Scalable at its heart, Habitat for Humanity is transforming lives, one home—and one family—at a time.

Originally published by the Lambton Shield. (Full Issue Here)

Forget about expensive gadgets, fancy meals in high-priced restaurants, or even trips abroad.
When it comes to our most basic needs, articulated by psychologist Abraham Maslow, best known for creating his hierarchy of needs, it turns out that things like shelter are high on the list.
For that reason alone, the mission of Habitat for Humanity Sarnia/Lambton has increasingly taken hold in our region.

In essence, the organization operates on a partnership model, first established in 1976, that provides interest-free mortgage financing for families that commit to some 500 volunteer hours as part of an application process that includes a basic level of income in order to qualify.

When executive director Sarah Reaume retired, David Waters, who was serving as chair of Habitat’s board, decided to compete for the position, recusing himself and ultimately resigning from the board when he was successful in the competition.

Given his previous experience as manager of Faethorne Place, a Sarnia housing cooperative, Waters already had a good start on maintaining and even accelerating Habitat for Humanity’s mission.

“What we do is provide a hand up, not a handout,” said Waters, echoing a saying that may not be unique but one that is certainly being fulfilled every day at Habitat.

Now nearing its 60th project, the organization has developed a pace of construction to the point where the average yearly production is about four homes, which puts it in the upper half of Habitat for Humanity chapters in Canada.

While the organization is funded by donations, particularly from national and local partners, a key driver of Habitat for Humanity’s sustainable model is the operation of Restore, which takes in donations (including new items from Home Depot that are replaced by new stock) and resells them to the public.

Restore also provides a free kitchen removal service, which adds to a stream of revenue that fuels the building activity.

“We probably couldn’t do what we do without Restore, because it contributes to much of the build program,” said Waters.

Indeed, Restore actually funds all the organization’s administrative
costs, meaning that those interest free mortgage loans being paid back by Habitat families goes straight back into new build projects.

Locally, the organization’s story began when Art DeGroot and a few of his friends began gathering, apparently in Art’s front yard, to discuss how they could make a difference in the lives of people who could benefit from the model Habitat for Humanity had first created. Eventually establishing an affiliate office, the organization has continued to flourish.

Still, there are challenges, says Waters.

“I think the greatest one is in the number of volunteers. As many volunteers as we have, we could use twice as many,” he said.

Another challenge is the capacity of the donor community. Waters’ response, and that of Habitat’s staff, is to build new relationships and to effectively communicate the opportunities to support the organization.

From an operational perspective, Habitat has a focus that includes buying existing homes that need significant help and transforming them into the kind of place to live that creates value in a neighbourhood.

“Oftentimes, we start with a shell and go from there, with brand new plumbing, HVAC, electrical, kitchen, floors and obviously all new bathrooms,” said Waters.

The other model is based on either buying a lot or taking a piece of donated land and building from scratch.

Generally speaking, the reaction from neighbours is a positive one, although at least one project proposal received enough negative response from one of the prospective neighbours that the plans were shelved.

The ironic ending to the story was that after the lot was sold, the home that was built, with no connection to Habitat, was seen to be one that definitely did not fit the neighbourhood.

As busy as Habitat for Humanity continues to be, Waters makes the point that the mission is one that is highly scalable.

“That’s true in the sense that there’s always more you can do,” he said. “But with what’s happening with Restore, that will be the fuel that allows us to help more people.”

With all that Habitat for Humanity does, in and for the community, Waters makes the point that involvement, whether it be from those who can volunteer their time or donate funds, is always welcome.

“That’s how we’ll continue to move the needle, and that’s something we very much want to do—to get as many people into home ownership as possible.”