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Come together

There's a curious energy about this home. Bodies jostle but rarely collide in a surprisingly efficient rhythm given the tight quarters.
GR-20090613-SAG0801-306139980-AR

There's a curious energy about this home. Bodies jostle but rarely collide in a surprisingly efficient rhythm given the tight quarters. Whirring power tools are so frequent they've become white noise, save for the occasional screech when a novice is behind the switch. Dust just hangs around.

I've signed up for day six of Habitat for Humanity's blitz build in St. Albert. Over the span of two weeks some 800 volunteers will have laid their hands on joists, studs, drywall, windows, siding, insulation, doors and duct work throughout both duplex units being built at the edge of town.

Given the sheer volume of helpers pitching in over such a tight time window in a confined space, perhaps blitz isn't the right word. This scene more closely resembles chaos.

"Sometimes it does," laughs Habitat for Humanity Edmonton president and CEO Alfred Nikolai, "in an organized chaos sort of way."

Gather the troops

Blitz builds like the one in St. Albert require a lot of organization to keep construction on track. But after building more than 100 homes in the Edmonton area, the not-for-profit builder has it down to a science.

Work starts at 8:30 a.m., not that early for summer construction, yet early enough that some volunteers have to scurry on site in order to make it for orientation.

Habitat's director of development is in charge of every build, but the real boss today is Mike, the site supervisor. He oversees everything, including crew leaders — seasoned volunteers who don red hard hats to acknowledge their construction expertise.

Crew leaders begin choosing volunteers for various work details. It's slightly reminiscent of picking teams in gym class. As numbers dwindle, I begin to wonder what's in store for the rest of the day. The two dozen who aren't picked, like me, get to put up drywall.

At first it's hard to believe 24 people can fit inside both of the modest duplex units, let alone work collectively doing drywall. It begins to make sense when the large group is broken into smaller crews of four, which in turn are given specific areas of responsibility.

My group, two women and two men, is fairly typical, with volunteers from a variety of backgrounds — a journalist, retired restaurateur and two property managers. Some have plenty of DIY experience, others not so much. (If you had trouble understanding that DIY means "do-it-yourself," you'd probably fit in the novice category with me.)

"Each day is new and it's a unique coming together of people who are interested in the same objective," says Orest Myckan of St. Albert, one of the most experienced volunteers with 17 years notched on his Habitat work belt.

Myckan, who recently was named Habitat's Volunteer of the Year for the entire country, is one of the volunteer crew leaders. He says newcomers, no matter their experience, bring enthusiasm to the job site. Sometimes that enthusiasm requires … tempering.

"A lot of times people are really eager, especially people who are still working and may exhibit some type-A personality," Myckan explains. "They've left their work to do this valuable thing so they want to get at it. They want to do some good because they've only got eight hours or two days or whatever.

"You've got to channel that enthusiasm productively."

Sometimes that means having volunteers watch and observe, other times they get their hands dirty.

"My main thing as a crew leader is to, at the end of the shift, have people feel they've contributed and they want to come back again."

Minutes into my task I learn drywall's not that complicated, but it is dirty — real dirty. Two people installing drywall can raise serious dust. Twelve people on one floor create a dust bowl.

While the conditions are far from a breath of fresh air, the work isn't back-breaking. With this many people, you can't work at break-neck speed. That's just how the folks at Habitat want to keep it.

"Safety is always our first priority and we have an absolutely superb record," Nikolai says.

Building a home

Habitat for Humanity is building two duplex buildings on Norelle Terrace, which will become home to four deserving families who otherwise would not have been able to afford to purchase a home.

Eligible families must have a child under the age of 18. Habitat also looks at a family's existing living accommodations, income, debt load and credit rating.

Families do not have to come up with a down payment for a Habitat home. Habitat sells its homes to families at 80 per cent of market value. Habitat holds the mortgage, but charges zero interest. A family's mortgage payment varies according to their ability to pay, never exceeding 30 per cent of income.

"It's affordable because we've taken the profit out of it, the bank profit," explains Nikolai.

The Habitat model won over city council when it decided to hand over nearly $500,000 in provincial grants to the not-for-profit builder. The concept also won over other supporters like the REALTORS Community Foundation, which gave $100,000.

"When we found out they were doing a build in St. Albert we were absolutely thrilled that we would get a chance to do something like this in our own community," says St. Albert realtor James Mabey.

Sixteen employees from Mabey's Sutton Nor-Vista office pitched in on day one of the blitz build. More will help later in the project.

Mabey, whose handyman exploits this past week included assembling interior walls and putting together an exterior deck, likes the idea of Habitat giving families a hand up, not a hand out.

For volunteers like 22-year-old Renate Price, the Habitat build hits home. The St. Albert native comes from a low-income background and knows only too well how difficult it is to gain a foothold into the housing market.

"Now that I'm out on my own it's really nice to be able to help a family who's in a situation in which I grew up," says Price, a city employee at Servus Credit Union Place.

St. Albert's affordable housing strategy estimated in 2006 that 12 to 16 per cent of the population was in a "core housing need," meaning families paid more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Price concedes "it's ridiculously expensive" to live in St. Albert without roommates or two jobs.

But unlike many other twenty-somethings, she refuses to leave.

"I'm from here, I like it here, it's a beautiful town. I like the people, love my job, so I try and make it work."

As a realtor, Mabey recognizes affordable housing has become a significant issue in the Capital region, particularly since housing prices took off in 2006.

"Not only does this get a few people into houses, it also builds awareness of that particular issue. That's really important," he says.

That awareness will likely play a role in Habitat's future St. Albert plans. The organization owns a 1.2-hetare parcel on 70 Arlington Drive that could become a "first-in-Alberta" development, says Nikolai, who won't reveal more until rezoning plans go public, perhaps later this summer.

To ensure those plans succeed, Habitat will likely point to the outpouring of support it received from the 800 volunteers, businesses and churches who helped make the North Ridge project possible. But an even more compelling argument will be visual, when on July 11 the first two Habitat families receive their house keys.

"A home is not just a financial instrument. It provides dignity, self esteem, trust, strength," Nikolai says. "It provides all those things that make a family and an individual fit in the community.

"A home provides so much to a family that we often take for granted."