, with her then nine-year-old daughter, after years of renting from a slumlord who often ignored her calls for repairs. A group of teenage volunteers from Shawnee Mission East High School and Wyandotte High School built her house. Stiles attributes a few of her home's problems to inexperienced volunteers and donated materials that probably weren't of the highest quality.

"I've got to be honest -- Habitat is not perfect," Stiles says. "But my complaints are not big enough for me to trip about. I love my house."

Habitat fixes any problems that result from mistakes during construction, Willoughby says. When Stiles moved in, she had no problem getting Habitat to honor that promise. Right away, she noticed that the volunteer builders had improperly installed her doorbell, connecting its wiring to the thermostat and causing the thermostat to malfunction -- leaving her without heat. But the biggest problem was a leak in her roof. Habitat repaired both.

"Of course, we're dealing with a budget," says Kaw Valley Habitat Board member Kelley Hrabe, who works for Walton Construction. "That doesn't mean we cut corners. It means we build the best houses we can for that amount of money. I think Habitat does a quality job."

Stiles agrees. "Habitat is not perfect by any means, but they bend over backwards to try to build you a house, and it's something you can afford." Habitat worked with her, Stiles says, when she missed some house payments and was more than $1,000 behind on her mortgage. Habitat allowed her to pay when her income-tax refund check arrived.

Tenesha Bennett, though, isn't satisfied with what Habitat has done for her.

Bennett is a single mom who works full time as an administrative assistant for the Kansas City, Kansas, School District. Bennett moved into her house in November 2001, but she balked for nearly a year about signing her mortgage. She complained about a crack in her foundation, and Willoughby sent a staff member out to look at it. He concluded that it wasn't a problem, but Bennett persisted.

Habitat sent Bennett an eviction notice, telling her to move out by the end of February 2003. Bennett got a Unified Government inspector to come out and look at the problem; he disagreed with Habitat. He declared the problem a "life/health/safety issue" and posted a fluorescent-green sticker on her front door, warning that Habitat's rental license would be pulled for that house if the problem wasn't corrected. Finally, in early June, after threatening to evict Bennett if she didn't purchase her house immediately, Habitat had the contractor fill the crack with a flexible sealant.

At Bennett's insistence, the organization agreed to sign a contract to be responsible for any further problems resulting from that crack. Last week, Bennett called Willoughby to say she wanted to buy the home. Having moved her three daughters from a run-down, rat-infested apartment with no air conditioning, Bennett wasn't about to leave her house. "I have never given up on anything, and I wasn't going to give up on this house," Bennett says.

When it comes to finishing touches that most home buyers would demand from a hired contractor, Habitat tells its home buyers: Sorry, if you want it done anytime soon, do it yourself.

In Willoughby's view, that's just the way it goes.

"It's not that low-income people deserve less," she says. "We're founded on, and live, the principle that we are all God's children." But there's a caveat: "Our priority is building as many homes as possible. Things like painting a door frame are our last priority. We'd suggest that the homeowner come and pick up a bucket of paint and do it themselves."

Habitat does not sod lawns. Habitat does not pour basements -- it builds crawl spaces, usually accessible through a trap door in the floor. Homeowners move in before a home is completed; minor items often remain unfinished so long that they end up falling to the homeowner.

That's an attitude that would probably get most contractors fired. But most of Habitat's clients want to get out of bad housing as quickly as possible, and they're getting their homes at cost. That doesn't give them a whole lot of bargaining power.

For Habitat home buyers on limited incomes, though, taking out a mortgage is a major investment. Many feel they deserve what any other home buyer would get on the open market.

To honor requests to custom-build or perform extra services for home buyers, though, would be far too expensive and would defeat Habitat's purpose. "If we did that for one, we'd get so caught up with garbage disposals and garage door openers that we would never get another house built," Willoughby explains.

"I think, sometimes, they're scared to buy their houses," she adds. She believes that was the case with Bennett.

Owning a home can be a daunting responsibility for someone who has lived in rental housing since childhood.

"If you've had a landlord all your life, you may not know how to fix a leaky faucet or a gurgling toilet or a knob that's fallen off," says Cindi Morris, who oversees family support services at Kaw Valley Habitat. For a Habitat homeowner, usually a single mother with very little extra money in her budget, it's crucial to learn how to make basic repairs. The alternatives are ignoring the problem -- which can cause further disrepair and eventually lead to a dilapidated house -- or paying a large chunk of the monthly budget to a professional.

"If your stool is leaking, you would probably pay $50 just to get a plumber to come to your house for the service call, then you'd have to pay for the actual repair, so it could conceivably cost more than $100," Morris says. "Then that's money that's not available for groceries and utility bills."

The idea behind Habitat is that home ownership should help boost people out of poverty, not sink them deeper into debt. So Kaw Valley Habitat gives home buyers more than thirty hours of mandatory classes in finance and budgeting, basic construction and home maintenance. "Habitat International has become more and more aware that simply building a home and selling it to a family isn't enough. There has to be more support and education to make a family truly successful," Willoughby says.

For those efforts, Habitat International recognized Willoughby's Family Support and Community Development Program by naming Kaw Valley Habitat one of its top ten affiliates.

Madison has no plans to vacate her house. She points to the mirrored wall she installed in the entryway. "I've put too much of my own money into this house to leave now," she says.

Willoughby acknowledges some of Madison's complaints but classifies most of them as routine maintenance -- Madison's responsibility, according to a lease agreement she signed. The loose banister was caused by Madison's son hanging on it, Habitat staff members told Willoughby. The gutter was installed after Madison moved in because Habitat used a company that worked at a discount for the nonprofit; workers installed gutters when they had time. As for the linen closet, the house was built with a new floor plan that Habitat had never used before. Willoughby offered to go to Wal-Mart herself and purchase a standing storage unit for Madison's bathroom. Madison says her bathroom is so tiny that one wouldn't fit.

"She's not happy with the house. I understand that, and I don't have a problem with that," Willoughby says. "She wants a linen closet. She wants her yard sodded. Those are perfectly reasonable wants. So, if she doesn't want this house, she shouldn't buy it. We're not trying to force her to buy it." According to the organization's credo, Habitat's mission is to provide houses that are "simple and decent" -- but not chintzy.

"Some people will always want more," Willoughby says. "Some people will never be satisfied."

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